When it comes to Gwyneth Paltrow, I’ve always been in something of a gray zone. She’s beautiful and talented, and I loved her in movies like Emma, Sliding Doors and even Shallow Hal. But she’s always kind of annoyed me, too. Maybe it’s the combination of physical perfection and her affectation of superiority and extreme erudition in interviews. At any rate, it’s been years since I’ve been able to drum up any significant enthusiasm for her or any of her films.
Considering her lackluster box office in recent years (the Iron Man series aside), I’d always assumed popular opinion was on my side. So imagine my shock last week when my best friend Lori sent me a message with a whopper of a revelation: She can’t wait too see Country Strong. Just in case you haven’t been paying attention, that’s Paltrow’s new musical drama (her alcoholic comeback-bound country singer sounds a lot like the guy Jeff Bridges just won an Oscar for playing in Crazy Heart), which opens in limited release on December 22, just in time for Academy Award consideration, before going wide on January 7.
Paltrow is one of those female stars (like Winona Ryder, Kirsten Dunst and possibly her Iron Man 2 costar Scarlett Johansson) who peaked early and hard. Engagement to Brad Pitt at age 25. A Best Actress Academy Award for Shakespeare in Love two years later. (To this day, I still think Central Station‘s Fernanda Montenegro was robbed blind.) In her 30s, there have been some personal high points, including marriage to Coldplay frontman Chris Martin and their two kids, and a few decent films. But in Hollywood, she hasn’t been the hottest thing in town for well over a decade.
Suddenly, Paltrow is everywhere and good buzz is following her around like a puppy. She performed the title song from Country Strong on the Country Music Association awards September 10, to generally positive reviews. The YouTube clip of her CMA appearance already has received nearly 2.5 million views, and the single is No. 41 on Billboard‘s country chart, with the CMAs likely to give it a big boost on next week’s hit list.
Continuing the musical theme, she’ll next appear in the September 16 episode of Glee, singing Cee Lo Green’s “Forget You.” The celebrity magazines are in love with her again: They run stories about how warm and fuzzy she was with the crew on the set of Country Strong, and fluffy headlines like “How Gwyneth Paltrow Dropped 20 Lbs. After Country Strong” (that one courtesy of People), when as recently as last April, bloggers were salivating over reports that her Iron Man 2 character, Pepper Potts, would get punched in the film. (Didn’t she suffer enough at the hands of mama-in-law from hell Jessica Lange in Hush?)
Most importantly, after years spent off the awards-season radar, she’s once again being mentioned in the same breath as Oscar. Playing a country singer, real or fictional, has helped Sissy Spacek, Robert Duvall, Reese Witherspoon and Bridges bring home the naked little gold man, so I’d say Paltrow is a likely contender.
But I do believe she should keep the focus on her day job. While her twang and her vocals in the Country Strong trailer are more than passable, I was underwhelmed by her CMA performance. (Thank God for Vince Gill on harmony!) The song is no future classic, and I thought she seemed awkward strumming the guitar. It’s like she wanted to say, “Look, world, I can sing and play!”
As a singer, she’s just as good, if not better, than Taylor Swift, but one gets the impression that if she were a nobody just starting out in Nashville, she might not get very far with her voice, which isn’t especially distinctive, country, or strong. But it doesn’t really need to be: If she delivers the acting goods in Country Strong, Oscar might not be the only one giving her a second chance. I just might get excited about Paltrow and her movies again.
I have my limits, though. I’d like to see Paltrow do well — but not too well. If she dares to stand in the way of The Kids Are All Right‘s Annette Bening and that Oscar podium on February 27, all bets are off.