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Posted on Tue, Oct. 21, 2003 story:PUB_DESC
Catherine Zeta-Jones combines beauty and smarts
She's positioned herself as Hollywood's most glamorous star

Philadelphia Daily News
Catherine Zeta-Jones in "Intolerable Cruelty."
Catherine Zeta-Jones in "Intolerable Cruelty."

THERE ARE actresses that keep you glued to the screen, and then there are those special few that both keep you glued and leave you unglued - like "Intolerable Cruelty" star Catherine Zeta-Jones.

Zeta-Jones is the closest thing Hollywood has to a glamorous star of classic dimension, and it's fitting she was discovered by the closest thing Hollywood has to an old-fashioned mogul.

Eight years ago, DreamWorks titan Steven Spielberg was watching a TV movie called "Titanic" when he spotted a striking brunette, Zeta-Jones, and immediately saw what the world would see in about a year - not just a gorgeous woman, but a link to the kind of stature that women had in Hollywood's golden age.

He was executive-producing a movie called "The Mask of Zorro," an old-fashioned swashbuckler that hinged on the idea that a man's life could be changed by one tango with a beautiful woman.

Director Martin Campbell remembers thinking how he needed an actress who was not just beautiful but formidable - his audition rooms were full of the girl next door, and he needed out of this world.

"We had Catherine do a screen test, and right away we knew. She just had it. Whatever 'it' is. She grabbed the attention of the camera and held it, like Maureen O'Hara."

He wasn't the only one who thought so. When critics described Zeta-Jones' appearance in the film, it was like they were seeing a ghost of Hollywood grandeur. They independently reached back 50 years for apt comparisons.

"An instant star, the new Rita Hayworth," wrote one.

"If she were anymore beautiful, she'd be like God's practical joke. Zeta-Jones looks like Ava Gardner on the days when Gardner hadn't been drinking," wrote another.

"The movie hits a higher plateau the moment she enters the screen. Give her a Z for Zowie!"

Those are pretty good reviews. We don't know if Zeta-Jones read them or not, but she seemed to pick up right away on her new image as the classic Hollywood screen siren. Being glamorous became her life.

"I used to go around looking as frumpy as possible, because it was inconceivable you could be attractive as well as smart," she once said. "It wasn't until I started being myself, the way I like to turn out to greet people, that I started to get work."

In an era when modern actresses travel with a tattoo artist, a DJ and an Ecstasy dealer, Zeta-Jones' "posse" includes full-time makeup and wardrobe professionals. Some of her biggest fans are those whose jobs are making people look fabulous. In the new issue of Biography, award-winning costume designer Brenda Cooper praised the star's commitment to the craft of glamour.

"Catherine Zeta-Jones epitomizes classic Hollywood style to the nth degree. She never seems to be inappropriate. Even when she is exposing an ample chestline, she does it with class. She seems to be very comfortable in the role of movie star, and it comes across in her style and how she handles herself."

A few years ago, the pregnant Zeta-Jones had designers crafting maternity wear for her until the day she gave birth. She's said she patterns herself after Hayworth and Lauren Bacall, who thrived in an era when projecting a glamorous image was a full-time job.

"When I go to a function, it's a performance. So I often like be a different character - Sophia Loren in Dolce and Gabbana," she has said.

It doesn't hurt, of course, that Zeta-Jones has chops. She thrives in showcase roles like "Zorro," or in the steady-cam realism of a movie like "Traffic," playing a drug kingpin's lioness of a wife. She playfully spoofed her own perfect image in "High Fidelity," and showed off her training as a dancer to win an Oscar for "Chicago."

Her newest film, "Intolerable Cruelty" is a throwback to the screwball comedies of the 1930s. To make it work, producer/writer Ethan Coen needed performers (he chose Zeta-Jones and George Clooney) who could embody two of that era's archetypal roles.

"It's a staple of comedy. That hard-hearted woman, soft-headed man - and Clooney is definitely the soft-headed man and Catherine's the hard-hearted woman - these are forms that have been handed down to us," Coen said.

Forms that have been handed down to us, but that fewer and fewer of our stars have the stature to play. Zeta-Jones is one of those few.

Somehow, that's what Spielberg saw in that crummy TV movie. And he still sees it, evidently. He's cast her to star opposite Tom Hanks in his next film, "Terminal."

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