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She's It

November 14, 2008|Rachel Abramowitz | Abramowitz is a Times staff writer.

" 'IT' is that quality possessed by some which draws all others

with its magnetic force. With 'IT' you win all men if you are a woman -- all women if you are a man. 'IT' can be a quality of the mind as well as a physical attraction."

That's how English romance novelist Elinor Glyn defined the term "it-girl," a phrase that entered the public imagination with the 1927 film "It," based on one of her novels and starring the original it-girl, Clara Bow.

Hollywood is perpetually on the hunt for this elusive quality, this blend of sexuality and innocence, of materialistic chutzpah and good values, of swagger and sincerity, that tends to sell tickets. As the Cameron Diazes, Drew Barrymores and Gwyneth Paltrows age out of the ingenue role, a new crop of young actresses has emerged -- a group that includes Amy Adams, Michelle Williams, Scarlett Johansson and Keira Knightley, contenders to the crown that for years belonged to Julia Roberts, perhaps the last woman movie star who everyone agrees actually guaranteed attendance in the theaters.

At the moment much of Hollywood is chattering about pretty Anne Hathaway, another dark-eyed, dark-haired beauty, who was plucked out of relative obscurity by Roberts' own star-maker, "Pretty Woman" director Garry Marshall. Disney was explicitly looking for the next Audrey Hepburn when Marshall cast this New Jersey-raised actress, with one short-lived TV series to her credit, as the lead in the 2001 hit franchise, "The Princess Diaries." Seven years later, the 26-year-old Hathaway has finally been transformed into the it-girl of the moment, with a string of commercial hits to her name, and heat fueled by her unexpected but thoroughly wrenching performance as an addict on furlough from rehab for her sister's wedding in "Rachel Getting Married." Already, Hathaway is getting Oscar buzz.

And she's getting the sympathy vote. Ironically enough, there's often nothing that endears a star to her audience more than love's travails, a bad boyfriend or two.

Hathaway's Italian boyfriend of four years, Raffaello Follieri, has recently been sentenced to prison for 54 months for fraud. The double whammy of on-screen and off-screen despair has curiously combined to give Hathaway heft and maturity, making her more than just another pretty face.

Late-night skewer

Hathaway has also deftly managed the media circus. Although it-girls inevitably magnetize attention, it's not every starlet who's forced to explain herself to such august pop culture pashas as David Letterman, who recently grilled Hathaway about her personal life.

Dressed demurely in black, Hathaway tried joking, "As far as relationships crashing and burning, I did pretty great. Scorch that earth." But being Letterman, he wouldn't desist, asking her questions such as, "Was there ever stuff missing out of your purse?" She mostly laughed, except for when she hid her face in her hands, literally trying to shield herself from his comic barrage.

In addition to Letterman, Hathaway recently did "Saturday Night Live," and pluckily served up quotes about her romantic train wreck for cover stories in Entertainment Weekly, W and, one presumes, the upcoming issue of Vogue, which should hit newsstands about the time that academy members start thinking about their Oscar ballots.

Vanity Fair offered up a pretty good vivisection of her jet-set love affair with Follieri, and it "made her more interesting," notes one top talent agent. "There is something about the poor girl, the ones that can never find the right love interest. It's part of the type, if you look back through history."

Indeed, although film historian Janine Basinger recoils at the thought that audiences enjoy seeing their cinematic icons suffer, she does note that a little glimpse of real vulnerability can burnish a star's allure. "There is some thinking that it makes all the women identify with her. Raise your hand if you've ever had a bad boyfriend. One of the appeals for a female star is a sense of vulnerability or being human, of not being greater than the rest of us, of not being detached from us because they're more beautiful or have better clothes. Historically, we like women stars like June Allyson or , who seem human.

"Our stars don't have to be perfect. They just have to be imperfect in a way we can tolerate, and that's unpredictable and related to how we see them on-screen."

Of course, Hollywood also appreciates Hathaway's growing box-office clout. Insiders peg her price per movie between $5 million and $10 million, and Hathaway's seeming imperfections dovetail nicely with what has become her commercial niche, the girl-power comedy. Most major women stars -- including Roberts, Goldie Hawn, Meryl Streep (or Miley Cyrus or any of the tween stars) -- have risen to glory with a devoted female fan base.

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