Byline: Merle Ginsberg

NEW YORK--Why has Gwyneth Paltrow reigned as America's It Girl for the last three years?
Some might attribute it to her undeniable style, and the fact that just about every designer worth his pincushion is dying to dress her. Others might say it's her ability to shine in small, unpredictable films, including "Emma" and "Sliding Doors." Still others might cite her knack for snagging the right It Boys: first Brad Pitt, and now Ben Affleck.
But regardless of who Paltrow's dating (she won't even mention Pitt by name these days), the 25-year-old actress always charts her own course--especially in her career.
In her latest movie, "Shakespeare in Love," which opened over the weekend, Paltrow plays an Elizabethan woman who becomes the new muse for playwright William Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes). The project required her to master yet another British accent, to play a dual role (one of them in male drag), and to speak in verse alongside a cast of Royal Shakespeare Company pros.
According to the critics, she more than held her own.
"Gwyneth Paltrow, in her first great, fully realized starring performance, makes a heroine so breathtaking that she seems utterly plausible as the playwright's guiding light," wrote Janet Maslin in the New York Times on Friday. "In a film steamy enough to start a sonnet craze, her Viola de Lesseps really does seem to warrant the most timeless love poems, and to speak Shakespeare's own elegant language with astonishing ease. 'Shakespeare in Love' itself seems as smitten with her as the poet is, and as alight with the same love of language and beauty."
Director John Madden, a former professor of Shakespeare at Yale, isn't surprised at all by the raves.
"She's just a terribly bright girl," he says. "It came so easily to her, as all things seem to."
This fall, Paltrow has been flying back and forth between Manhattan and Italy, where she's playing a Fifties' golden girl (opposite Matt Damon and Jude Law) in Anthony Minghella's crime drama "The Talented Mr. Ripley."
But between trips, she still occasionally allows herself to savor the perks of Gwynethmania, not least of which is the designer clothes.
As usual, she's full of surprises. At the recent New York premiere of "Shakespeare in Love," which attracted no less a fan than Hilary Rodham Clinton, Gwyneth decided to forgo her "first love"--Calvin Klein--for a dazzling dalliance with Giorgio Armani.
She had planned to make it up to Calvin at the film's Los Angeles premiere--but the cold north wind came between her and her Calvin.
"I was too cold. It's not a statement or anything," she said in Los Angeles, dressed in a black cashmere sweater and long beaded skirt by Celine. "Calvin is my first and true love. Sometimes you can wear something else. I don't think anyone will be offended."
One suspects Calvin will forgive her.
Earlier in the fall, while she was passing through New York on her way to a girlfriend's wedding--the first of her Spence classmates "to go down" as she puts it ("There's honor in being single!," says Gwyneth)--she sat down to talk with WWD about her latest role, among other things.
WWD: For most of this year, you've been out of the country, working in Europe. Why did you decide to do "Shakespeare in Love" after vowing to take a break?
GP: The script was the best I've ever read--really. Tom Stoppard wrote it, and he's brilliant. It's really a romantic comedy--Stoppard really embraced the medium. But there are lots of little in-jokes for people who know Shakespeare well.
WWD: Hasn't the script had a lot of incarnations?
GP: I guess Julia Roberts and Daniel Day-Lewis were going to do it. And later [Miramax chief] Harvey Weinstein bought it from Universal for a lot of money. The big studios just don't know how to do that kind of thing. They'll have a good idea, they'll recognize talent, they'll buy a great script. Then they set about the business of homogenizing it. When they do have a little movie that's really good, like "Bottle Rocket," they don't know what to do with it. There's certain movies that studios should just stay away from ...
WWD: Do you think you get offered the best scripts?
GP: I probably get really different scripts from what people perceive. Maybe I get the ones that go to Claire Danes and Winona Ryder, but not the Julia Roberts ones. I'd be last after Julia and Sandra [Bullock] and Nicole [Kidman]. I don't think of myself as this box office wonder. The truth is, I like my work in small movies better. But that may be just because I have yet to do a Hollywood movie that's been artistically satisfying. When you do something like "Shakespeare in Love," you're putting everything you have into it--I was so wrecked after that movie. I was dressed like a boy and speaking in verse with an English accent.
WWD: What was it like playing a boy?
GP: It was fun. I had this cute little wig and moustache. My character, Viola, wants to be an actress, but that wasn't allowed in Elizabethan England. So she dresses like a boy to audition for the play. We're not really asking people to believe I'm a boy--the audience is in collusion with me. But it was still hard. I mean, I'm not very manly. I thought of myself as an English gay guy dressed in an Elizabethan outfit.
WWD: How did Joseph Fiennes, who's still relatively unknown in America, snag the lead in the big Miramax Christmas movie?
GP: He was the best one who read for the part. They are really good over there--they're all trained and talented. I also met Joe's dad--he's very distinguished, kind of royal. They have that whole breeding thing. One morning, we were shooting in a huge castle, and Joe stumbled in with puffy eyes. I said, 'Did you just wake up?' He was sleeping upstairs--it was his family estate! This huge castle with a moat around it!
WWD: How did you get on with Judi Dench [who plays Queen Elizabeth in a cameo]?
GP: She was just fabulous, and kind of intimidating--so regal. She has this formidable presence. You think, it's Dame Judi, do I bow? What do I do? But she was really cool.
WWD: Another actor who has a small role in the film is ... Ben Affleck. How did that come about?
GP: [Pause] They offered him the part.
WWD: Is it a bit part?
GP: No, it's kind of a cameo.
WWD: So he did it to be with you.
GP: Oh, we don't discuss this! WWD: How did you and Ben first meet?
GP: [Zips her mouth] Talking about a relationship in print is just not a good thing.
WWD: I guess you've learned the hard way.
GP: Yeah--before, I didn't know....
WWD: Do you still get a lot of pressure from designers to wear their clothes?
GP: I only wear what I want to wear. It's not pressure. I've had an association with Calvin Klein for a long time. And I do feel a certain loyalty to them because they were the first people who said they liked my work and offered to lend me clothes--before I was famous and going out with anyone famous. If I had to pick, if I could only wear one designer the rest of my life, I'd pick Calvin. You can wear all the stuff. But I don't have a contract with Calvin or anything.
WWD: When it comes to fashion, a lot of actresses seem overwhelmed by having too many options at their disposal. But you always manage to look real.
GP: I'm comfort first, the whole way. I'll sacrifice that for high heels, because they look really nice with the right thing. But that's the most I'll do. Now, what is this padded thing? Are you crazy to think women are going to wear a padded skirt? Everyone who's doing it is crazy. Have you tried them on? They're hideous. I look obese. And if I put this on and look obese, what about women with curves?
WWD: Aren't you ever tempted by trends, or by the really avant-garde clothes?
GP: I don't revisit anything that was ugly the first time. The Eighties, for example--I hate the Eighties! I made a pact with all my girlfriends: "Girls, we're not getting involved in this Eighties thing." And I don't need to wear your idea of deconstruction or theory. I want to wear a dress, not an idea. I'm really not behind ideas in clothes. I'm much more behind ideas in music or art or literature. With an outfit, what matters is if you look pretty, if it's cut well and the fabric's nice.

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