Movie Interview: Heroine Chic

Ally Sheedy talks about the hard road to "high art."


Lori Leibovich
June 26, 1998 9:19PM (UTC)

I'm having trouble concentrating. Ally Sheedy is sitting inches
away and all I can think about is giving her a makeover. Not that she
doesn't look good -- she looks fine, if a little tired. But being this
close to Sheedy, I can't help but notice her pores and the outline of her
lips. And I can't stop thinking about that transformative scene in "The
Breakfast Club" when Claire (Molly Ringwald), the misunderstood, rich-bitch
princess, takes her makeup bag to Sheedy's sullied, mascara-smeared face
and the two bond over blush. With the stroke of an eye pencil, Sheedy's
character, Allison, went from being a disheveled, dandruff-laden freak into a
shiny, happy, headbanded girl.

Today, traces of the premakeover Allison mark Sheedy's face. She
looks cloudy and brooding, her dark eyes mysterious, her copper-inflected
brown hair a little matted and mussed. She reaches for a pack of American
Spirits, and even though I haven't smoked in months, I ask her for one, as a
sort of bonding thing -- like she and Molly and the makeup bag. I am
sitting across from the woman whose movies I watched dozens of times as a
teenager, a woman whose characters I incorporated into my own emerging
personality. In my high school, as I imagine in most, there were the
Claires, who, like Ringwald's character, knew how to eat sushi and wore
real diamond studs -- and there were the Allisons, those who wore body-camouflaging clothing and made daring, obscene gestures, as when Sheedy giddily shook her dandruff flakes into a pile, just to fuck with people.

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I've always suspected that even the Claires of the world identified more
with Sheedy's character than with Ringwald's. Allison Reynolds was the living, breathing embodiment of high school ennui and dislocation. She
looked like what we all felt like -- weird, awkward and
alone. Ally Sheedy leans over and lights my cigarette, then slouches back in
her chair, arms folded. For a second it feels like high school, two girls
unraveling their lives over a cigarette.

"I just feel like with guys, the woman is the accessory," she says about her past roles in more mainstream films -- though there's the sense that she's also talking about roles she's played in a few real-life relationships. "Almost always it is her role to compliment the man's prowess, his masculinity, his strength. Even the position you have to take -- you're lying down and he's on top," she says. "He's got oil on his muscles, you're moving around moaning, 'Oh God, this is wonderful!' Actually, it's kind of horrific."

Sheedy speaks in italics. Words consisting of more than one
syllable are emphasized with a guttural twist or garnished with an eye
roll. Sheedy's words are e-nun-ci-at-ed. They languish in her mouth, then
get rolled up and savored like fine food before it is swallowed. Her
gaze is intense, and at times her mouth seems close to settling into a
sneer. Her lithe, serpentine body is contorted so it can fit into a hotel armchair. She sits limb over limb, her bare feet exposing toenails painted a deep, dramatic purple. Taking a drag
on her cigarette, she leans back with a daring look that says, "Ask me
anything." It's not as if Sheedy has that much to hide. She has
willingly laid her struggles out on a platter for the media to feast on. Yes, she had an abortion when she was 16. Yes, she's struggled with bulimia. Yes, her mother is a lesbian. And yes, she was addicted to the tranquilizer Halcion and did a stint in rehab. Rattling off
these facts like they are items from some sort of emotional résumé, Sheedy
remarkably doesn't sound cavalier, just honest. It's as if Allison walked
off the set of "The Breakfast Club" and surfaced a decade later and said,
"Yeah, so I had a fucked-up adolescence and my 20s were a nightmare.
But hey, here I am." The battles have been waged and Sheedy is just
patiently recounting the details for the history books.

Twelve years after "The Breakfast Club" catapulted Sheedy to
stardom, she is reemerging in the form of another marginal, complex
character -- Lucy Berliner, a heroin-addicted lesbian in Lisa Cholodenko's
luminous debut feature, "High Art." After making a splash in the New York
art world with gritty, Nan Goldinesque photographs, Lucy bails out and
leaves the scene entirely, unable to deal with the pressure of fame. "I
loved the attention," Lucy says of her fame. "But I couldn't deal with the
impact."

