The San Francisco Chronicle (1996)
Aussie actress shines in the latest Austen outing
August 04, 1996 | Written by Jane GanahlJust when you thought the Jane Austen craze had nodded off (politely, of course), here comes a movie version of "Emma" - considered by many to be her masterpiece - that's sure to fan the flames anew.
The old girl's had a banner year, probably the best since her death in 1817, with four movies in the last 12 months to be made from her novels. The others include jewel-like productions of "Persuasion," "Sense and Sensibility" and a splendid A&E television miniseries of "Pride and Prejudice."
And now "Emma." Or, as some critics are calling it,
That's not necessarily a bad thing. Viewers who fatigue following Austen's more complex social satires will revel in the simple charms of "Emma," which opens Friday. Writer / director Doug McGrath has used an easy touch to tell the tale of his heroine, a sweetly misguided young woman whose life is so perfect she sets her mind on "helping" everyone else achieve the same perfection.
(Sound familiar? Last year's well-received "Clueless" was "Emma" set in 1990s Beverly Hills.)
The new Emma, played by the radiant Gwyneth Paltrow, is actually upstaged at times by her own personal Eliza Doolittle: a bumbling mess of a girl named Harriet. Played with heartbreaking empathy by 23-year-old Australian actress Toni Collette, star of "Muriel's Wedding," Harriet is desperately trying to meet Mr. Right - so awkwardly you fear she'll slip on a banana peel during introductions.
When we meet Collette in a Southland hotel, life seems to be imitating art.
"Well, I walked into a chair, you see?" she explains in a crisp accent of a horribly swollen foot - so swollen she'd used the excuse to put on her favorite shoes: an oversized pair of bright maroon desert boots. ( "I have a bit of a shoe fetish," she confesses.) Collette also sports a royal blue satin shirt that sets off her blue eyes and fair skin. Today, her hair is strawberry-blond.
"It changes all the time, I'm not really sure what the original color was," she chuckles.
Unlike Harriet, Collette is articulate, bright and sure of herself. Staunchly independent, she refuses to move to L.A. from her beloved Sydney, although she spends a lot of time in Hollywood these days, a place she calls "hatefully gray and built-up." When she laughs, it rattles the air.
Not surprisingly, Austen's novels seemed terminally dull to Collette in her wild youth (she dropped out of high school to attend drama school; dropped out of that, too.) But since then, she has eagerly "discovered" the writer.
"I tried to read her when I was younger and could not get into it at all. But then I picked up "Emma' and thought, "Wow, maybe they changed the book!' It was so warm and witty and clever. I think that the older I get I appreciate Jane Austen more and more. She was an early feminist, you know."
Much like Collette herself, who agrees with Austen's personal take on matrimony. "Even though the women in her books spend a lot of time looking for husbands, she was clearly making fun of that. She never married, herself. And I don't believe in marriage. I think that people are constantly growing, and there's no way you can grow in the same direction."
Does that mean she doesn't fall in love, like her character Harriet does repeatedly? "Oh heavens, no," she blushes. "Sometimes I do fall in love and it's, like, whoooa! But I don't necessarily need a boyfriend."
The real-life Collette couldn't be more different than her most famous alter ego, Muriel of "Muriel's Wedding," a roly-poly young woman who craved marriage so obsessively it nearly ruined her life. The wonderfully nuanced portrayal earned her a Golden Globe nomination for best actress in a comedy; it also won her an Australian Academy Award for best actress.
Collette had to gain 25 pounds to play Muriel; she lost the weight afterward. Then, to play the Rubensesque Harriet, she had to gain some back. "I think it's important for people to look real in films. There's a tendency to go Barbie doll and I don't agree with that at all."
Is she concerned with being type-cast as a poignant loser? Her eyes flash with indignation. "Not at all. I have three other movies coming out and all those roles are different."
In the dark comedy "Cosi" (due out this fall) she plays a patient in a mental institution. In "Lillian's Story" she portrays an emotionally unstable young woman with a tragic past. And in "Clockwatchers," currently in pre-production, she's a secretary who longs to write a novel. Not an "ID 4" in the bunch.
She laughs. "Well, I choose films because they mean something to me. I'm very excited about this current one because it's an all-woman project. It's going to be beautiful."
Despite some earlier less-than-great filming experiences, Collette has nothing but raves for the time she spent in the English countryside making "Emma."
"It was a wonderful reminder that I could have fun while I'm working," she smiles. "Just a fabulous group. Gwyneth and I became very close, as the resident non-Brits."
Did she get to meet Paltrow's famous beau?
"Brad Pitt? Of course! He came to visit often. He's lovely."
(Of Collette, Paltrow says: "She's such a nut! I just adore her. We were always off in a corner, cracking jokes." )
Collette, who has two younger brothers in their teens, hopes the fact that "Emma" was penned by Jane Austen doesn't keep young audiences away.
"I think the movie has much to say to them. About peer pressure, and trusting yourself. Harriet spends all her time trying to please and be like Emma. And eventually she goes full circle, to listen to her own heart again."