Caught in the Act
About the only career with a shorter shelf-life than acting is modeling. So it’s not that surprising that successful models frequently try to transition into acting. Some actresses are so good you might never have known they started off walking the runway. Others are so bad you wonder how anyone thought they could believably play a human being. In this article from the May 1997 issue of Movieline magazine, Michael Atkinson ranks several models-turned-actress on the dreaded Crawford-meter.
Let’s talk turkey. When you boil them down to basics, supermodels are genetically blessed, suit-hanger-shaped, Sphinx-pussed, immobile projections of idiot lust who, and this is by definition, stand there silently wearing or not wearing generally unwearable clothes. “Stand there silently” is, I think, the key phrase, which is why the ’90s obsession with models has got to be the closest thing I’ve ever heard to evidence that aliens indeed built the Pyramids. We couldn’t have done it–not if we’re that stupid.
Why do I live in a world where there’s TopModel magazine? Why do I even know Kate Moss’s name? C’mon! Models don’t do anything. At least Vanna White knows the alphabet. Models don’t need to know anything besides how to stand, walk, discern which of the guys in the room is holding the camera, and look in his direction. A water buffalo can do as much. Of course, no one walks into a telephone pole because they can’t take their eyes off a billboard with a water buffalo on it. Therein lies the tense (if usually unexamined) relationship we have with physical beauty. Movies effortlessly prove that being hammer-blow-to-the-temple gorgeous is not the same thing as passing for a normal, interesting human being. Physical perfection is all well and good, but for the last 70 years or so they’ve been making talkies, folks, where one must talk the talk as well as catwalk the catwalk. It takes a little juice just to read dialogue believably. Models, on the whole, are about as effervescent and fascinating as yardsticks. Often they don’t even look real.
This is, I daresay, an indisputably reasonable line of thinking, which of course means that Hollywood has other ideas–trying to transform models into movie stars is older than ex-model Lauren Bacall’s first cigarette stub. While Andie MacDowell, Isabella Rossellini and Rene Russo stand as evidence that asking a career model to act might not be a flaming disaster, the collected film work of Shelley Hack, Farrah Fawcett, Twiggy, Brooke Shields and Christie Brinkley presents an open-and-shut case for the prosecution. For further evidence, check out Iman’s appearance in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, as an alien who morphs into William Shatner.
Which brings us to Cindy Crawford. Forget what I said about the Pyramids–once you sit through Crawford’s performance in Fair Game, you’ll begin to think aliens built the Brooklyn Bridge, too. From the opening scene, in which a jogging Cindy is the object of a drive-by shooting she fails to notice–although she is hit by flying glass–this movie is all of our MTV House of Style nightmares come true. Crawford is a doorstop even when she’s just being herself on the small screen with a microphone. Whose idea was it to put her into a Joel Silver action movie? (No cheating on that one.)
Playing a brilliant lawyer who becomes involved in an infantile Russian embezzlement plot, Crawford is merely, emotionlessly, there, just like a model. How can the viewer take this as anything but a strangely overproduced video for bad sportswear? Listening to her intone beauts like “Where are you taking me?” is like listening to someone drop an egg. She can’t even cough believably, although one thing Crawford has down is the management of hair in dangerous situations. She doesn’t stop fiddling with her shampoo-commercial lion’s mane even when being shot at; if she has one thought roaming around behind those lifeless eyes, it’s this: they can put dirt on me, but goddamn it, my hair’s going to be 100 percent. Throughout the movie, mortified costar William Baldwin can’t help but smirk at Crawford’s line readings, and although Baldwin is no Fredric March, he has our sympathies.
And so, using Fair Game as our paradigm, we can approach the models-in-movies phenomenon scientifically. Let us employ a Crawfordian Scale within which other supermodels can be judged. A 10 on this scale means that your acting, like Crawford’s, makes us dream of lumber. The lower your score, the greater your chance to costar with, say, Mel Gibson or Kevin Costner, as opposed to, well, William Baldwin.
Some of the hottest supermodels of our time are smart enough to have seen the writing on the wall and resisted the temptation to act. We should applaud their resolve. Kate Moss, Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington, congratulations and thank you. Naomi Campbell, on the other hand, has been trying to slink her way into movies an inch at a time. First she did walk-ons in forgotten bombs like The Night We Never Met and Cool as Ice, as well as guest appearances on TV, then cameos as herself in Ready to Wear, Unzipped and Catwalk. She played a sizable supporting part in Miami Rhapsody as a married model who has an affair with Kevin Pollak. Asking us to believe that the elk-like Campbell would touch Pollak with Jerry Hall’s shaky hand is indignity enough, but Campbell’s thick-tongued, toneless delivery of dialogue–as in her description of modeling as “bloody hod wuk”–makes it seem as if she’s speaking Esperanto and the rest of the cast is merely pretending to understand what she says. This mannequin-with-a-plan, who has also authored a novel about the “bloody hod wuk” of the modeling biz, has since appeared in Spike Lee’s Girl 6, in which acting was largely inessential. On the Crawford Scale, she rates an 8.5.