Substitute Hollywood for the New York art world, and the phrase
functions nicely as an epitaph for Sheedy's tumultuous tenure in Tinseltown.
After successful roles in "Bad Boys," "War Games," "The Breakfast Club" and "St. Elmo's Fire," Sheedy starred in a handful of commercial flops ("Heart of Dixie," "Maid to Order"). The casting calls stopped coming. "I was considered to be ice cold, uncastable, unhirable, unfuckable," she says. She was told by her managers and agents to "get her tits done," wear more makeup and less clothing and hang out with movie stars whose careers were flourishing so she could reclaim some "heat."

"Let me tell you, I'm not some morally invincible human being -- I did do some of those things," Sheedy confesses. "I did go out and change my hair color and put on makeup. The whole thing was a ridiculous exercise, it really was." She readily admits that she played a role in getting herself blacklisted from Hollywood. In true Allison Reynolds fashion, she scattered her dandruff all over town, flouting convention and refusing to play by the rules.

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"I. Made. Things. Very, very difficult for myself," Sheedy says
in a jarring, stop-start voice that resembles a sputtering engine. "I did
not do the things I was supposed to do to make myself into a movie star.
Part of that is because it went against my ethics, and part of it was I
realized at a certain point that being a movie star isn't what. I. Wanted.
To. Be." Sheedy pauses and raises her eyebrows to make sure I'm following before she continues. "At the same time, I was told, 'Nobody wants to fuck you and this is the problem.'" She enunciates the "F" in "fuck" with jaws clenched, still visibly upset over
conversations that took place years ago. "I was absolutely not going to do it,
and I didn't do it. And my career went straight into the toilet."

Sheedy left Hollywood and returned to her native New York. There she met and married actor David Lansbury and hunkered down to study with famed acting instructor Harold Guskin, who has been her mentor for over a decade. "He encouraged me along the path I was going on and kept saying, 'Don't worry about those people in Hollywood, just concentrate on your work,'"
Sheedy says of Guskin. "I took every script for every shitty job I got to Harold, and we took it apart and tried to make it better. And if we couldn't make it better, he told me to look at it as a chance to challenge myself in this way or that way," Sheedy says, her voice husky and defiant. "Instead of getting breast implants and spending four hours a day with a trainer, I
spent four hours a day with Harold."

If she seems hardened by the path she took, she's even more vocal in her disdain for the career decisions of her old best friend Demi Moore. "Her choices were against all of my principles and all the political philosophies I was brought up with," she told the New York Post, referring to Moore's surgically enhanced figure and her roles in "Striptease" and "Indecent Proposal." "On a deep level, it offends me." Those political philosophies were cultivated in the Upper West Side lefty household where she was raised by her now-divorced parents, Charlotte Sheedy, a literary agent who was involved in the women's rights and civil rights movements, and John Sheedy, a Manhattan advertising executive.

Sheedy sips from an oversized mug of cappuccino and smokes like
a fiend, her cigarette seeming more like an appendage than a prop. In person,
she is much more fidgety than the cool, detached persona she wears as
Lucy in "High Art." But her look -- Heroin Chic incarnate -- is almost the
same. In the movie, Sheedy floats around in tank tops that cling to her bony
frame. In person, her clothing is more conservative -- dark jeans and a
cardigan sweater -- but her collarbones protrude and her face is gaunt. A slew
of recent articles about Sheedy have all made mention of her weight, or rather the
lack of it.

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"It's so funny," she says incredulously. "I've gotten beyond my
problems with my weight, beyond my fixation with weight and now all of a
sudden everyone is talking about my weight!" A girl can't win. After "St.
Elmo's," Sheedy was told she would have to lose weight in order to get work, and now that she looks like a stick figure, no one will leave her alone. When I tell her that one journalist referred to her as "unsettlingly thin," she begins to laugh uproariously. "What's this about?" she demands. "Is it because I've been heavier in the past? Is it because I've talked about my bulimia? I'm not practicing that anymore," she says, referring to the eating disorder as if it were a religion. Sheedy assures me that the reason she's so thin has to do with genes ("I'm built like my
father, who is a string bean"), pregnancy (oddly, having a child made her
lose weight) and the fact that she simply grew out of her obsession.

"I went through all this stuff working on my bulimia, going to
the therapists -- for years," she admits. "What happened was I hit my
30s and all of a sudden I was not spending so much time thinking about
my weight, because there were too many other things going on. It was almost like I exhausted it." I want to believe her, but her explanation seems a little too easy, too pat. I
think of the many girlfriends who have sat before me, justifying their
dramatic weight loss with explanations like this. I want to gently point out
to Sheedy that caffeine and nicotine aren't part of the food pyramid. I
want to feed her. Sheedy chats on as if she's unveiling the newest diet
plan: OD on self-loathing, throw out someone else's ideals and the weight will come right off! "I don't know, maybe I just got normal," she offers, then reconsiders: "I don't have time to obsess about my weight, because now I'm obsessing about my kid."

