Greta Scacchi: This Year’s Import
Making it big in Hollywood is a long shot. The odds are longer still for actresses than they are for their male counterparts. European actresses who come to Hollywood face additional obstacles. Despite the low probability of success, actresses keep making the trek to Tinseltown. In the July 1990 issue of Movieline magazine, Jeffrey Lantos talked with Greta Scacchi about her experiences getting set up in America for her forthcoming Hollywood debut, Presumed Innocent.
It happens every season. A beautiful, bosomy European actress–one whose work has to that point consisted largely of films that went either unseen or unrated–is whisked across the Atlantic, plopped down in Hollywood and ushered into the gaudy suites of leering studio executives. If these actresses are lucky, they are offered nothing, and they go home. If they’re unlucky, they nab a minor part in a lousy studio picture, nothing comes of it, and they go home. If they’re really unlucky, like last season’s import, Lena Olin, they get nominated for an Academy Award, get cast opposite Robert Redford in a Sydney Pollack picture, and are thoroughly deluded into thinking they will have long and prosperous Hollywood careers. It won’t happen. It hasn’t happened since the days of Garbo, Dietrich, and Bergman, when the studios literally created stars. Sophia Loren, you say? She tried Hollywood, all right, but had to high-tail it back to Italy to win an Oscar–so she stayed there and became an international star. The last foreign import with real staying power was Audrey Hepburn–and that was 30 years ago.
Greta Scacchi, an actress of Italian/British heritage with several European screen credits appears poised to make 1990 her breakthrough year in Hollywood. She makes her American film debut in the high-profile Presumed Innocent, (based on the best-selling novel) opposite Harrison Ford, to be followed by major studio productions Shattered (directed by Wolfgang Peterson) and Fires Within (for director Gillian Armstrong). But quick–can you name the American movie debuts of Isabelle Adjani, Jeanne Moreau, Marie-Christine Barrault, Catherine Spaak, Melina Mercouri, Catherine Deneuve, Juliette Greco, Anna Sten, Capucine, Stephane Audran, Virna Lisi, Romy Schneider, Anouk Aimee, Monica Vitti, Bella Darvi, Irina Demick or Brigitte Bardot? All of them scored impressively in European art house films, but that indefinable je ne sais quoi got lost in translation. True, they spoke far from flawless English–a very real problem in a town that’s frightened of accents heavier than, say, New Jersey. But that’s not the only reason none of them went on to Hollywood stardom.
And what of the imports who share our native tongue? Oh, a few of them, like Julie Andrews and Julie Christie– and Joan Collins on TV–have had their moments, but for every Julie you can point to dozens who never quite caught the ring. Rachel Ward. Lesley-Anne Down. Honor Blackman. Diane Cilento. Olivia Hussey. Jackie Bisset. Susannah York. Charlotte Rampling. Samantha Eggar. Sarah Miles. Diana Rigg.
Of course, it’s possible that their eyes were simply not on the prize–that they did not give a fig for Hollywood stardom. But we are operating on the premise that actresses who cross the pond to act in domestic product do care, passionately, about making it in Hollywood (regardless of what they say). For a swimmer, it’s the English Channel; for a climber, it’s Everest; and for movie actresses, it’s, let’s face it, Tinseltown. So indifference is not the issue. Rather, there are built-in aspects of the system that act to stymie the aspiring Hollywood movie star.
In the movies, as in any other business, networking is a vital tool for catapulting ahead of the competition. Actors who arrive early in Hollywood or, even better, are raised here, have the chance to develop a hive of Industry contacts. Foreign actresses may have admirers in high places, but they lack a nest in the infrastructure.
And, of course, living in Hollywood helps to develop the requisite thick skin and aggressiveness. Foreign actresses, regardless of their experience in the European community, simply don’t encounter the kind of big-time dirty pool played in Hollywood.
