Desperately seeking Susan

Susan Sarandon, that is. And Sigourney Weaver and Jessica Lange and Debra Winger and the rest of the '80s Hollywood stars who are so much sexier than the bottle-blond Sarahs and Gwyneths and Camerons of today.

Published October 1, 2003 8:00PM (EDT)

If life were fair, Sarah Jessica Parker, Sarah Michelle Gellar and every other three-named Sarah guilty of snuffing out what's left of Hollywood's erotic sparkle would be delivered back to the bleach-bottled homecoming queen contests they came from. Then real actresses could return to movie screens so audiences could have what they crave -- good old sexual oomph.

If it weren't for their different shades of hair color and lip gloss, could anyone really tell the difference between Cameron Diaz and Kate Hudson, with their big goofy-gal grins? Jennifer Aniston may be a tasteful clotheshorse and a charmer on "Friends," but, along with her sunglass wearing, waif-boy husband, her real personality seems as textured as a bottle of Wite-Out. And Gwyneth? Get rid of the whimpering and the sham English trill and all you've got is a cheerleader who smokes.

The problem isn't only that today's silver screen starlets and grand dames are cookie-cutter, or that the endless parade of cuties who come and go is so boring. The problem is how average they are. They're pretty, in a Midwestern prom-queen kinda way, and they look fantastic on Maxim covers, but watching their mind-numbing performances is no better than flipping through a dog-eared copy of In Style magazine. Movie stars used to leave their corn-picking towns and go to the Big Apple, complete with a suitcase full of titillating emotional baggage, where they put names like Lee Strasberg on the back of their 8-by-10 glossies. Nowadays, girls go from student council meetings and most-popular yearbook photograph sittings straight to Hollywood casting couches.

Skip the acting classes or theater tickets. Who needs craft when you only want to be famous? Meanwhile, the determination to use formulaic plots that only show off the bods of vapid stars (not to mention budget-breaking special effects) has turned Tinseltown into a giant junior-high popularity contest. Gone are the days when normal folk could turn to movies to transcend daily life's ordinariness and disappear into the glow of celebrity where fabulous women gave us unearthly glamour, erotic delight or just plain pizazz.

Kids of the 1980s were the last to see the time when film actresses had as much character as the roles they played. Sure, there were as many helpless damsels, suppliant wives and dizzy sex symbols as there have always been. But the decade's most famous screen goddesses were natural-looking women with supernova personalities, or at the very least, a spark. Of course, some were glaringly beautiful -- Jessica Lange, Kathleen Turner -- but their good looks were shored up by their complexity.

Some of them weren't great beauties -- Sissy Spacek, Sally Field -- but their intense natures, and their talent, were necessary to an industry that told stories of genuine human struggle without the contrivances so rampant today. These women had skills and intelligence, and were backed by clever scripts and directors whose artistic vision wasn't blocked by a paycheck. Most important, they had sex appeal, an allure that didn't need an airbrush, dexterous camera angles, stripteases or cheesy, innuendo-ridden one-liners. Their sexuality was cerebral and physical, as mysterious as it was blatant. And even if their stories weren't about sexual love, they still had full erotic and intellectual lives, and so were like real women whose stories were fascinating to witness.

In 1983, readers of Harper's Bazaar magazine named Karen Allen one of the world's most beautiful women. Karen Allen, of whom most 21st century moviegoers have probably never heard, made her screen debut in 1978's "National Lampoon's Animal House," an important mark on the "American Pie" ancestral line. Though "Animal House" was free of flute sex and pie-fucking, it still succeeded in being a fairly mindless fraternity romp. Allen played one of the main guy's girlfriends, a smart, contemplative student who ends up sleeping with her professor. The kicker about Karen Allen was that she was short and skinny, with plain brown hair and an unremarkable, makeupless face. But even cast alongside cute actresses hired to play sexy sorority girls, she was the most desirable woman in the film.

In 1981, she played Indiana Jones' long-lost girlfriend, Marion, in the legendary "Raiders of the Lost Ark." Instead of being a buxom, screaming wristwatch, she was as fearless as our hero. Marion's spunk causes Indy to say, "Boy, you're something," a phrase movie men used to tell those dames that attracted and matched them in mind and action. The Indiana Jones series' last episode featured a gorgeous bitch blonde who had none of Marion's sass, and thus, barely any chemistry with the G-spot otherwise known as Harrison Ford. True fans always missed Allen.

The '80s saw untraditionally attractive women become mega-sexbombs. Ellen Barkin, with her weird round nose and too-tiny eyes, dropped both "The Big Easy" and "Sea of Love" onto the cultural battlefield. Critics yawned, but moviegoers reeled under the mushroom cloud of her vixenish sensuality. Bug-eyed Susan Sarandon was into her 42nd year when she played frisky, poetry-spewing Annie in "Bull Durham," a flick that had Tim Robbins and stony heartthrob Kevin Costner fighting over her. Two years later, she shagged the bejesus out of a younger James Spader in "White Palace," and became an unmatched sex symbol.

Even if they weren't outright sex symbols, less attractive women could at least find a regular place on Hollywood cast lists. Rosanna Arquette's overbite and threadish blond hair didn't end her career, although her cuter sister did better in the '90s. Flaky redhead Molly Ringwald and spooky Ally Sheedy were X-generation superstars, though neither were as polished as the current generation's Brat-Packish luminaries, assuming that "American Pie" is today's "Breakfast Club" and cheerleader-gone-bad Tara Reid and weirdo Alyson Hannigan are their successors. Lea Thompson, another forgotten '80s star, was as plain as they come, but constantly landed roles playing unattainable high school beauties. She was the love of Tom Cruise's life in "All the Right Moves," the popular clique girl in "Some Kind of Wonderful" and Michael J. Fox's Oedipal temptation in "Back to the Future." None of these actresses had Playboy figures, supermodel gams, perfect teeth or Versace wardrobes -- because in real life, real women don't.

