The New Flesh
If you’re still a little hung over on Valentine’s Day chocolates, this article may be right up your alley. Or maybe not. It’s bound to rub some readers the wrong way. Movieline writer Michael Atkinson took the magazine’s “sex” theme to heart (or some other organ) when he asked friends and relatives of both genders which actors and actresses of the day got them hot and bothered. The writers’ friends and family did not hold back in assessing the sex appeal of the latest crop of movie stars circa 1997.
As anyone with eyes and properly discharging glands could tell you, we’ve seen a virtual gullywasher of fresh sexual charisma on the big screen in the last couple of years. Musk-slathered young thespians have been cavorting over the celluloid landscape like caribou enjoying their first estrus. And it’s about goddamn time! In the ice age before Brad and Keanu broke big in ’94, who was worth a moment’s in-the-dark attention? And, for that matter, where were Brad and Keanu’s ovarian contemporaries? Now, suddenly, there is no shortage of fun, beautiful, salty, hormonally pumped stars-to-be, and we and Hollywood have been rescued from the angry uprising we would’ve seen had Julia Roberts remained front-and-center as the increasingly obscure object of our desires. Long live the New Flesh–none of them are proven megastars just yet, but in the meantime, sit back and smell the electricity.
But what does it all mean, outside of the fact that the already established stars are just getting too goddamn expensive? Aw, who gives a fuck what it means? We know a crop of ripe, state-fair prizewinning cantaloupes when we see one, and that’s all we’ll ever know for sure. After a few of my friends started bringing up names like Alyssa Milano and Ben Chaplin in casual conversation, I decided to hit the streets in a full-on inquiry, asking acquaintances, family members, bartenders, perfect strangers, students, old girlfriends, health care professionals and sundry lowlifes which of the new or sort-of-new temptations at the cineplex turn on their gas for real. My survey population needed no credentials whatsoever beyond a working familiarity with movies and the mechanisms of human sexual arousal. It’s the average moviegoing schlemiel who is, after all, the authority on this matter. No Hollywood hype can raise a spark where there’s no juice to begin with.
Raw beauty, a la Cameron Diaz or Matthew McConaughey, is helpful to the endeavor of inspiring lust in dark theaters, of course, but qualifying as a sex object– and sex objects are what we’re talking about, let’s not kid ourselves–involves a zillion vibey things, not just a gorgeous exterior. Whether you’re a compulsive addict prone to performing Peewees in the gloomiest back row of the theater, or merely the kind of recreational abuser of cinematic fantasy who thinks he or she can quit at any time, you know sex is more about attitude than a buttock–even a buttock curved so gracefully it makes you want to hammer tenpennies with your forehead.
“I could drink Cameron Diaz,” says my friend Dave, whose history with trashy women certainly bears out his point. “She’s so gorgeous.” Does this mean, I ask Dave, that she fits his personal ideal, the trash princess? “She may not be cheap,” he explains, “but she’s easy–sex leaks out of her everywhere. She could be wearing an asbestos suit and still look as if she’s ready to do it.”
The votes quickly piled up for Diaz. Scott, a business-major student of mine who never suspected that killing three credits with an elective film course meant suffering through Potemkin, chimed in for the sapphire-eyed Aphrodite, “She’s beautiful but somehow smudged, y’know? You can see the experience in her face, but without it she’d be just …pretty, y’know?” Al, my wistful Long Island mailman, also had major wood in his life for Diaz, especially after She’s the One: “She’s an angel with a hooker’s sad smile.”
Tragically vulnerable bad girls like the characters Diaz has played are one thing, but now let’s talk Teri Hatcher. Hatcher’s Cajun femme fatale in Heaven’s Prisoners came across hotter than a lab mouse pumped full of estrogen, and if you add in her braless tramp in The Big Picture and her devious damsel-in-distress in 2 days in the valley, you see the foundation for a career of scrotum-roasting harlotry to rival even Yvonne De Carlo’s.