As much as Campbell’s syrupy English accent is a major hurdle, Elizabeth Hurley’s is a blessing–rather than sounding garbled and dumb, Hurley’s upper-class Masterpiece Theater lilt goes a long way toward disguising the fact that this Estee Lauder shill can’t act her way out of a makeup chair. Her filmography is nevertheless extensive, including a lot of British TV, obscure Eurofilm and straight-to-tape thrillers, plus a bit as a terroristic stewardess in Passenger 57, not to mention a lead as the legendary Biblical harlot in TNT’s Samson and Delilah, in which she–and everyone else, for that matter–is so rotten you expect to see a “6/84” expiration date somewhere in the credits. In Dangerous Ground, Hurley plays a stripper and a junkie, which, as Melanie Griffith can tell you, is not the way to prove you can act. In Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, Hurley is Mike Myers’s fellow spy-sidekick. Enough said. The jury is still partially out, but a Crawfordian rating of something like 8 seems about right.
Gorgeous swimsuit gorgon Angie Everhart (where do they get these names?) is no less unreal, although after doing a bit in Last Action Hero she was not at all bad as the prostitute who gets run over by a car in Jade. Of course, standing out in a Joe Eszterhas-scripted David Caruso vehicle is not the way to make your way down the Crawford Scale anyway, but whatever Everhart gained with Jade, she immediately lost by starring in Tales From the Crypt Presents: Bordello of Blood. Gamely baring vampire fangs, she manages to look like she’s having fun ripping out other actors’ hearts and biting into them as if they were Bartlett pears, but the boneheaded dialogue is beyond her.
“Another vegetarian! I hate vegetarians,” she growls inflectionlessly. Everhart’s not ashamed to admit she’s got room to grow–she’s been quoted as saying that working with Oscar-winner Richard Dreyfuss in the roundly unseen Mad Dog Time “would have been intimidating, but I made my mark on the world as one of the first redheaded models, which gave me a certain confidence.” We’ll see where the confidence has led when 9 1/2 Weeks: Love in Paris is released. If it’s released. Mitigated a smidgen by her Jade scene-stealing, Everhart still pulls an awesome 7.5.
And now on to the consideration of Anna Nicole Smith. This barn-shaped hussy has been loitering around in the public eye as an all-purpose breast joke, multimillionaire’s wife, bleary booze tramp and Playboy icon for so long that it may be hard to remember she started out as the popular proto-Jayne Mansfield model for Guess? jeans. I’ve always liked Smith because I heard she takes baths in lime Jell-0 (turns out it’s a lie, but you can picture that, can’t you?). Anyway, Smith has been good enough to accompany her chest in cameos for The Hudsucker Proxy and Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult, and she starred in her own straight-to-tape sex thriller To the Limit, which adequately describes her dress size if not the entertainment value of the film itself. Smith has the acting ability of a yak, but the good sense to acknowledge the fact that if you’re going to get breast implants that big, you might as well have a few laughs with them on the way to the custom bra shop. She measures a generous 7, because she’s the closest we’ve come in a long time to Anita Ekberg.
Also getting clocked with provisional 7s, although their scores will probably climb toward the Crawfordian ideal once we actually see their movies, are Claudia Schiffer, Shalom Harlow and Vendela. Each has her first significant film emerging this year: Schiffer is in Abel Ferrara’s The Blackout, Harlow’s in In and Out (with Kevin Kline), and Vendela debuts in the relatively plum role of Mrs. Freeze, opposite The Arnold, in the highly overpopulated Batman and Robin. Our hopes aren’t up for any of them: Schiffer, whose dumpling-heavy German accent has been a long-running impediment to her efforts at acting (and see her turn as an aerobics instructor in Richie Rich for illustration), is bland even by model standards. Harlow displayed little verve or personality in her House of Style stints, and Vendela has so far only provided some dead air in guest appearances on The Larry Sanders Show and Murphy Brown. I’m looking forward to their performances like I look forward to my next periodontal scaling.
Still, models can surprise you–I’d have thought Tyra Banks would turn out to be as animated and believable as a deer corpse strapped to a station wagon, but in John Singleton’s riotous Higher Learning she is endearingly inept. She is unearthly to look at–she comes off like a Dr. Moreau-like morph between a panther and Nichelle Nichols–and yet, as the college track star/model conscience of the film, she reads the majority of her lines believably, and has a great I-just-smelled-a-dog-fart expression that she lays on costar Omar Epps whenever he succumbs to the racial tensions in the paint-by-numbers script. It’s only when she has to use Ebonics casually (“You trippin’!”) or when she has to seem particularly smart (her how-to-write-an-essay lesson for Epps is a scream) that things get icky. When Banks points to her head and says, “I fight with this!” you’re thinking she must head-butt her roommates. She gets extra points in the end, however, for getting shot in the belly by a sniper and spitting up blood in slow motion. Let’s give her a 6.
