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The Starlets Next Door

In more innocent times, erotic danger was represented by the likes of Marlene Dietrich and Marilyn Monroe. In these more complicated days, it's the sex symbols who may be innocent.

June 09, 1996|Irene Lacher | Irene Lacher is a Times staff writer

When Liv Tyler came out at Cannes last month, it was quite a party.

The doe-like teen was the It Girl of the film industry's biggest cotillion of the year, her face plastered on a forest of billboards. When she made her debut in 3-D, Tyler stepped off the plane in a fedora and sunglasses. And by the time toe hit tarmac, her life had changed.

"Twenty news crews and 40 paparazzi were chasing us," says Valerie Van Galder, vice president of publicity for Fox Searchlight, which is releasing Tyler's next film, "Stealing Beauty," on June 21. "They surrounded the car and they were shooting in. She took out her camera and started filming them, and from then on we had to hire her two bodyguards."

A star is born.

"Cannes, Cannes, Cannes, Shmannes," toots Tyler, 18. "It was so weird. It was like being in a giant bubble. It was like the Jetsons, very bizarre and very strange. It was like nothing I'd ever experienced before."

The first whiff of the world's adoration may be heady stuff for any debutante of film, but it's hardly the first time the kingdom has been offered to a lavish young beauty. Movie machinery has always depended on a steady supply of fresh nubile talent, but no one else in the latest graduating class has captured the eye--and prime roles--of so many top filmmakers: Bernardo Bertolucci, Woody Allen, Tom Hanks and Jonathan Demme.

This month alone, the coltish Tyler appears in Bertolucci's "Stealing Beauty" as well as in "Heavy," a tender film by newcomer James Mangold that turned heads at last year's Cannes and Sundance festivals. And thanks partly to Tyler's iconic turn in the 1994 Aerosmith video "Crazy" for her rock-idol dad Steven Tyler, she's being crowned "super-babe" and "video vixen" in the inevitable avalanche of besotted press.

While one can hear the starlet-hype factory cranking up yet again, there is at least one respect in which Tyler's maiden voyage as '90s sex symbol is a product of her times--and that is that her breakthrough character Lucy is a maiden, much like Alicia Silverstone's in "Clueless." "Stealing Beauty" follows the trail of Lucy's sexual awakening on a visit to her mother's friends in Tuscany, tantalizing them with her presence. And if Lucy is a virgin, as one character pointedly remarks, her mother never would have been one at 19.

In more innocent times, sexual danger was represented by the vampire goddesses of film, the husband stealers, the happy-home wreckers like Marlene Dietrich in "Blue Angel" and Marilyn Monroe in "The Seven Year Itch." But in these more complicated days, wearied by the sexual revolution and awash in awareness of sexually transmitted disease, it's the sex symbols who may be the innocent ones.

For Bertolucci, then, sexuality on-screen is not a one-two punch but a brew of subtleties. Witness Tyler's appeal.

"It's because you can see on her face ideas and thoughts coming and going," he says. "It's not purely a question of having a nice figure or an attractive look. It's very much something that comes from inside her.

"I think the sexual impact is very much based on not only what you can see but on what you cannot see, and that's why in the movie, while everybody is swimming naked in the pool, she has on a one-piece bathing suit. Because hiding sometimes is much stronger and attractive. That's the difference also between the two generations."

That's not the only difference. The latest crop of screen sirens has both observers and architects of their careers singing the praises of the postmodern screen goddess. To some, in the aftermath of the gender wars, they are many splendored, with brains--or at least presence--to match their more obvious charms.

"I love female sex symbols," says Ted Demme, who directed newcomer Mira Sorvino as well as the reigning Uma Thurman in "Beautiful Girls." "What makes Mira sexy is she's fabulous looking and she's got a really great sense of humor, which is big for me. When you're dealing with a lot of women in movies right now, so many are beautiful and smart and great packages, if you will. The actresses we have today aren't one-dimensional by any means."

Both a Harvard grad and dead ringer for Monroe in a recent HBO film, the Oscar-winning Sorvino has so many sterling credentials that she could be the poster gal for the new screen babe. Consider too Silverstone, Elisabeth Shue ("Leaving Las Vegas"), Cameron Diaz ("The Mask"), Theresa Randle ("Girl 6"), Amy Locane ("Carried Away") and Jennifer Aniston (the upcoming "She's the One").

"I think that sexuality today is not just about physical appearance," says Steve Himber, one of Sorvino's agents at William Morris. "It's truly what you emit from your soul."

But when it comes to the movie industry's coining of the feminine ideal, have things really changed? And have they necessarily changed for the better?

Not all observers see greater individuality among rising starlets. Some, in fact, see a barely distinguishable raft of conventional beauties.

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