“She wouldn’t be half as sexy if she opened her eyes all the way,” my friend Rick offered. “She’s got a perpetual just-fucked look. And great, real breasts.” (As much could be said for Hatcher’s leggy, scene-stealing 2 days costar, Charlize Theron, who, in addition to looking Tefloned from all the sex she’s had, also has lovely, indisputably real boobs.) My friend Gerry, a Manhattan adman, is enthralled by the slatternly glow of Vanessa Angel, the vampy gold digger/walking breast joke of Kingpin. “She’s so been-there-fucked-that, she looks like she thinks of having sex the way Rush Limbaugh thinks of eating fried chicken.”
The guys I ran names by to get reactions chirped out lots of little observations. But there was always one name that, when uttered, brought about a pause of tomblike silence: Salma Hayek. “Cheese and crust!” let loose Uncle George. “She’s what we used to call in the Navy a real bombshell!”Hayek managed to make her dent in the American male psyche with small films–Desperado, From Dusk Till Dawn, Four Rooms and Fled, but that dent is a crater compared to the impact made by most mortal actresses. A buxom, six-cylinder, comin’-at-you-in-sections dynamo of sexual force, Hayek reduces men to jungle noises and dockworker exclamations. “Oish” was a commonly grunted syllable, as was “Gofuda!”–which is code among my friends with young children for “god-fucking-damn!” “She could screw you till your feet shrivel up,” said a too-Irish, barrel-necked bartender I asked. A nearby bar patron agreed ruefully: “I saw her in a movie, and my marriage hasn’t been the same since.”
Hayek represents the Outer Limits of sex appeal–nearly everyone I spoke to wondered if she was, in fact, real. Maybe that’s why she doesn’t have half the profile of, say, Ashley Judd, who is sexy while being pretty, if not beautiful, and is undeniably, attainably human. Kirk, a young UA Theaters worker I talked to as he swept up the popcorn and Crunch ‘n Munch boxes claimed, “She’s real, all right, you can’t imagine them glamorizing her. You know when you see a beautiful woman on the street and you think, ‘She’s perfectly outfitted, she looks totally together, but for sure she’s just had sex with somebody’? You think that because she’s real–some bastard out there is incredibly lucky. That’s how it is with Ashley Judd. I’ve never seen her in a sex scene, but because she’s authentic, sex is part of her.”
Which brings us to the male side of the equation, in the form of Matthew McConaughey, Ashley Judd’s costar in A Time To Kill. The monsoon of hype accompanying McConaughey’s leading-man debut in A Time To Kill might suggest he’s a manufactured sex symbol, but from what I hear, he’s everything you’d want and a side of fries, too. The most rabid homophobe would have to agree with the majority of women here–the man is a walking glandular epiphany. He looks like the statue of liberty, for chrissakes. Even my mother, deep into a movie-saturated retirement, is a McConaughey disciple (although I suspect she’s been so thoroughly seduced because his accent reminded her of Waylon Jennings). “All that the-next-Paul-Newman stuff they were saying, it’s no bologna,” she told me. Incendiary comments like that were almost universal; McConaughey even spurred my sister-in-law Shari to say, “Let me put it this way: if they ever decided to make a movie about Apollo, he’d be it.”
Someone as hyped as McConaughey stands a chance of being maligned as somehow less of an Actor just because the women and gay men of America want to pull him down on top of them. But we at Movieline don’t buy into such popularly held tommyrot. Cary Grant, Greta Garbo, Carole Lombard, John Garfield, Ingrid Bergman, Robert Mitchum, Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor, Catherine Deneuve, Susan Sarandon, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daniel Day-Lewis–they’re ravishing and able to act their way through brick walls. The defense rests.
McConaughey shared the righteous megahunk limelight this past year with Will Smith, who emerged from Independence Day‘s smoking piles of cash a rediscovered slab o’ burnin’ love, in a uniform yet. “Where’d he get that swagger?” gasped Laura, an ex-girlfriend I hadn’t spoken to in 11 years who was strangely unsurprised that I called. “I could never tolerate that sitcom of his. When did he get so cute?”
But if 1996 was the Year of the New Flesh, few pelts were as closely examined as Liv Tyler’s–you look up “fetching” in the dictionary, there’s her picture. In Stealing Beauty, Heavy or That Thing You Do!, Tyler walks the line between sexpot and Tess Trueheart. “The big difference between Tyler and someone like Teri Hatcher,” declared Rick, “is that with Hatcher, you’re going straight for the bare mattress on the floor and a bedside bottle of Dewar’s, but with Tyler you’d think about buying her a lobster dinner before flogging her four ways from Sunday.”
