Sliding Doors at 25: Is This the Movie That Birthed Goop Gwyneth?

Movies Features Gwyneth Paltrow
Sliding Doors at 25: Is This the Movie That Birthed Goop Gwyneth?

In the late ’90s era of Gwyneth Paltrow’s movie career, Hollywood kind of forgot she was American and cast her as a British ingénue in a spate of parts starting with Emma (1996) and culminating in her Academy Award-winning part as Viola in Shakespeare in Love (1998). As a Los Angeles native, many side eyes were thrown. But in Paltrow’s defense, there’s no disputing that she earned those roles, proving time and time again that she was incredibly gifted at landing the spectrum—running from upper crust diction to the well-placed “Bollocks!”—without making the whole of England wince. In fact her most authentic Brit persona was birthed as a dual role in the romantic-comedy/tragedy gem, Sliding Doors, which opened in the U.S. 25 years ago.

Written and directed by beloved Brit actor Peter Howitt (Bread), Sliding Doors was a showcase for Paltrow, who got to play a contemporary British professional navigating life, love and a really smart, semi-sci-fi premise that uses her missed Tube ride in the London Underground to explore parallel life paths. In fact, I’d go so far as to throw the gauntlet and assert that Paltrow’s PR rep Helen Quilley absolutely bests fellow American Renée Zellweger’s Brit Bridget Jones in terms of being a more interesting, less irritating, equally romantically-challenged character. But more importantly, with Helen, we can see the tendrils of the woman Paltrow would eventually come to be: The Goop-meister General we know (and glare at) today. 

If you’re unfamiliar with Sliding Doors, the story centers on Helen, an elegant but mousey young woman who, in the first minutes, gets pettily sacked from her job by her misogynistic colleagues. Mortified, she goes home to lick her wounds in the arms of her long-term writer boyfriend Gerry (John Lynch). Except, he’s busy engaging in a full-on, caddish affair with his newly returned American ex, Lydia (Jeanne Tripplehorn). In Helen’s own bed, no less! Bollocks, indeed! 

As Helen heads home, she drops an earring in an elevator which is gallantly retrieved by charming businessman James (John Hannah), and they go their separate ways. But unknowingly, they are both meant for the very same train, which John makes and, initially, Helen does not. “Initially” being the operative word, because Howitt then rewinds Helen’s race to the train car. She then makes it inside and—voila!—the premise kicks into action, as two Helens now exist. We’ll follow them both as they navigate heartbreak, gaslighting and even some tragedy before the romantic comedy of it all comes to a very satisfying and non-mawkish full circle. 

To Howitt and Paltrow’s credit, you can probably count on one hand the amount of modern romantic comedies that have executed a premise so well that it impacts the zeitgeist. Sliding Doors became an indie box office hit and added to the vernacular the term, “a Sliding Doors moment,” which directly refers to Helen’s fracture. To this day, it continues to be used to mean any seemingly inconsequential moment in an average life that represents a dramatic change in someone’s future. The concept was so good it was homaged in many television episodes including ones for Fraser, Community and Broad City

As this anniversary rolls up, and in keeping with the premise of Sliding Doors being an imagination exercise about exploring alternate fates, we couldn’t help wondering if one of the Helens hadn’t grafted themselves into the DNA of Paltrow herself? 

The film features two Helens; we’ll call them A and B for clarity. Helen B gets stopped at the train car doors and goes on to experience the very worst day ever. She’s sacked, mugged, has to get stitches and comes home to a boyfriend that she doesn’t catch in flagrante, which means he gets to be a lying, gaslighting prick to her for the duration of the movie. Adding insult to injury, Helen B gets saddled with a long, brown, straight-haired wig that might as well scream that it’s the albatross of her soul. She suffers that hairstyle, multiple menial food service jobs, Gerry’s betrayal and a miscarriage after falling down a flight of stairs before she gets her second chance at a better life.

On the other hand, Helen A makes those Underground doors and meets James again. She also makes it home to witness Gerry mid coitus with Lydia, and thus their relationship immediately implodes. James then becomes her cheerleader, her catalyst to rightly move on from terrible Gerry and reinvent herself. She gets a loan to open her own PR firm, chops her hair short and colors it the Paltrow signature blonde. Now a scrappy entrepreneur, Helen A paints her new office and it might as well be a window into the future: 2008, when the real, equally winsome and plucky Gwyneth launched her weekly lifestyle newsletter Goop.

In fact, it’s hard not to see Helen A as the template for today’s Goop Girlboss Gwyneth. She is a trendy, empowered entrepreneur who’s gone on to inspire the zeitgeist with non-FDA approved miracle cures, vagina candles and perfect couture. They’re so similar, we dare you not to have goosebumps while contemplating that, perhaps, put-together Helen A doesn’t make it out of Sliding Doors alive for a dual purpose. Yes, her demise allows Helen B to finally get her shit together, dump Gerry and do the destiny dance with James. But, perhaps, it also allowed that swanky, freckle-faced angel to hover over Paltrow until she heard the siren song of Goop calling. You can practically hear Helen A in full Gerry-decimating mode when Paltrow laid out that zinger to ski adversary Terry Sanderson: “I wish you well.”

Tara Bennett is a Los Angeles-based writer covering film, television and pop culture for publications such as SFX Magazine, Total Film, SYFY Wire and more. She’s also written books on Sons of Anarchy, Outlander, Fringe, The Story of Marvel Studios and The Art of Avatar: The Way of Water. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraDBennett or Instagram @TaraDBen

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