December 30, 1999
Gwyneth Paltrow, Movies, Stardom and Judaism
For Gwyneth Paltrow winning her first Oscar earlier this year for "Shakespeare in Love" was a dream come true. But for the beautiful 27-year-old superstar it was also something of a nightmare.
The star of "The Talented Mr. Ripley" talked about her latest film, the dark side of picking up a treasured best actress statuette before she'd grown sufficient armor to deflect the publicity onslaught it brought in its wake, and how Judaism helped her through difficult times.
While Paltrow hasn't kept it a secret, neither has she talked a great deal about growing up half Jewish: Mother is actress Blythe Danner; but father, producer-director Bruce Paltrow, is Jewish, and not any common or garden variety Jew either. Gwyneth proudly declares: "I come from a real rabbinical dynasty and it couldn't help but have fashioned my life. It's given me so much inner peace and inner strength."
The Paltrowitch family tree goes back to 17th century Russia and she can count 33 rabbis among her ancestors. Her great, great, great-grandfather was Rabbi Tsvi Paltrowitch, the Gaon of Nitzy-Novgorod in South West Russia. His three sons, all rabbis, emigrated from Russia in the 19th century where one Simcha Paltrowitch served as rabbi in Buffalo from 1890 to 1914. Another son emigrated to England and founded the Old Central Synagogue in Leeds.
Rabbi Nachum Paltrowich, of the Leeds Paltrowitchs is an enthusiastic genealogist and he reports that Gwyneth is a direct descendant of Rabbi David Ben Samuel Ha-Levi, a famous 17th century authority on Jewish law.
Paltrow showed up at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills this week looking thoroughly unPaltrow-like. You had to look twice to make sure it really was her. Gone is the shoulder length golden blonde, Grace Kelly hair. Instead her locks are dark brown (for her role in "Bounce" a movie she has just finished shooting with her on-again-off-again boyfriend Ben Affleck.)
"I think the director of 'Bounce' was sick of the whole blonde Gwyneth person. And so was I," she confessed.
Following the breakup of her engagement to Brad Pitt, Paltrow's life had begun to settle down when along came the Oscar and the paparazzi went on red alert.
"I became a prisoner in my house, because after a while I just didn't want to go out. One day I ran out of gas and there are pictures of me walking down the street with a gas can looking for the nearest service station. The paparazzi didn't have the decency to give me a ride. They just wanted those demeaning pictures. I wanted to go hide somewhere. I felt I couldn't sustain all of the energy that comes with all that attention."
The whole thing was exacerbated by the fact that her acceptance speech became fodder for late-night comedians. Not since Sally Field's "You love me, you really love me" acceptance speech for "Norma Rae" in 1979 had so many had so much fun with so little. Paltrow's father was ill, her much beloved grandfather was dying, (he has since died) and she still can't mention his name without tearing -- and her brother Jake, (who according to the London Jewish Chronicle had a traditional bar mitzvah ) was also having his own health problems. Paltrow, not surprisingly broke apart in front of the world's largest audience.
"The nightmare about that evening was that I had one of the most personal moments of my life in front of the whole world. I felt so terribly exposed. Of course I'd like to go back and change some things but that's impossible. It's there for posterity."
She countered, in the only way she knew how, by turning inward and taking stock of her life and career and drawing on her beliefs and background. But she doesn't like to deal with these questions in the formula celebrity interview way.
"Judaism is something you can't brush off with a quick answer," she explains. "It's part of who I am and what I've become. It's something you need to sit down and talk about for a long time to really [allow for an] understand[ing of] how much it meant to me in shaping my life."
Her strong family background meant she was able to get lots of support from her parents, as she was going through a real re-evaluation of the direction she saw her life taking.
"What happened to me made see some of the emptiness in everything I had achieved. It's wonderful and I appreciate it but nothing you can buy, nothing you can do, achieve or win, no boy, no relationship will help you retain contentedness."
She plunged back into work determined, she said, not to let the award affect the way her career would lead her.
"I have been working so hard not to let it make any changes in my life. I still only accept roles if I want to do them, as an artist, not because they are a potential award-winning role."
One of those roles is Marge Sherwood, the beautiful and wealthy girlfriend of Dickie Greenleaf (English actor Jude Law) in "The Talented Mr. Ripley."
"I liked Marge, she was very sweet. But I didn't understand how deep she was and how layered it all was until I got there and started doing the film. I thought she was lighter. I didn't realize she was so deep and warm and complicated, which is a testament to my stupidity." And to the fact that director Anthony Minghella made her promise not to read the Patricia Highsmith novel on which the film is based.
The fascinating story, set in 1950s Italy, tells the tale of Tom Ripley (Matt Damon) who is asked by a millionaire shipbuilder to persuade his playboy son Dickie (Law) to come home. Ripley becomes so fascinated by the lavish lifestyle of Dickie and Marge that he goes to disturbing lengths to become just like them.
The film is gorgeously shot in some of Italy's most glorious locales and Paltrow and Law are as golden a couple as anything F. Scott Fitzgerald conjured up. Minghella says he wrote the screenplay knowing full well who (he hoped) would play Marge.
"She was the first person I cast. The character of Marge in the film -- womanly, trusting, compassionate, a rebel in her own way -- has as much to do with Gywneth herself as it has to do with Patricia Highsmith's Marge."
"Our movie is about a very lonely, desperate person who wants to be loved and will do anything to get that love," Gwyneth says. "That's a universal trait that people want to get out of their own lives and inhabit someone else's."
But surely Paltrow never wanted to exchange her life for another's?
"I never wished I had someone else's life. I never wanted to be someone else but there were many times when I felt really uncomfortable in my own skin."
"I may have had celebrity quite quickly," she explained, "but I've had to work so hard to get respect and recognition. It's a bit like Nicole Kidman. She is one of the greatest actresses of her generation but she was never mentioned without reference to her being Tom Cruise's wife. Until very recently I was always somebody's daughter or somebody's girlfriend."
Ivor Davis writes a weekly column for the New York Times Syndicate