Such dreamy images of filthy rutting only occurred to women when the discussion turned to Johnathon Schaech, a swarthy, white-toothed, muscle-faced Greek god who seems to look a bit too good for his roles, as in How to Make an American Quilt and That Thing You Do!. “He’s too chiseled,” said Candy, a New York editor friend. “He looks too much like he belongs on the cover of Playgirl.” My friend Robin disagrees: “I’ll take him any which way I can, in a mud puddle, on hot coals, in Grand Central Station. I don’t care. No jury would convict me. I mean, just look at him.” My 17-year-old niece Amy, from whom I never really wanted to hear such raunch, concurred. “I’d let him do things I don’t let anybody do. Like–I don’t want to say. Anything.”
Schaech has had only small roles in small movies, but the cultural radar picked him up nonetheless. Sometimes, all you have to do is saunter through the background of some formula trifle, and you’re made. Similarly, Broadway vet Billy Crudup, starring in the Tom Cruise-produced Pre, one of two biopics of ’70s athlete Steve Prefontaine, has already attracted a considerable buzz among the hunk-hungry on the sheer strength of supporting bits in Sleepers and Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You. “He’s rakish, y’know?” says Shari. “He squints when he smiles, and he’s got the highest cheekbones of anyone since Deborah Harry.” Derek, a Blockbuster Video customer who spoke to me as he thumbed through Shannon Tweed straight-to-tapers, confirmed my hapless desire for Alyssa Milano in Fear, who, with a pair of tight jeans, an unbeatable come-hither look and a slinky sluttishness, obliterated both Reese Witherspoon and any loitering memory of Who’s the Boss. “She looks like Jennifer Tilly but without the cuteness or the voice,” Derek said. “Just the sex.” She also has a body that could make you dry-hump a fireplug, which is a point my friend Robin made about Milano’s costar in Fear, Mark Wahlberg, whose Calvin Klein ads no one will apparently forget anytime soon. “He’s a caveman. You know he’s dangerous, but just think of the nooky.”
Danger is, of course, relative. Natasha Henstridge, with a sunglasses-required, Helen-of-Troy visage and the body of a Valkyrie, may still carry the lingering fuck-me-and-never-mind-the-horns-growing-out-of-my-back aura of Species, but for many guys that’s a navigable issue. “She’s an ice goddess,” my last-single-friend Frank offered. “I can’t really picture making love to her or anyone who’s that beautiful and who’s half a foot taller than me and who might eat my head like a female praying mantis when she’s done. But you know, I’d be willing to take the chance.” On seeing Henstridge in Maximum Risk, though, Frank became ambivalent: “She was delicious, but I don’t really buy it when women who look like that get into mortal danger–they’d have staff to do it for them.”
No ubermensch vibe emanates from lovely Latina Jennifer Lopez, whose warm presence in Money Train salvaged that movie from the memory abyss it otherwise deserved, or from Jada Pinkett, whose eyes could melt coal into coke, especially in Set It Off. “She’s so tiny, but she’s so strong,” my suave, twice-divorced cousin Lou rhapsodized between sips of Rob Roy. “Seems to me to be a very orgasmic lady, not one of those wilting-on-the-vine, just-want-to-cuddle types.”
The cadre of my wife’s friends I surveyed were salivating en masse over radically different objects of desire– the new Brits. Roberta busily sighed over Ben Chaplin, the demure love boat from The Truth About Cats & Dogs: “A little too heavy on the eyebrows, but he’s got a very sexy mouth, nice and full-lipped. And long lashes–he’s got the best bedroom eyes. And he’s so polite.” Julie went big for Emma‘s Jeremy Northam, who, according to her, has such a decent, sensible persona that his preposterous shot at villainy– in The Net–was the last straw in that movie’s losing battle with believability. “Remember the scene in Emma when they’re shooting arrows? He made indignant irritation sexy. He’s so moral–no, scrupulous. As in, not that he wouldn’t do you within an inch of your life, but that he would do it right.”
