A Starlet is Born

Liv Tyler

There are beautiful women, sexy women, attractive women, handsome women. Some women are called "cute" or "pretty," which can either be a euphemism or an understatement. Still, other women have a non-threatening, heartland type of beauty which is often described as "wholesome" and is usually the property of that mythical girl next door. Some women (and men, for that matter) are said to be "striking," which means that their look is unusual and immediately noticed. Just what happens after being struck is in the eye of the strikee.

Then there's Liv Tyler. Her beauty exists in its own force field. It is the kind of beauty reserved for models and models-turned-actresses. It is the beauty of the Next Big Thing. And if there is truth to the "actress" part in model-turned-actress, it is the beauty of a movie star as well.

Let's all agree that with Stealing Beauty, Bernardo Bertolucci's lyrical film about a group of Tuscan men going bug-lust-nuts over a visiting virgin (Tyler), it's a little too early to tell. Not about the beauty, that part has been celebrated, confirmed, and taken to the bank. It's the acting part we still don't know about.

But forget about acting for a few minutes and concentrate on Tyler's new movie. Stealing Beauty is one of those films that comes around at least once in a generation and installs, in a screen-hogging lead role, a cover girl destined to be the Next Big Thing. The role usually suggests virginal qualities. Entire populations of men -- onscreen and in theatres -- go gaga.

Stealing Beauty is kin to such films as Tess (1979) and Lolita (1961), to name two that pop immediately to mind.

We -- and by "we" I mean mostly men -- just love these movies. For some, the thrill rests in watching a nubile virgin gamboling ever-closer to the hot zone. For others, who aren't as caught up in the deflowering wish-fulfillment fantasy, the pleasure is primarily in watching the Next Big Thing cavort about onscreen in a variety of tantalizing outfits.

Stealing Beauty consumes more time than it needs to in telling its story, it seems to me. But that leisurely pace allows Bertolucci ample opportunity to create an atmosphere so rich that you could almost smell the olive trees. And he has done a remarkable job with Tyler, photographing her in a way that is tasteful and devoid of prurience, but which makes sure that no fantasies go unleashed. As a hands-on director (you should pardon the expression), he has tuned her performance to her still unfinished training; while not creating an especially interesting character onscreen, she delivers a performance devoid of stiffness and mistakes.

Tyler comes from a long line of beauty sensations, some of whom are now revered stars, others forgotten pretenders. Among the real things are Grace Kelly and the incomparable Catherine Deneuve, both of whom had not the least difficulty satisfying the artistic side of their career equations. Kelly won an Oscar for Mogambo; Deneuve, among many acting honors, was nominated for Indochine.

Nowhere in my quick research can I find an adequate explanation for Sue Lyon's slide after the unforgettable Lolita performance and the conversations it started.

Many of us remember the stir Brooke Shields caused in such films as Pretty Baby and Blue Lagoon, but her career has mostly consisted of being a celebrity photographed at clubs, movie openings, tennis matches, and charity events. And for putting on jeans.

Nastassia Kinski, still in her teens when she made Roman Polanski's Tess, was every bit as tempting a beauty as Tyler is in Bertolucci's film. Though she always seemed to me a competent actress, she has not made a distinct impression in American films, and still makes most of her films in Europe. Same thing for Isabelle Adjani, who initiated no small amount of loin-tingling among the arthouse crowd with The Story of Adele H. (1976).

For a while, Tyler had sturdy competition in Alicia Silverstone, who, in The Crush, projected such runaway sexuality on screen that it was difficult to believe she was only 15. Before her were a trio of beauties with little staying power or motivation: Justine Bateman, Christina Applegate, and Kristy Swanson.

Some great beauties made their debuts as Next Big Thing, letting the publicity machine do what it must, but quickly became more comfortable inhabiting an area not controlled by beauty or male fantasy. Women like Candice Bergen, Meg Ryan, Elizabeth Shue, Elizabeth Perkins, and Marisa Tomei are all surpassingly camera-friendly, but their contributions go beyond looking good.

Who's to say this kind of career is outside the grasp of Tyler? In the little seen and pretty bad Silent Fall (1994), she played an autistic boy's older sister with an edge that said Real Actress. That seems less to be the case in Stealing Beauty, but maybe it's because her character has so little of interest to say. (And she really could use a voice lesson. "I'll be right back" comes out something like "I'll ee ight ack.")

For now, Tyler's composure, presence, and movement -- to say nothing of the ravishing hair and limpid eyes -- are enough to secure her a favored place among the world's starlets. One of the reasons she has been so successful to this point is that she seems genuinely comfortable (a) in front of a camera and, (b) being an object of desire. (Granted, that's hardly a challenge in her case.)

One doesn't go on forever being a supermodel, although Deneuve, on top of her acting career, gave it a great run. The best thing that could happen to Liv Tyler is to become Andie MacDowell. MacDowell, a cover girl who was so bad in Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan that they had to dub her lines, is now among the more pleasing to watch of mainstream stars. She's a case study in what happens when you take that special look that got you in the business in the first place, and layer in some hard work, a good attitude, and a desire to be something other than a hormone-soaked fantasy. n

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