Reach for the Starlets
Our reporter returns, wearier but wiser, with some distressing news: The starlet system lives! How long will serious French film actresses be subjected to trial by sexiness? How long will magazines goad the public taste with lurid gossip and luscious photos?
First published in Paris Passion, 1989
A black cloud, a long low ugly thing that only the Atlantic can belch out, rolled off the roofs of Paris and into my room. Seven floors up, no elevator, no heat, no hope. I was lying on the floor, massaging my liver with a bottle of cheap calvados and thinking I gotta get out of this racket. Then the phone rang. “Hot, y’hear… talented too… got what it takes…”
The voice on the other end was familiar. Too familiar. The kind of guy who’d rather call than hail a cab. Or not look out the window in the morning so he’ll have something to do in the afternoon. He’s called the Editor. And he was setting me up again.
“Want me to spell it for you?”
“Just gimme the number.”
I wrote it on the wall then slammed down the phone. Jeezus, this looked bad. The bottle found my lips and gave me a long hot kiss. This looked real bad.
Another starlet story.
The Lore and Lure of the Casting Couch
It’s hard to say which came first: starlets or movies. In France, of course, there had been soubrettes, grisettes and lorettes long before anyone started staring a canvas-covered walls for amusement, but it was the advent of the cinema that ushered in the era of the starlet. The 1950s and ’60s were the starlet’s heyday, especially on the beaches of Cannes, where Brigitte Bardot easily outstripped every other hopeful in sight. Briefly stated, the starlet syllogism ran like this: If you want to be an actress, you have to have talent and a body, but if you just have a body, you can still be a starlet.
Despised and desired at the same time, the debutante actress usually had to pass an initial stage of flesh-filled cameos both on- and off-screen. The lore of the casting couch is rich and various, its existence taken so much for granted that it was used in Hollywood for gags at the expense of the lowliest members of the movie industry, as in: What do very dumb starlets do when they come to Hollywood? Answer: Sleep with screenwriters. Then, of course, the inevitable topper: And what do the dumbest ones do? Answer: Stop sleeping with them.
All that is supposed to be a thing of the past, as a new generation of liberated filmmakers took over the industry and the notion of starlet became antediluvian. When Frédéric Mitterrand, everyone’s favorite nephew, tried to resuscitate the idea last summer in his TV program Actor’s Studio, the result was comically pathetic. His “Miss Starlette” competition was little more than a dime-store beauty pageant, as was his attempt to get the young would-be’s to act out famous scenes from past films. All in all, the effect was humiliating for the participants, distasteful for the audience, and, in a strange way, heartening for those who would like to see the starlet system scrubbed.
Yet it would take an incredible dose of naiveté to think that young actresses are now being hired solely for their brains. Movies are, after all, dreams – and dream girls have to be found. In France, where 135 feature films were produced in 1988, the appetite for teenagers willing to strip for fame and narcissistic reward seems insatiable, especially as many screenplays call for nymphettes falling for middle-aged men. 36 Fillette pitted a 13-year-old (played by Delphine Zentout) against a man in his 50s; Preuve d’Amour saw beauty (Anaïs Jeanneret) and the beast (Gérard Damon) get together; and Jacques Demy’s Trois Places pour le 26 presented us with the edifying spectacle of a young Mathilda May singing her way into the bed of a 68-year-old Yves Montand. This year a navel-gazing profession is promising us the story of a starlet and a director (Une Fille de 15 Ans – with Judith Godrèche) and, purportedly, the story of a starlet and a producer (Zanzibar – with Fabienne Babe). Julie Delpy, the 19-year-old lead of Bertrand Tavernier’s La Passion de Béatrice, once told me: “You’d think screenwriters in France were trying to get even with their old girlfriends – we’re always being slammed up against the wall and violated!” Claiming that actresses are treated like “slabs of meat,” she nonetheless consented to a lengthy nude scene in Béatrice – where she ends up getting raped by her father.