With only one sizable part in one film, Banks is being a lot choosier than compatriots like Kathy Ireland, who is apparently some kinda anytime-anywhere movie slut. Ireland’s saving grace is that she has a rousing propensity toward self-parody, however wasted it may be on scores of lousy movies–Mom and Dad Save the World, Backfire!, Side Out, Necessary Roughness, etc. True, Ireland is so absurdly, ludicrously beautiful that when she attempts serious acting, all you want to do is throw a pie into her face. She can be funny, though, notably in National Lampoon’s Loaded Weapon I, where she chirps lines like, “I’m just a gal like any other gal–I want a home, a family, an occasional spanking …” with guileless finesse. In a stupid comedy, a model’s performance can best be measured by the degree to which she’s willing to seem unmodel-like, and Ireland scores big when she, after being shot, begs reluctant hero Emilio Estevez to kiss her while she’s choking and splurting gruesomely. She’s no comedienne, but she’s no fence post, either. Crawford rating: 5.
In terms of screen presence, possessing the dewy bloom of an adolescent is an unquestionable advantage, and Milla Jovovich has the smudgy glow of a virgin flushed from seeing her first excited penis. Jovovich has spent most of her screen time blushing, whether at her own demure nude scenes in Return to the Blue Lagoon, or at Christian Slater’s overacting in Kuffs, or at her part as a child bride in Chaplin. The best and worst you can say about Jovovich is summed up by her appearance amid the high-schooler ensemble of Dazed and Confused, in which she was believable. We’ll see how she does in The Fifth Element, but for the moment she warrants a 4.
Landing an edge-of-your-seat 1 is supermodel deluxe Elle Macpherson, whose visage is dangerously bland, however ravishing, but whose larky personality and relaxed attitude bring her precipitously close to being a real actress. After the obligatory model cameo in Woody Allen’s Alice, Macpherson appeared nude in virtually every scene in Sirens, a silly but sober Australian comedy about a stuffy clergyman (Hugh Grant, ironically enough) who gets all flustered staying at an artist’s house where the live-in models prance and lounge about naked all day and night. Macpherson doesn’t have much to do here except seem saucy and amused, and look great, but she handles her quaint dialogue like a pro and even gets laughs.
In If Lucy Fell, Macpherson plays nudnik Eric Schaeffer’s urban love goddess, and insofar as she convincingly acted romantically interested in the irritating and plug-ugly Schaeffer, Macpherson gave the performance of the year. (Their first meeting, when she calms his nattering flow of inanities with a simple “Sssshhhh …,” is bewitching; unlike most models, Macpherson doesn’t seem like she’s planning to bite into your heart when she smiles.) Her sojourns into Hollywood have been spotty since: she was merely passable in the barely passable Jane Eyre, and served only to deflate Barbra Streisand’s already flaccid beauty balloon in The Mirror Has Two Faces. Next she’s Bruce Wayne’s fiancee in Batman and Robin, the kind of high-visibility role that might just snag her a real movie career. More telling could be her upcoming costarring role opposite Alec Baldwin in Bookworm. If Demi Moore can swing it, why can’t Elle? Frankly, I’d put my money on her. Then again, keep in mind that I believe in Bigfoot.
Liv Tyler is a superstar by comparison with any of the previously mentioned talents. There’s never a question of not noticing her–for almost two years now, you haven’t been able to walk out of your house without her lovely, slightly horsey puss glaring out at you from magazine covers and advertising for Stealing Beauty, Heavy, Empire Records, That Thing You Do! and Inventing the Abbotts. Truth be told, Tyler is, despite her debut in Silent Fall, a very capable actress who’s smart enough to know that being naturally sweet and quiet is nine-tenths of the battle. If she stays smart, which is not an even bet, she’ll never do an action-movie girlfriend or neo-noir vamp role. Watch her get subtly fed up with listening to boyfriend Evan Dando strum his guitar all night long in Heavy, and you see something real happening. One of the main pop culture dramas of 1996–for the media, if not the public–was the struggle for Tyler’s cherry, which Bernardo Bertolucci lustily popped, and which Tom Hanks chivalrously restored; in either case, Tyler emerged as engaging and authentic. Her performance in Inventing the Abbotts has genuine substance and depth. Crawfordian score: a triumphant 0.
So, models–yea or nay? Who cares what I think? Hollywood won’t listen, not with all those fashion magazines providing all that free publicity. You, as America’s ticket-buyers and gigaplex clients, are the ones who decide critical questions like, will Cindy Crawford ever get another lead role? I can tell you one thing, though: watching model movies en masse as I have for the past week is like being submerged in a sensory deprivation tank. My brain scrambled madly to fill the void. During Higher Learning alone, I figured my taxes and hallucinated a vision of the Virgin Mary doing the Macarena. During Fair Game, I think I won a Nobel prize. I recommend these films to anyone who needs a little mental downtime.
Michael Atkinson interviewed Christian Bale for the March issue of Movieline.