In the past, the big studios could help fill in the gaps with their star-making apparatus, but today the studios lack the power they once wielded; the Industry is far too fragmented for anyone to create a lasting star purely by fiat. Yet the search for new imports continues. Why? Because the movie business, like any other, must have something new or improved to sell. Movies, qua movies, will never be new. Nor, in most cases, will they be improved. What is and will continue to be new, and thus marketable, are the actors.
And what of this year’s import? From whence has she come? Does she have a green card? Have we seen her in anything? Well, she’s from England, she has an Italian passport, and we’ve seen a lot or all of her in European movies. Like many an import before her, Greta Scacchi is not reticent about revealing her heavenly gifts. In 1987’s A Man in Love she and Peter Coyote made love standing up in what was noted as one of the most erotic sex scenes of that year; in Good Morning, Babylon (1987) she made love in the woods with Vincent Spano; in The Coca-Cola Kid (1985) she made love amid clouds of white feathers to Eric Roberts; in White Mischief (1988) she overwhelmed prospective husband Joss Ackland with her spectacular form in a full frontal nude scene, then made love to Charles Dance.
Scacchi’s the daughter of an Italian art dealer and an English dancer. She will admit to no romantic involvements, although she says she is looking for a man who will do the shopping and some of the cooking. Her role model is Isabelle Huppert (quite a statement when you consider Huppert’s American film work to date has consisted of The Bedroom Window and Heaven’s Gate).
In March of 1989, at the age of 29, Scacchi arrived in America. She had already been acting for 15 years. She has eight feature film credits, numerous stage roles, and agents in London, Sydney, Paris, and Rome.
“Why Hollywood and why now?” I ask her.
“At first I tried to play it my way,” she says in her English accent. “For eight years, I lived in Europe and waited to be sent scripts. A few times directors came over, found me, and said they’d like to work with me. But when my name was submitted to the American studio heads, they refused the director’s choice, and I lost the roles. After that happened three times, I realized that I wasn’t going to work in Hollywood unless I came over.”
“It was a career move,” says Scacchi’s Hollywood agent, Susan Smith, who began her association with the actress eight years ago. “European actresses are usually booked so far in advance that when a good American role opens up they’re not available. I told Greta that the groundwork had been laid, there had been quite a few inquiries, and now was the time.”
What happened when Scacchi hit town? Two things. She got angry, and she got a job. “I met with casting people and agents and studio executives, one of whom said, ‘I’ve heard of you, but I haven’t seen any of your work. Why are you doing all those European films?’ Another man said, ‘Come over here where we make real films.’ He hadn’t seen any of my work and hadn’t heard of any of the directors I’d worked with.” (This list includes James Ivory, who cast her in her first feature film, Heat and Dust, and the Taviani brothers, for whom she did Good Morning, Babylon.) Here Scacchi’s Italian blood reddens her regal English neck. “This was a man who was running a studio. His work is film, isn’t it? But he’d never heard of filmmakers who have a place in the history of film. I was surprised how blatant his ignorance was. And he made no attempt to disguise it. I was shocked.”
Hmmm. One can’t help thinking that the ability to be shocked at Hollywood mini-mogul ignorance of European maestros of cinema, and the tendency to talk about it, could be just another reason actresses from abroad don’t easily hit it big here.
Scacchi eventually met with Alan Pakula, who was preparing to direct Presumed Innocent, based on the best seller by Scott Turow. “That was the role I had my eye on,” says Scacchi. “I had met Alan a few years ago when I went up for a role for which I was not appropriate.” This time she landed the job, playing Harrison Ford’s mistress, an attorney who ends up murdered.
As soon as she got the part, she hopped on a plane to London and did a play for B.B.C. radio. She laughs, “It seemed a much better way to spend my time than sitting by the pool.”
There is about her an ethereal, pampered quality. I imagined her flying from Rome to London to Los Angeles to Sydney, floating above the grit and grime of everyday life, occasionally descending into the fantasy worlds of backlots. Before the filming of Presumed Innocent, she spent three months in Manhattan, about which she says, “I was so looking forward to it. But it was horrible. I thought I was in the hellhole of the universe. It’s a city that intrudes. The architecture, the dirt. You can’t really live there. You can’t walk down the street without being reminded of what life is like for other people.”