Not that skin scenes are always offensive, but it does seem that they are the lot of every young actress in France. Invariably. A quick glance through Jean Toulard’s Dictionnaire du Cinéma reveals what is commonly thought to be the principal attribute of female screen performers. For Valérie Kapriski: “Faced with the universe of Zulawski [in La Femme Publique], she managed perfectly by once again revealing all her charms.” For Marushka Detmers: “Introduced by Godard, she was a sensation in Le Diable au Corps… for a fellatio scene.” An accomplished French director confided to me recently, “When I’m casting a female lead, I ask myself only one question: ‘Would I like to lay this girl?’” Here, we seem to be far away from Lecoq acting classes and Stanislavsky. But as Amanda Donohue, a British newcomer who has spent much of her screen time in the buff (in Nicolas Roeg’s Castaway and Ken Russell’s The Lair of the White Worm and The Rainbow), said to me for Premiere magazine, each actress has to deal with the demands of the profession in her own way: “Individually, men are nice blokes, but when you’re naked in front of a whole crew, you have to think of them as the ‘Great Hairy-Arsed Various.’”
The smoke curled up and around her dyed-blond hair, pulling my bloodshot eyes away from the lovely gams pinioned under the black matte desk. If I drink much more of that stuff, I’ll turn into an apple.
“So your paper’s interested in 16 Ans et Sauvage. You want an interview with Honey Amandine?
No, sister, I’m here to share my hangover with you. If there’s one thing I dislike more than an Editor, it’s a Press Agent.
The Agent picked some tobacco from her lips. Scarlet. Moist. Fireman save my child.
“Starlet Review, eh? What’s your circulation like?”
“Fine, if I stay away from greasy foods.”
She didn’t get it: We were speaking French. The binder spread open for me and a long fingernail lingered over a picture. Mouth half-opened, eyes hooded, shirt undone. So that was Honey Amandine! She looked young enough to be my daughter. A page flipped and there she was again, stepping out of the shower. On second thought, she was old enough to be my friend…
The book slammed shut on my nose. I heard the Agent purr, “Okay, we’ll be in touch.”
The Director Approach
One of the enduring myths surrounding young actresses is their vulnerability to men in the movie business. And not just actresses: in the March issue of Spy, the New York satirical monthly, two women journalists – writing under a pseudonym – traced the adventures of one James Toback, a megalomanical fixture on the Manhattan scene who purportedly uses his director’s card (he made The Pick-Up Artist) to hit on every nubile female in midtown. This “I-want-to-put-you-in-a-movie” come-on is as old as the Oscars, yet sometimes there is a trace of sincerity behind it. Eric Rohmer, whose specialty has long been exploring the emotional landscape of young Parisiennes (Le Genou de Claire, Les Nuits de la Pleine Lune, L’Ami de Mon Amie, etc.), habitually finds his future stars in his wandering around Paris, taking their conversation and incorporating it directly into his screenplays. Such authenticity is praiseworthy, although the motives behind his idée fixe are unclear. Jealous souls like to spread the rumor that Rohmer changed his name so that his mother wouldn’t find out he was making movies. But we won’t spread rumors.
Still, for the promising newcomer in the cinema, the threat of private life interfering with professional goals is very real. “The director-actress ménage can hinder more than it can help an actress in her career,” a press agent complained to me about one of her charges. Stéphane Audran may be a case in point. A talented French actress who recently achieved a measure of international fame for Babette’s Feast, Audran used to be married to Claude Chabrol. Consequently, she was considered by other directors, as she freely admitted in an interview, to be solely “la femme de Claude.” Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, she worked almost exclusively with Chabrol – not such a bad thing, one might say, but to the detriment of garnering wider experience with other prominent directors (with the notable exception of an appearance in Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie). In France, where casting by the director is much more frequent than it is in Hollywood, such associations can limit an actress’s scope. “Directors like to cast actresses they can control,” a former studio executive stated. “If they think she’s in the creative clutches of another director, they’ll avoid her. If an actress wants a boyfriend in the business, she should look for a cameraman.”
This may all seem like fanzine nonsense, but the fact remains that movie-making is a very erotic business. Directors have power, and young actresses – starlets or graduates – have beauty and ambition. The current French cinema world is not immune to the common-destiny syndrome – Jean-Jacques Beineix and Isabelle Pasco (Roselyne et les Lions), Roman Polanski and Emmanuelle Seigner (Frantic), Léos Carax and Juliette Binoche (Mauvais Sang, Les Amants du Pont-Neuf) – and the consensus holds that it’s the actresses who stand to lose the most if flops are produced. Then again, the peril posed by a director boyfriend pales in comparison to another external annoyance: the press.
I took out my heater. Sleek, cold metal. If Honey started acting up, this would keep her in line. I checked the housing and cleaned the heads. A Sony. It felt good in my hand, so I slid in a cassette and sang, “And Honey I miss you, And I’m feeling blue…” I was in a good mood, and so was the Sony. When I played it back, I almost sounded human.