My wife maintained that Brits–however cute and debonair–were inherently unsexy because you couldn’t, for the most part, imagine them being any good in bed. “We’re just suckers for accents,” she reasoned. But what about Daniel Day-Lewis? “Only in The Last of the Mohicans, and he wasn’t playing an Englishman.” What about Cary Grant? “He’s not English,” she claimed. “He comes from Cary Grant Land.”
Nevertheless, Diane’s tongue wagged over horny Shropshire brute Rufus Sewell, who played Emma Thompson’s sexually frustrated suitor in Carrington and the agrarian he-man in Cold Comfort Farm. “He played animals in both movies, but he’s built like a brick shit-house, and he’s got a lovely grin. And curly hair–why don’t more movie stars have curly hair?” Then there’s Ewan McGregor, a toilet-spelunking junkie in Trainspotting but a supercool Scot boy-toy for my sister Donna, who doesn’t remember much about movies but remembers McGregor’s fun-loving rogue in Shallow Grave. “He was cute, quick and sly, and had beautiful blue eyes. You couldn’t trust a word he’d say, but who’d care? With that accent–he could say, ‘Pass the fookin’ budder’ and I’d be putty.”
As far as Brits go, I personally might vote here for Surviving Picasso‘s Natasha McElhone. My friend Howie, though, is packing some serious lumber for Catherine McCormack, the Irish Spring brunette from Braveheart and Loaded, the latter film being a justifiably ignored Brit indie Howie bothered to see only because he’d read that McCormack had a seminude scene, which tells you plenty about Howie, if not us all. My dentist, Dr. Turkel (who, as it happens, is a close cousin to Joe Turkel, the bartender in The Shining), claims to be periodontally heartsick over Kate Winslet. It wasn’t Sense and Sensibility, but Jude that did it. “She was adorable before, and sure, a very talented girl, but I wouldn’t call her sexy, not like Hedy Lamarr was sexy. But in that Jude movie, she was very sexy, very funny and terribly sad. You could imagine her schtupping, for one thing, just like a person. She broke my heart in that movie.”
New imported flesh is everywhere. Virginie Ledoyen ( A Single Girl ) and Judith Godreche ( Ridicule ) are two typically heartstopping French newcomers perfectly capable of putting a man into a hormonal coma. Chiseled Frenchman Vincent Perez has already crossed over, albeit under a ton of makeup, in The Crow: City of Angels, a fate bound to befall Olivier Martinez, whose world-class beauty made The Horseman on the Roof costar Juliette Binoche look like Juliette Lewis. Anybody who’s been paying any attention at all to the unstoppable flux of Hong Kong movies, from John Woo’s pre-emigration oeuvre to the recent New Line-released Jackie Chan fluffernutters, is well familiar with some of the most ravishing and seductive movie stars in the world, including Maggie Cheung, Anita Mui, Brigitte Lin and Michelle Khan. Some of them are already taking American meetings, and we can only hope that when Hong Kong gets officially handed back to China this year, the whole HK film industry will move here and inspire Hollywood to do something hotter than The Joy Luck Club II.
In the meantime, restless apemen like my neighbor Mario will wait patiently for Robin Tunney and Rachel True (both from The Craft) to grow up, although his nights are truly set on the impending adulthood of Clueless (and TV’s Clueless) star Stacey Dash: “Have you ever seen anyone so beautiful? I don’t even want to foul her with sex, I just want to look at her for a year.” (Interestingly, he holds no such passion for the perhaps overexposed teardrop beauty of Clueless star Alicia Silverstone.) My superhip queer girlfriend Jill offered up a shamefaced yen for still-too-young Claire Danes: “She seems to be the most likely to have a nervous breakdown during sex; I love that.”
My niece Amy has been carefully watching the ascension and maturation of newcomers like Skeet Ulrich, Jared Leto, Tobey Maguire and Scott Wolf, having become addicted years ago to teen idol mags where news of hunky youngsters appears long before the real world catches on. The pubertal buzz is high and loud on these striplings, but only time will tell if they blossom into authentic adult vulva-throbs.
