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Not Strictly Naked Ambition

From porn star ('Boogie Nights') to stolid daughter ('The Myth of Fingerprints'), Julianne Moore likes chancy roles that pay dividends beyond the bank.

September 28, 1997|Sean Mitchell | Sean Mitchell is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Two scenes that people remember from Robert Altman's "Short Cuts" in 1993 are the opening title sequence, which showed a fleet of malathion-spraying helicopters charging across the L.A. evening sky, and the one where Julianne Moore stood naked from the waist down, blow-drying a skirt with a hair dryer. In what to many was her Hollywood debut, Moore went bottomless not for a sex scene but as counterpoint to an argument she was having with her husband (Matthew Modine) as the two awaited dinner guests.

In the new film "Boogie Nights," written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, Moore shows off the rest of her body in the role of a sweet '70s San Fernando Valley porn star named Amber Waves, but this time, too, she's not really going bare in the service of arousal. Full of nudity, "Boogie Nights" nevertheless manages to denature sex by zooming in for an extended close-up behind the scenes of the passion-on-demand porno film industry.

Which is not to say the movie isn't waving a certain prurient-interest banner at the box office with its subject matter and flesh-toned dialogue that actually includes the line, "I have to go wash my vagina now," spoken by one of Amber's busy colleagues.

"My mother has always said, 'I'd much rather see you naked than dead,' " Moore says about the parental consideration factor in taking these parts. "It's funny, but it's true. What's really disturbing when you look at a movie is seeing a dead body. But how scary is it to see your daughter walk across a room with no clothes on? Not very. But if you see her shot up a million times or have her head cut off, that's scary."

No doubt. Is Quentin Tarantino reading this?

"You just hope you're in a situation that's safe. I did a nude scene in 'Body of Evidence' that was just awful. I was too young to know better. It was the first time I'd been asked [to get naked] and it turned out to be completely extraneous and gratuitous. Ugh. It was a terrible film and a terrible performance by me. It was about nothing, and I didn't need to be doing it. In this movie, where it was part of what was going on in the movie, it was very carefully handled.

"The same with 'Short Cuts.' There again, it wasn't gratuitous. We were trying to communicate something about marital intimacy and not about sexuality or coyness."

But back to Amber Waves. Though she is shown to be motherly at heart, this is not a part that will make anyone remember June Allyson or even Angie Dickinson, except as a measure of how much the movies have changed. This is a '90s role about a '70s character and involves hard-core scenes in which she has sex on camera with Mark Wahlberg (ne Marky Mark, Calvin Klein underwear model supreme), who plays a high school dropout from Torrance famous for his billboard-sized sexual equipment. Recalling the Las Vegas mom from hell that Sharon Stone played in "Casino," Amber snorts coke in a porn producer's office while moaning, "I miss my two sons."

But she's more complicated than that. "I loved her," Moore says about first setting eyes on Amber in Anderson's script, "because she's someone who's extremely well-intentioned. I mean, she's the nicest person in the world, but unbelievably deluded--as a lot of us are."

The film is in many ways a cautionary tale about the quest for stardom at any price. "Here's this kid who thinks he has this special thing, which happens to be a really big penis. Which is not the end-all and be-all and doesn't really make you a star. But in this world it qualifies him as something--and it leads to his downfall."

The role of Amber would seem a brave choice for an actress concerned about stardom at the studio level, but that may not describe Moore's ambitions. True, she had the female lead in Steven Spielberg's "The Lost World: Jurassic Park" as a headstrong paleontologist stalked by a Tyrannosaurus rex, and before that as Hugh Grant's pregnant girlfriend in "Nine Months."

But she has done her best work in smaller films like Louis Malle's "Vanya on 42nd St," "Short Cuts" and, most of all, Todd Haynes' "Safe," playing a neurasthenic casualty of unexamined affluence whose mysterious allergic reactions send her packing from L.A. to a remote retreat in New Mexico. She seems to feel this is her best performance.

"I really, really love that movie," she says. It was made for $800,000, or about the cost of the last raptor set in "Lost World." Come to think of it, "Safe" opens with a scene of her in bed finishing an obligatory marital coupling, apparently numb to sensation.

She also appears in "The Myth of Fingerprints," a low-, low-budget Sundance Festival crowd-pleaser just out from Sony Pictures Classics. It's written and directed by Bart Freundlich, the 27-year-old director with whom she now lives. The two met during the making of the movie and are expecting a child in November.

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