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Brave New Gwyneth

The death of her father leads the SYLVIA star to a personal turning point -- and a new career direction

No fool, Gwyneth Paltrow sees ''View From The Top'' for what it is. ''The worst movie ever!'' Try to tell her that the previews for her sloppy stewardess comedy were amusing enough and she'll quickly let you off the hook. ''Oh, it's horrible.''

Four years ago, Paltrow, then 26, was the favorite at the Academy Awards. She was Hollywood's fresh new hope in the pinkest of dresses, a red-carpet bauble with a glossy romantic history. She won Best Actress for ''Shakespeare in Love,'' and people started resenting this young girl with everything. ''I could feel the tides turn against me,'' she says today, without bitterness. There followed a great swell of sniffers, folks who dismissed the very blond and very beautiful Paltrow as overexposed and underperforming. Turkeys like ''Shallow Hal,'' ''Possession,'' and ''Duets'' didn't help matters.

Does it ease the antagonism if she too waves off much of her resume? She has room in her heart for only two of her recent films, ''The Royal Tenenbaums'' and ''The Talented Mr. Ripley,'' in which she had memorable supporting roles. ''But that's it since 'Shakespeare in Love,''' she says over tea at a London bar. ''I'm trying to think if I left anything out. No, not really.''

So it's with great pride that Paltrow embraces her new movie, ''Sylvia,'' for which she's earned warm reviews as Sylvia Plath, the ravaged poet who left behind two young children and pages and pages of brutal work when she killed herself at the age of 30. It's a meaty role, full of depth and doom, that her father, television producer and director Bruce Paltrow, encouraged her to take on.

Her dad passed away last fall, of complications from throat cancer, five days after her 30th birthday, two weeks before ''Sylvia'' was set to begin shooting. ''I didn't think I was going to live,'' she says. ''It was the weirdest feeling. I was just really surprised that I kept waking up.'' She considered abandoning the project, but her younger brother, Jake, talked her out of bed. ''He said, 'You just have to, because you can't sit at home and walk around your house like a zombie.''' So a devastated young woman went to work at playing a devastated young woman.

After ''Sylvia'' wrapped in January, Paltrow had to turn around and shoot the already-scheduled sci-fi adventure ''The World of Tomorrow'' with Jude Law. ''I got to a point where I was sobbing every day,'' she says. ''I thought I was going to have a nervous breakdown. I just felt like if I keep going, I'm going to collapse.'' So she dropped out of two comedies, David O. Russell's ''I [Love] Huckabee's'' and Don Roos' ''Happy Endings,'' and gave herself some space to mourn her father.

''I think handling so much grief has deepened her a lot,'' says her mom, Blythe Danner (who joined Paltrow on the set of ''Sylvia'' and delivers a sharp performance as the poet's hard mother). ''She's lived an intense 10 years in the spotlight, and she's had to find her solace. I think the best thing she's done has been to be a bit enigmatic, to hide and come back, to have found strength from removing herself.''

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