By the time Sheedy was her daughter Rebecca's age, she was
already in the throes of precociousness. By age 6, Sheedy was dancing
with the American Ballet Theater; at 12, she published a children's book
and before high school she was writing reviews of kids' books for the New York
Times and the Village Voice. She has also contributed three articles to Ms.
magazine about her experiences growing up in an activist, lesbian, feminist
household. In a discussion about whether "High Art" will be
ghettoized as a "lesbian film," I suggest to Sheedy that perhaps the fact
that she is heterosexual and married with a child might make mainstream
viewers more willing to see it.

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"Now look, here's the thing, OK? I don't go for those sorts of
terms," she says, referring to my use of the word "heterosexual." "Some
people -- I always think it's for political reasons -- like to have a
term applied to them. If they're really concerned about being seen as
heterosexual, then they trot out their family when they play a gay
character. And if they are a militant lesbian, then it's very important for
them to be defined as a lesbian." Sheedy pauses for a drag of her cigarette
and interrupts me midsentence when I try to reframe the question. "I'm
from another school. I'm actually from my own school. I think everybody has
the ability to fall in love with a man or with a woman or a white person or
a black person or a Jewish person or a Protestant person or whatever," she
says, as if explaining it for the hundredth time. "I never thought
to myself, I'm going to grow up and fall in love with a man or I'm
going to fall in love with a woman because my mother is a lesbian. It's
kind of a radical statement, because instantly someone will say,
'You're a bisexual!' I just feel like those kinds of definitions don't
apply and I don't buy into them."

When I note that the sex scenes in the film were some of the
most natural I have ever seen, Sheedy replies: "I'm just more comfortable
with women -- for the obvious reasons." I ask her to elaborate. "We know
each other's bodies, for one. And it's easier to have a dialogue: 'What are
you comfortable with?' 'What are you not comfortable with?'" It's unclear
to me whether we are talking about real life or "High Art," so I ask her
to clarify: Has she ever been in love with a woman?

"I've had crushes on women, I've been attracted to women
before," she says. "And I've even talked to my husband
about it, and he told me that one of the things he loves about me is that I
don't find women who are beautiful and sexy and graceful and incredibly
intelligent threatening." Sheedy continues: "Who wouldn't be attracted to
[those qualities]? I mean he's attracted to them, too."

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Unlike her romp with Andrew McCarthy in "St. Elmo's Fire,"
where the two tumble awkwardly, slamming their puckered mouths together in
forced, fabricated fits of passion, Sheedy's love scenes with Radha Mitchell, who plays Syd, are gorgeous, haunting episodes. The sexual tension between the two is palpably charged. Each glance is a titillation, each wry smile part of a delicate seduction. When the two finally have sex, the moment is wrought with pathos -- the kind that real-life sex often elicits. The sex scenes in "High Art" are not, as Sheedy points out, gratuitous, with the requisite "tit shots" and moments of moaning, climactic bliss. "Those are complicated," she says of her love scenes with Mitchell and with Patricia Clarkson, who plays Lucy's strung-out girlfriend Greta. "And they are not in the movie just to get somebody off, you know what I mean? I think that if guys want to watch a
couple of chicks roll around in bed, then they should rent a porno," she says with irritation.

Sheedy plays the role of Lucy almost effortlessly, as if
Cholodenko wrote the part with her in mind. (In fact, Sheedy had to beg to
read for the part; the director had never heard of her.) From the film's
first moments, the camera languishes on Lucy, inviting the viewer into her
gauzy psychological universe. Sheedy adds definition to Lucy's shadows and
is remarkably convincing as an artist who must wrestle her demons to the
ground before she can mold them into something meaningful. "I don't know
why I was attracted to this character and why I love her so much. I just
know her," she tells me. And this time I believe her. In some ways, Sheedy is the sum of her best roles; she's gone from being the eccentric girl to being a complex woman and artist. I don't know why, with all her baggage, I'm so attracted to her -- I just know her.


Lori Leibovich

Lori Leibovich is a contributing editor at Salon and the former editor of the Life section.

MORE FROM Lori Leibovich

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