“Waiter, bring me another triple calva.”
The Starlet was already a half-hour late. Let her, I’m used to these little games. I knew I’d nail her sooner or later. Poor kid.
The waiter placed a vase of calvados on my table along with a piece of paper.
“Look, mac, I don’t want a bill now. Just put everything on my tab.”
Then he told me: It wasn’t a bill, it was a note. I had a sinking feeling. I opened it:
“I am not liking your face, Mr. Journalist. I am to give interview to Variety.”
The Fault of the Press
The usual trajectory for an actress’s feelings toward the press starts at total trust, moves to total hatred, then goes on through skittishness to resignation. In the first flush of success, the press is everywhere, soliciting interviews, flattering with attention, stroking egos and screaming praise. Eventually, a few skewered, unfair stories come out, transforming the rising starlet into a raging star. Juliette Binoche, on learning that I had missed seeing one of her six films, exploded irrelevantly during our interview, “You’re not doing this out of love!” Similarly, French colleagues have warned that Béatrice Dalle (37.2° le Matin, La Sorcière) is the toughest interview this side of the Urals. The game of you-tell-me-what-you-think-and-I’ll-publicize-your-movie simply does not interest her.
Then again, there are hazards for the reporter, too. Struggling with Valentina Vargas (The Name of the Rose) a few years ago for this magazine, I thought I had the appropriate question for the Chilean actress: What brought you to Paris to make movies? She smiled devastatingly and replied: “I just came here to shop with my mother.” This is not the stuff of riveting interviews. The late Pauline Lafont, a truly beautiful young woman, was known around town for making male journalists believe that she was interested in them as men. When you left Pauline’s you felt exalted; when you played the tape back, you realized you’d met a very clever – i.e. discreet – actress.
Startlets – aspiring stars, if you will – may lock horns with the press occasionally, but the clash is nothing compared to the ongoing firefight between journalists and established actresses. To graduate from starletry to the ranks of the serious, a performer goes from showing her skin to developing a tough one. The vertiginously beautiful Arielle Dombasle, now 33, is still considered in the French press as little more than a Rohmer girl, despite having directed a feature-length film (Les Pyramides Bleues) last year. Any lapse back into cheesecake is immediately pounced on by the papers, with ungenerous reporters evoking, say, Dombasle’s appearance in a mindless Miami Vice episode as a blonde beach bunny. (There, see what I mean?)
Then there are the dangers of rumor-mongering and the ever-present topic of the passing of the years. Familiarity may not breed contempt, but is sometimes engenders cavalier callousness. Isabelle Adjani (going on 34) was hounded by stories of AIDS. Isabelle Huppert (36) was declared washed-up until her success in Chabol’s Une Affaire de Femmes, as was Miou-Miou (40) before Deville’s La Lectrice. When I asked the latter about the obsession with youth, she replied that it was “the fault of the press. When I’m in a photo shoot now, they plead with me not to smile, so the wrinkles won’t show.”
Actresses may not be as ephemeral as models, but their appearance is still paramount, so to speak. Unless, as Julie Delpy hopes, a new type of screenplay emerges – or the public’s tastes change – most French film actresses will be subjected to trial by sexiness. Dominique Besnehard, the king of starlet-scouting in Paris, will continue to do his job efficiently, just as the press will stay the course in presenting the sensation of the week. As for those of us charged with meeting beautiful 16-year-olds for drinks, don’t worry. Somebody’s got to do it.
I never did meet the Starlet. Some other bounty-hunter got to her about a year ago. The Editor threatened to fire me, but he left the paper when found a better job selling swamp real estate in Florida. He was cut out for it. The Press Agent, by the way, became the Dim girl. And me, I’m still a chump.
Last weekend I was out in the rain, picking my teeth with a bum Carte Orange, trying to get a cab to stop. Ali, the guy I buy the paper from every Saturday night, came out of the shadows.
“That goes, yes.”
We were speaking French. I flipped him a Bartholdi, told him to keep the change. Then I saw it. 16 AND SAVAGE WINS CESAR – HONEY AMANDINE BEST ACTRESS. I had to laugh. The Starlet was now a Star. I started singing: “See the tree, how big it’s grown…”
Ali stared at me and said, “Something wrong?”
“Never mind, kid, you wouldn’t understand.”