In the world according to Scacchi, Beverly Hills fares no better. “It’s so isolated, so detached from anything I’ve known before. It’s a desert. Where is the fertility? What are people passionate about? What grows in this barren land? No wonder the people there are bereft of ideas. No wonder they haven’t got a clue.”
One man who apparently did have a clue was David Ladd, Alan’s younger brother and an executive at Pathe. He signed Scacchi for her next two pictures. The first, Fires Within, is a highly political story of contemporary Cuban exiles in Miami directed by Gillian Armstrong in which Scacchi stars opposite Jimmy Smits. The second, Shattered, is an identity-switch thriller directed by Wolfgang [Das Boot, The Never Ending Story] Peterson. That makes three American pictures in less than a year. Now what? A production company and an office on the lot? That’s been the modus operandi for clout-wielding American actresses from Jane Fonda to Daryl Hannah. Being on the lot, maintaining visibility, being of Hollywood, as it were, means that a commitment has been made. It says that an actresses is serious about making it here.
Greta Scacchi has no interest in such a commitment. Susan Smith says, “Greta will not be housed permanently in Los Angeles.” Someone should remind Greta that the last import who tried to have it all, making lots of U.S. movies without staying on here, was Nastassia Kinski. Where is she now?
Scacchi says, “The Hollywood machine is run by people who know what they want, and they know how to make things happen. But the actor must be careful to do what she wants to do, not what they want you to do.”
“Where do you live?” I ask.
“In Los Angeles, I live with friends.”
“What about when you’re not in L.A.?”
“I don’t know where I live. I gave up my flat in London. It was too gray and depressing.”
“Where will you go when you finish shooting Shattered!”
“To the Italian countryside. I have connections there. It’s peaceful. Healthy. Restful. I couldn’t live in Los Angeles, because there are too many other places I’d miss.”
Though Scacchi finds Hollywood’s emphasis on money distracting, she does seem tickled by the size of her trailer. “On White Mischief [which was shot in Kenya], we had a makeup truck, and if you were lucky the makeup person would let you lie down in the cab and get out of the sun. Now I have this,” she says, motioning to the other end of the 30-foot RV parked outside the soundstage at MGM. “It’s funny being in Hollywood and getting the star treatment, but it’s not what I really value. You have to cling to the enriching and challenging, you have to find a way to get to the raw materials of inspiration. Otherwise you disappear into the Hollywood soup.”
Though Scacchi has broken quickly out of the gate, this is not an easy time for women in Hollywood. Even among the American actresses, the odds of getting “A” movies with A-list directors are brutal. There are no stars who pull in the audience as Streisand and Hawn used to. The best you can hope for is to be Redford’s leading lady. And all the while, the search goes on for next year’s import.
If you understand how the machine works, and how it can grind you into ground chuck, you get out. When you leave, you run the risk of being seen as a failure in the eyes of those who run the machine, but that doesn’t seem to faze Scacchi. She’ll take the work, be it in Rome, Sydney, or Hollywood. In fact, she says her Hollywood work will help her get her European projects financed.
No one can say where Scacchi will be in a year or two. Nothing in her European pictures remains indelible. If there is star quality there it will take Hollywood to bring it out. Her looks certainly hold your attention, but her screen roles thus far have not tested her. Whether Scacchi’s Hollywood films will do this remains to be seen. In any case, the larger question looms–will American audiences care one way or the other?
History suggests that after her big send-off, Scacchi will, like imports of years past, follow a career track that might bring her happiness and frequent flyer mileage, but won’t make her a star. Then again, if Presumed Innocent opens big, and if Fires Within and Shattered surprise, the clamor might disturb the tranquility of the Italian countryside. Then Scacchi will be offered an even bigger trailer, and I can’t see her turning it down.
Jeffrey Lantos wrote about Crispin Glover in Movieline‘s December 1989 issue.