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The Star Market: Gwyneth Paltrow Is Suddenly Everywhere, But Can You Call It a Comeback?

On November 16, Gwyneth Paltrow appeared on an episode of Glee that earned her some of the best reviews of her life, even from websites inclined to use her as a frequent punching bag. The same week, Paltrow sent out a GOOP newsletter recommending that recession-suffering readers buy $372 iPhone cases and $52 flyswatters. That's the Paltrow conundrum in a nutshell: One moment, she's perceived as a better-than-thou actress condescendingly dispensing lifestyle tips, but the next, she actually seems kinda ... fun.

Fans can be hard on actresses — Gawker's cavalier, comment-generating query "Which Actresses Do You Irrationally Hate?" is demonstrable proof — and Hollywood is even harder on ones approaching 40, but Paltrow's riding a resurgence that's hard to deny (between Iron Man 2, Glee, Country Strong, and her upcoming episode of Saturday Night Live, she's become unexpectedly ubiquitous over the last several months). Still, can her uptick in visibility truly be called a comeback? To find out, we asked industry experts the following question: If Gwyneth Paltrow were a stock, would you buy, sell, or hold?

Stock History: The daughter of actress Blythe Danner and director Bruce Paltrow, Gwyneth played supporting roles in films like Hook and Flesh and Bone until 1995, when Seven — and her high-profile romance with co-star Brad Pitt — definitively put her on the map. Shortly after, Paltrow became the muse of Miramax and starred in notable indies like Emma and Sliding Doors (with a dip into big-studio stardom as the young wife of Michael Douglas in A Perfect Murder), but it was her Oscar-winning, gender-bending turn in 1998's Shakespeare in Love that augured her career peak.

The next year brought some success in The Talented Mr. Ripley, but Paltrow soon began appearing in misbegotten comedy (A View From the Top, Shallow Hal), underperforming drama (Possession, Sylvia, Bounce, and Proof), and lackluster special-effects pictures (only Angelina Jolie escaped Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow with her quote intact). Aside from her deadpan Margot in The Royal Tenenbaums, Paltrow had entered the aughts with not much to brag about until Jon Favreau cast her as Pepper Potts in the Iron Man franchise, giving her bona fide box-office success in a crucially likable role.

Peers: She runs behind Kate Winslet (35) and Kate Hudson (32), and is in the same pack as Drew Barrymore (35), Charlize Theron (35), Amy Adams (36), Hilary Swank (36), and Kate Beckinsale (37).

Market Value: Gwyneth Paltrow can sell magazines, inflate TV ratings, and nab headlines like it's no sweat. But when it comes to movies, she's mostly additive rather than a stand-alone draw. Her presence in the Iron Man films is important — can The Avengers really outgross either Iron Man film without a female lead that can help pull in all four quadrants? — but it's disingenuous to credit her with the franchise's blockbuster successes, even if they're her highest-grossing films. Country Strong will be the first real test of her box-office appeal in years; it hasn't opened that well in its obligatory awards-season release, but it won't expand into the heartland (where it's expected to do much better) until today.

What Hollywood Thinks: "She's a tough one, because I think people like her and are open to her, but she has to be in good movies," said one publicist we spoke to. "The Iron Man series? That's all about Downey. The Country Strong thing, I'm not sure about."

Many industry insiders felt that whatever her good intentions, Paltrow's GOOP newsletter has been a debit to how she's perceived. "I sort of believe in not beating the audience about the head and saying, 'Pay attention to ME!'" said the publicist. A top agent we spoke to acknowledged the perception problem — "People in town and audiences both started to view her as cold and detached" — but felt that Paltrow's time off to raise the two children she had with Coldplay singer Chris Martin has given her an opportunity for reinvention as an actress and softened her as a public figure.

"What happens next depends on how Country Strong does," said the agent. "She's certainly supporting the movie well enough. She's doing the Country Music Awards, doing Glee. In her twenties, I don't think she'd have done that. Back then Gwyneth was too 'high and mighty.' I think it'll be either a brilliant move or a disaster."

The Analysis: Paltrow has some momentum right now, but what does she do with it? Later this year, she'll be seen as part of the starry ensemble in Steven Soderbergh's virus thriller Contagion, and that's certainly an option: continue doing good supporting work in interesting films. But can she be first on the call sheet again, and can she find big-screen work that builds on her Glee goodwill when there are so few comedies written for women, let alone women pushing 40?

The publicist we spoke to suggested a different tack. "For her, the solution is, I think, television, because the most interesting things this year are on TV, not the movies. The women who've historically only done film are now jumping on TV. And she's going back on Glee, from what I hear. She likes to sing. It's a good show, people love it. The line between film and TV is being blurred. Nicole Kidman wouldn't do a series, but I could see Gwyneth doing one. Look at Chris Noth. His contract on The Good Wife is the craziest thing ever: He's a guest star, not a series regular. They work around his schedule. He can be free to do whatever he wants. So TV is becoming more appealing to women because it's increasingly flexible, more accessible, and it creates stability in their private life. And it helps with PR. Audiences see some big movie star on TV, and there's a smile on her face."

The agent agreed. "Thank God there's always HBO and Showtime: They just have the best material for women that age, with guaranteed distribution. Look at Edie Falco [Nurse Jackie], Laura Linney [The Big C], or Toni Collette [The United States of Tara]. As these women start to get into their forties, through no fault of their own, it gets so tough. You'd never get material like that in studio films. How many The Kids Are All Rights do they make all year?"

The Bottom Line: If Paltrow ever had a financial heyday, it was in the late nineties, when her presence could usually push an independent film to eight-figure grosses. Needless to say, much has changed since then in the film industry — even Paltrow's former patron Harvey Weinstein is in perpetual jeopardy. "You can do indie films, but it's tough to get those things proper distribution and people to see them," noted the agent. "Whereas, Kate Winslet's even doing Todd Haynes's [HBO] mini-series, Mildred Pierce."

Will we be looking forward to Paltrow's return to Glee? Sure, but if the wildly uneven show can't produce an episode as sublime as her first, maybe it'd be better to quit while she's ahead. In the meantime, she could probably score a role as the Long-Suffering Love Interest in Adam Sandler's next film, but that's a sad commentary on what Hollywood can provide for comedically inclined women in their 30s, and an acknowledgment that if she'd rather delve back into drama, Cate Blanchett — whose Elizabeth performance Paltrow famously beat for an Oscar, first incurring the wrath of some tastemakers — is now the first choice for most auteurs seeking an elite actress in Paltrow's age group.

Still, why rain on her parade? This is her second shot at the spotlight and she's milking it; though Country Strong isn't nearly the upbeat drama The Blind Side was, if the middle of the country is curious about it, Paltrow could see her current hot streak extended for a while. She may not want the kind of ubiquity needed to maintain that level of success — she's still got a family to raise, and between her and Martin, they're loaded for life — but if Paltrow takes some time off again, at least there's bound to be an HBO black comedy sitting on the table for when she comes back.

Buy/Sell/Hold: Weak Buy/Strong Hold.

Photo: Larry Busacca/Getty Images