BOY CULTURE REVIEW: ***1/2 OUT OF ****
I was thrilled last night to slip in at the last minute to see an intimate screening of About Face, photographer/director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders's HBO documentary on supermodels. Fame, plastic surgery, aging, gossip—how could I not love this movie? And, as it turns out, there was no real way I couldn't. It helped that I was seated next to photographer Gordon West, a perfect companion for such a heady mix.
As deeply socially trenchant as it is superficially entertaining, About Face goes a long way toward dispelling the notion that models are stupid. How could they be if so many of the top models of all time could come together and speak so intelligently about their perceptions of themselves, the world's perception of them and how those things relate to how we view women and aging in general?
The pleasantly meandering documentary is blessed with the enthusiastic participation of model icons Carmen Dell'Orefice, Paulina Porizkova, Marisa Berenson, Jerry Hall, Beverly Johnson, China Machado, Pat Cleveland, Christie Brinkley, Isabella Rossellini and more. It takes the form of an oral history via exquisitely (but not deceptively—no filters and other tricks) filmed interviews with the models and with A-list fashion figures like Eileen Ford and Calvin Klein, allowing the women's insights to dictate the direction of the narrative. Tangentially related topics such as plastic surgery and racism are covered in a way that feels organic.
The words the women speak feel like things they've been dying to express for decades. Some of them—like the outspoken Porizkova—have already been heard, whereas others' opinions may surprise some viewers. (At the post-screening Q&A, Greenfield-Sanders told us Cleveland had candidly confessed she'd never heard Cheryl Tiegs speak until she watched the film.)
I found Cleveland's memories of going on Ebony Fashion Fair bus rides in the South haunting, Dell'Orefice's observations about plastic surgery hilarious ("If you had the ceiling falling down in your living room, would you not go and have a repair?") and especially enjoyed a juicy scene in which a hair stylist asserts to Christie Brinkley that she clearly hadn't had any work done. Brinkley, filmed from various angles with her hair partly covering her face, went along with his statement, but ultimately allowed, "I guess if you look amazing you can pretend you haven't." Greenfield-Sanders later told me that scene had predated a much-publicized round of work Brinkley has since had done, but even so, I think it's safe to assume she'd had her eyes and some other things done at the time of filming—plenty of people age well, but no one ages that well. One of the most jarring aspects of the film was seeing Helmut Newton's muse Lisa Taylor as she appears now—she is totally unrecognizable as one of the faces of the late '70s and early '80s (and a star of The Eyes of Laura Mars), lovely but naturally weathered and "just glad to be alive."
The Q&A featuring Greenfield-Sanders, Cleveland and Alt was lively—Cleveland is a sensitive, coquetteish wit and Alt is a no-B.S. businesswoman from Long Island. They played off of each other and had the audience rapt and in stitches. For the film, Greenfield-Sanders seems to have stood back and allowed his subjects to express themselves rather than guiding them into any preconceived direction. Watching him watch these two women work the crowd at the Q&A, I overheard him say to his producer, "See? This is why I could have worked on this project forever."
Fashionisto me with Cleveland ("I like your hair!"), Greenfield-Sanders ("Who would want a photo with a photographer?") & Alt ("First, what's your name?") by Gordon West
The movie has flashes of profundity, but even if these women weren't so much more than a bunch of pretty faces, their sparkling reminiscences make this the kind of movie I could have watched forever, too.