Leto, still coasting on his heartthrob rap from My So-Called Life, will or won’t break out in Disney’s Prefontaine. Candy, my editor friend, characterizes Leto this way: “He’s like that cool, rebellious kid in high school who smoked cigarettes and always looked like he’d just rolled out of bed: he’s very hot.” My niece instantly knew and had nothing but nice things to say about Skeet Ulrich from The Craft and Boys(“Very cool”), although everyone else I asked had fun repeating his name aloud with a question mark after it until it began to sound like Icelandic for “Got a light?”
Frank the Wonder Bachelor, despite (or because of) his entomological visions of Natasha Henstridge, could not be stopped once he’d started on the subject of Catherine Keener, the gorgeous, hilarious, cat-eyed fumble-bunny from Johnny Suede, Living in Oblivion and Walking and Talking. “She’s so beautiful and distinctive-looking, she doesn’t seem to know she’s beautiful, and she’s so unself-conscious she’s never afraid of looking like an ass. She’s funny, too. And she’s got great, sheeny hair, or did before she dyed it blonde in all of those magazine shots last year.”
Bashful clumsiness is undoubtedly sexy– remember Raquel Welch’s one moment of attractive humanity in The Three Musketeers?–and Frank backs it up with Olivia d’Abo in Kicking and Screaming, a terrific movie no one saw, in which the opalescent d’Abo effortlessly stole hearts as a raucously unstable grad student. Frank also has a long-running yen for the indomitable Parker Posey, whom I adore but have always thought looks like lone Skye after a five-day gin bender. My friend Jill has her own take on Posey: “She’s cute, and she has this frightening quality that she’d say something truly horrifying and inappropriate at the sexiest moment, and still be charming about it.” Frank’s got Posey pegged: “She’s got attitude enough to bench-press a car.”
Striving as always to be gender-fair, I asked my female acquaintances to tell me who the funny young hunks are, since I know women find humor a sexual flashpoint. My wife stumped for Liev Schreiber, the smooth, cutely irresponsible ex-boyfriend in Walking and Talking. “He’s sexy in a Jewish sort of way–it’s nice to know there’s a tall, beautiful, well-built actor you can easily imagine 13 years old at his bar mitzvah.” Josh Brolin, the bi cop in Flirting With Disaster, also got a vote from my neighbor Ingrid, who’s a grandmother: “He licked an armpit– ain’t nothing he won’t do, honey.” But when it came down to maximum vaginal thrum, my wife couldn’t get around her swoony ardor for Gil Bellows, the boyish, antiglam studmuffin from Miami Rhapsody, The Shawshank Redemption and Love and a .45. “I’d lick his armpits,” she tells me without a wisp of shame crossing her face.
Speaking of lick-worthy body-parts, I’ll tell you: I’ve got a jones for Tea Leoni so nasty I’d sell the gold out of my mother’s mouth for one sniff of her inner thigh. I first glimpsed her as that radiant prostitute wistfully watching the youngish Kevin Costner play with his first set of guns in Wyatt Earp–I was so stunned I actually sat through the rest of the movie, which is little more than three hours of dust up your nose. Leoni did time as the damsel in Bad Boys, which I otherwise remember as distinctly as learning to walk, but I really went mad for her as the klutzy adoption-service counselor in Flirting With Disaster, where she carpet bombed the popular notion that model-types in high heels are graceful–she tottered and stumbled adorably, and with legs so long they could wrap around your head twice. Not many women on earth are more beautiful than Leoni, but what left my pants tight was her intelligence and wit. Flirting With Disaster was last year’s best comedy (if you’re not counting The Island of Dr. Moreau), and Leoni was the funniest thing in it and the sexiest blip on my radar all year.
Who could keep up with all this tenderloin? Oh, I’m sure that as we speak a new cast of steam-inspiring tyros is wiggling into the otherworldly glare of hypehood and audience aphrodisia. If you’re determined to keep up with the zeitgeist, you’ve got your work cut out. As for me, let me just say this one last thing: I don’t know how much a sniff of your inner thigh will cost me, Tea Leoni, but I’m ready to remortgage the house, pay the price and die a happy man. Call me.
Michael Atkinson interviewed Gary Dourdan for the December issue of Movieline.