Next in the City
As Carrie Bradshaw on Sex and the City, Sarah Jessica Parker had the answers to everyone’s problems except her own. The actor has brought a similar endearing befuddlement to almost every role she’s played since 1979, when she took over the lead in the Broadway musical Annie. Earlier this year, she was at it again, charming audiences and Matthew McConaughey in the popcorn movie Failure to Launch. But now, at 41, with so much success behind her, SJP is at a crossroads.
Which makes total sense. It’s a common cliché, but it needs to be said: she has done it all. She had a stint at being the Hollywood “it” girl in ’92, when she starred alongside Nicolas Cage in Honeymoon in Vegas, segued into working with top-of-the-line actors, such as Goldie Hawn, Bette Midler and Diane Keaton in The First Wives Club, dared to take on a cult role in one of Tim Burton’s strangest flicks, Mars Attacks!, and managed to steal major scenes in dramedies such as The Family Stone. And, of course, there was that pivotal job of becoming the executive producer (and star) of one of the world’s most influential television shows.
And that show, which went on for six strong seasons, is really her crown jewel. Garnering four Golden Globes, one Emmy and a status that is pretty much uneclipsable in TV-land, SJP’s Carrie Bradshaw has become our generation’s Mary Tyler Moore. What Carrie wore, how she acted and who she slept with took over brunch and watercooler conversations and schooled the world over with regard to Fifth Avenue style. Even though viewers mainly saw Carrie as the big arbiter of style, Parker admits that, beyond her character’s wardrobe, Bradshaw became someone she looked up to. “Playing Carrie made me realize that I hadn’t done nearly half the work that I wanted to do to be a better friend, the kind of friend she was. I loved the way she handled her friends, how important they were to her, how she cultivated them and took care of them.”
But fast-forward to today and Parker is left with the multimillion-dollar question: Can a star known mainly as a sitcom/celeb sweetheart and high-profile clotheshorse switch gears and take off as a serious dramatic actor?
No problem. Her upcoming film, Spinning into Butter, is a weighty look at modern-day racism. Parker is taking on a role that is so far removed from Carrie Bradshaw and her rom-com roles, playing a dean at a New England college who’s forced to examine her own biases as she addresses a hate crime on campus. Parker sees the challenging script as a world apart from her own experience attending the public school where she grew up in Cincinnati. “Which,” Parker says proudly, “was actually very well integrated, thanks to people like my mom and her friends, who made sure that was the case.” Bringing the film’s complex character to life is serious stuff for the star; she had to take a break from another labour of love, promoting “Lovely Sarah Jessica Parker”, the bestselling perfume she launched last year with Coty.
With her fingers in all these pots, her rise is inspiring: she’s the sweet, simple girl from a poor Ohio family who, at 40, was named the richest woman in Manhattan by New York magazine (she denies it vehemently). She became a fashion icon without having the Barbie-doll looks that typically sweep Hollywood off its feet. And that’s what makes her so fascinating: she really is the everywoman’s star and concerns herself with standing out aesthetically rather than looking generically beautiful, even though it wasn’t always so easy. “[Growing up] I didn’t look like anybody else in my class; I wished I had,” she admits. “There were girls I admired who were the beautiful girls, and I fell short of that.”
Which does make her easy to identify with—and countless women do because her underdog honesty is so authentic. No wonder so many Sex and the City fans mimicked Carrie’s fashion choices, her hairstyles and her sexual frankness, which never seemed to come off as calculated. With Madonna’s iconic past of wielding sex as a cold, predatory power trip, Parker (via Carrie) restored its humanity; through her we could laugh at our own foibles in the sack.
But while Carrie was at times wishy-washy, Parker has no shortage of determination. Quick to minimize her past achievements, she brushes off her several seasons in the Metropolitan Opera children’s chorus (“I did it because my best friend and I got to leave school and go rehearse”), her ballet and musical training (“I didn’t care to work very hard at [being a musician]; I failed pretty miserably”) and her emergence as a fashion icon. She’s as “confounded as anybody” as to how it happened and credits it mostly to Sex and the City’s costume designer, Patricia Field. “She is so good at telling stories with clothes,” Parker explains. “From her, I learned about how fashion fits in the history of our culture.” Parker also downplays her self-imposed grueling schedule (“There are lots of people who work harder for far less”) and her “alleged” influence, as she puts it, on women who admire her (“I have responsibilities to myself and to my family; that I think, is the best way to be a woman”).
This last position is a far cry from the values espoused on Sex and the City, where four women groped for meaning in cutting-edge fashion and no-strings sex. Clothes were touted as the great transformer, the passport to coolness and control. The characters dropped designer names like mantras: Fendi, Prada, Dolce & Gabbana, Gucci. The petite Carrie tried to rise above the world in instep-killing Manolo stiletto heels.
So does polishing the package, as she has, change the being within? Parker offers a few hints. “I love clothes, and I’m a paper doll, but [glamour] doesn’t make me feel like a different person; it makes me feel like I am in a different time. It takes me to a place I am nostalgic for,” she says. “I want to wear beautiful things.” Her perfume’s name, Lovely, and that of her production company, Pretty Matches Productions, suggest a woman who glories in classic notions of feminity. But Parker offers a surprised laugh when a line off her perfume campaign—“introducing a fragrance as lovely as the woman who created it”—is read to her. “I would never say it that way.”
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