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Something a Little Less Wild

Melanie Griffith takes her career in unlikely directions. Who else could fit in John Waters and a dot-com business?

August 06, 2000|RICHARD NATALE | Richard Natale is a regular contributor to Calendar

Melanie Griffith is like someone who is constantly at her own surprise birthday party opening gifts in front of a roomful of people. Even at age 42, she's still prone to outbursts of mirthful ebullience, but these days laced with healthy doses of self-awareness.

Director John Waters, whose "Cecil B. Demented," which opens Friday, stars Griffith, says he thinks her disposition arises from "a combination of a good sense of humor and a little bit of defiance. Like me, she's someone with a past who has made peace with it. Nobody can blackmail her. So she's happy. And why shouldn't she be? She has a wonderful family. She's married to Antonio Banderas. And Tippi Hedren is her mother!"

An unorthodox off-screen life has, at times, overshadowed Griffith's professional pursuits--a drug and alcohol binge followed by the obligatory rehab, her three other marriages (once to actor Steven Bauer, twice to Don Johnson) and cosmetic surgery (lips, breasts). Her affair with Banderas while both were still married to others (Griffith to Johnson, and Banderas to Spanish actress Ana Leza) became headline news around the world. The feeding frenzy continues even though she and Banderas are now married with a 4-year-old daughter, Stella.

"My mother-in-law called me from Spain the other day and asked if I was OK because she heard on the news that I was in the hospital--for anguish," she says in that unmistakable voice, permanently caught midway between a purr and a rasp. The tabloids are "always looking for a problem," she complains. "They never tell the truth. They never get it right."

For a week, she's been trailed by a photographer, who has stationed himself outside her home in Hancock Park. "Antonio, Stella and I went out for a walk with the dogs the other day and he followed us in his car. How tacky," she says, her dander thoroughly up.

"Doesn't he have anything better to do than scurry around like a rat? You would think these guys would get themselves a meaningful job. I mean, what do they tell their kids? 'I follow famous people around and take pictures of them and sell them.' There's not much integrity in that."

The photographer will have to move on, because Griffith planned to spend the rest of the summer in Europe. After a quick stop in Sicily at the Taormina Film Festival, where she was honored with a retrospective ("I thought you had to be dead for that"), she headed to Spain, and she'll go to Ireland this month to shoot a new film, "Limo Man." Then it's back home in September so the kids can start school.


Griffith has not been easy to pin down. The official explanation is that she's busy with her family, tending to the summer activities of her three children, ages 15, 11 and 4. But it's also true that she's a little gun-shy when it comes to the media. Nonetheless, she doesn't dodge questions or proffer suitable-for-all-occasions responses. As in even her most tepid movie projects, she dives in without a life preserver. How many actresses will casually mention in passing that she wouldn't have cheated on one of her past husbands if he hadn't cheated on her first?

She first appears as something of a mirage. While the receptionist at her West L.A.-based Internet company, One World Networks, pages her and presses button after button trying to find Griffith, she floats past in a black pinstriped suit and high heels, laughs as if without a care--and vanishes. When she returns 10 minutes later, her greeting is warm yet guarded, as if she's admiring a handsomely wrapped present and hoping that what's inside doesn't disappoint.

Waters is right. It would be hard to find a way to blackmail her. In the quarter-century since she made her film debut--yes, it's been that long--in 1975's "Night Moves" and held her own against seasoned pro Gene Hackman, Griffith has had enough career reversals to give John Travolta the bends. For every good movie like "Working Girl" (which brought her an Oscar nomination) and "Something Wild," she's been in tankers like "The Bonfire of the Vanities" and "Paradise."

There have been missed opportunities as well. She had to turn down both "As Good as It Gets" and "The Sheltering Sky" because of pregnancy. (She also passed on the scripts for "Basic Instinct" and "Thelma & Louise.") But even in her turkeys, it's usually the projects that let Griffith down and not the other way around. And when she's in a good movie she can be a real star.

In "Nobody's Fool," opposite Paul Newman, she displays a kind of touching vulnerability reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe. Her unique vocal inflections in films like Brian De Palma's "Body Double" recall Judy Holliday (her subsequent appearance in the misbegotten remake of the classic "Born Yesterday" notwithstanding). In Woody Allen's "Celebrity," and especially Jonathan Demme's "Something Wild," Griffith flashes a kind of healthy, unfettered sexuality that bears comparison to Tuesday Weld.

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