The making of a movie star

CINEMA: Gwyneth Paltrow, Hollywood's hottest young actress, was a media sensation waiting to happen. Dennis Lim reports from New York

Gwyneth Paltrow, the star of the latest Jane Austen screen adaptation, Emma, has become Hollywood's ingenue du jour. It is her first headlining role, but you may recognise the 23-year-old: either from her roster of acclaimed supporting performances in mostly unacclaimed films, or - more likely - as a paparazzi-photo regular, a fringe benefit of her relationship with the heartthrob actor Brad Pitt. Hollywood's voyeuristic media traditionally see it as momentous when the less successful half of a celebrity couple rises a level in the hierachy; on cue, journalists pounce, with cries of: "Not just so-and-so's boy/girlfriend." Perched for the last two years on the arm of the "world's sexiest man", and established as a budding talent in her own right, Paltrow was a media sensation waiting to happen.

The pre-release buzz for Emma set the process in motion. All summer, the American press has channelled its efforts towards Paltrow's deification. Along with Matthew McConaughey, the star of A Time to Kill and the current male sensation, she has eclipsed all other contenders. McConaughey was put on the cover by Vanity Fair; Paltrow, arguably, did even better, landing the cover of Vogue.

You can understand the fuss. Her synthesis of poise and gawkiness is curiously alluring; she isn't conventionally glamorous, but there is an air of gentility about her, a whiff of class. In the current Hollywood climate, Paltrow seems a refined rarity. Her mother is the stage veteran Blythe Danner, and the theatre background counts in her favour, as does the fact she pulls off a polished English accent in her first major role. The comparisons have been spilling forth and they range from the outlandish (Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly) to the ornithological ("She is a blonde flamingo," Newsweek declared).

When Pitt accepted his Golden Globe for 12 Monkeys, he called Paltrow "my angel" - and the tag has stuck ("Earth Angel," cooed the Newsweek headline). Journalists write about her as they do with most Next Big Things, with an evangelical fervour. If you believe everything you read, she was reciting Chekhov on stage when she was two (the source of this anecdote, you'll not be surprised to discover, is Paltrow's proud mother). There is clearly nothing this woman cannot do - or at least that is the stance most reporters are taking. On the set of Emma, she apparently put the stunt doubles to shame, successfully steering a horse and buggy through water on her first attempt. Archery and impromptu vocal harmonising, needless to say, posed no problems. The director, Douglas McGrath, joked in his diary: "I'm going to write in a scene where Emma jumps a motorcycle over 12 burning barrels just to see if Gwyneth can do it." He gushed to Time: "All the light goes to her on the set, and she seems to absorb it and then give it back".

Reflective properties aside, Paltrow is indeed a deft, versatile actress - although you only get the faintest glimpse of that in Emma. She pouts, she furrows her brow, she flaunts her cheekbones, she gracefully cranes that flamingo neck; what she doesn't do (and here the director may be partly to blame) is capture the complexities of Austen's most difficult protagonist - of the recent Austen pictures, McGrath's airy, ticklish adaptation is the most superficial. A truer indication of Paltrow's potential can be found in Steve Kloves' slowburner Flesh and Bone (1993). In her first significant role she played a drifter who steals jewellery from corpses at funerals; she was only 19, and it was a shrewd, eye-catching turn. She went on to a small (but memorably bitchy) part in Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle. The films that followed were mostly tough to sit through. She was the President's daughter in Merchant-Ivory's dreary Jefferson in Paris, one quarter of a female-bonding group in the ill-advised weepie Moonlight & Valentino. David Fincher's relentlessly black Seven remains the best movie she's been in, but she was, as Pitt's wife, and through no fault of her own, its weakest link. Signposted as a victim, she was dutiful, doe-eyed and duly decapitated.

Post-Emma, things continue to look up for Paltrow. In the forthcoming Sydney, she plays a prostitute opposite Samuel L Jackson; Kiloran, a psychological thriller, pits her against a domineering mother-in-law (Jessica Lange); and then it's back to period costume for the role of Estella in Great Expectations, co-starring Ethan Hawke and Robert De Niro. But the anointment is far from complete: a summer of hype does not a superstar make. Memories are short and selective in this business, and for now American news stands are once again Gwyneth-free. Just after Emma's US release, Entertainment Weekly conducted a telling experiment on the streets of New York: it flashed photos of Paltrow and McConaughey to passers-by and asked them to identify the pair. Neither scored very well; with Paltrow a distressingly common response was "Brad Pitt's girlfriend".

'Emma' (U) and 'A Time to Kill' (15) both open on Friday.

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