But the ultimate girl next door was Debra Winger. Brassy and smart, the tiny, personal-trainer-free, pale-skinned and freckled Winger beat out more than 200 actresses to be the apple of John Travolta's eye in 1980's crappy "Urban Cowboy." Winger in cowboy hat and tight denims was an American man's fantasy and a heroine for women who liked their idols strong, feisty and authentic. In 1982, she was considered scrumptious enough to attract none other than dreamboat Richard Gere in "An Officer and a Gentleman." Unlike modern-day actresses whose sass is written into their scripts, brazen Winger was the real McCoy. Her hothead personality got her into tangles with directors and with Gere; the two reportedly loathed each other right through their semi-nude sex scenes in "Officer," and Winger subsequently said the movie was the worst experience of her life. In the end, Winger left Hollywood in a huff, leaving lots of limp-spined actresses to barely fill her shoes.

Winger, along with Spacek and Field, were working-class heroines because they fought for their families, their communities and themselves, but also enjoyed rich emotional lives. Uncovering the secrets of your friendly neighborhood nuclear plant may not be the lustiest plot, but the eternally stunning Meryl Streep uglied up to play "Silkwood" and still managed to have lover Kurt Russell go down on her.

Somehow, Sally Field sweating in a factory in a raggedy dress and head wrap, fighting to unionize her textile mill in "Norma Rae," was more awe-inspiring than Julia Roberts' "Erin Brockovich" in eye-liner and push-up bra chastising a desk clerk for looking at her boobs. Either high-caliber stars like Julia aren't allowed to play ugly, poorly dressed women anymore, or the culture has reduced signs of feminine sexuality to clothing choices and smartass language. It's exploitative and, more important, it's dull. Obviously, the travails of the working class aren't as sexy as dudes losing their cars or wizards brewing potions, and are only used to show how righteous certain Hollywood A-list babes are.

Even the classier dames of old had something more to offer than looks. Who could forget gorgeous Jessica Lange getting screwed by Jack Nicholson on a flour-covered kitchen table in 1981's "The Postman Always Rings Twice"? Lange came across as a softly tortured creature, lovely and vulnerable, with eyes that flickered in private contemplation. No contemporary actress has matched her seraphic beauty. Kathleen Turner was so scorchingly sexy that even when her voice was given to a cartoon character, men squirmed in their seats. Her classic "Body Heat" line -- "You aren't too bright. I like that in a man" -- puts any "Sex and the City" vagina-squirting quip to shame.

Breathtaking in "The Year of Living Dangerously," Sigourney Weaver saved herself from alien demise in nothing but her skivvies, but her steely intensity and Yale-backed intelligence made her a star. Her 2001 pairing with comatose Jennifer Love Hewitt in "Heartbreakers" made it all too clear how sloppily the torch has been passed. Faye Dunaway was a raging beauty whose greedy, neurotic characters in "Chinatown" and "Mommie Dearest" were more exhilarating to watch than any of the Woman From Hell characterizations that followed. Michelle Pfeiffer and Kim Basinger were painfully beautiful, and though the latter didn't prove her acting chops until later, both filled out their blond flawlessness with captivating carnal presence: Pfeiffer's quiet, pouty-mouthed intensity and Basinger's trembling, latent-volcano sensuality. Even Darryl Hannah's gawky, golden loveliness was truer than Cameron Diaz's constantly cheery, rump-shaking goofball antics.

The fact that most Hollywood actresses, including royals like Halle Berry and Catherine Zeta-Jones, have appeared in Maxim's pages only bears out the argument. Today's female movie star is all artifice, a detexturized, bikini-clad cover girl whose road to stardom requires ego and a good dentist. She is eroticism stripped of intricacy, glamour without substance. Think back to the untalented but uncommonly sensual Nastassja Kinski wrapped in nothing but a snake in Richard Avedon's early '80s photograph, a shot more erotic than any Maxim cover could ever hope to be. Today's gals are undoubtedly pretty, but in a bland, perfectly symmetrical way. It's an attractiveness as common as it is replaceable. The essential, unknowable quality, once called "It," has in them been reduced to one shallow characteristic: Cameron Diaz is beautiful and lighthearted. Angelina Jolie is beautiful and weird.

But even the guys are Slim Jims next to the T-bone sexiness of their predecessors. Despite his chubbo jaw line, Ben Affleck ain't hard on the eyes, but boozing it up with strippers is more frat boy than Hollywood stud. He and buddy Matt Damon should stick to writing smarmy movie scripts and leave sex symbolizing to the big guns. Speaking of Damon, he has enough ivory in his mouth to build a piano, but any woman with a pulse still gets weak-kneed after a flash of mannish Denzel Washington's pearly whites.

Colin Farrell might screw a lot and mouth off about it, but put him in a boxing ring with '80s bad boy Mickey Rourke and see who comes out bruised. Jeff Bridges' brawny, fur-covered chest in "Against All Odds" makes the viewer of Brad Pitt's scrawny, yoga-lookin' arms feel like a crasher at a Boy Scout troop meeting. Josh Hartnett's dark, brooding act is adorable, but pales next to the tender Marlboro man sexiness of long-forgotten Tom Berenger. Ashton Kutcher and his posse of car-losing, pie-screwing morons will never make modern girls reach into their panties the way Matt Dillon's gorgeously troubled Dallas in "The Outsiders" did.

And where's Jeff Goldblum's strangely attractive, talkative but erotogenic intellectual, James Woods' creepy, convulsive lady-killer, even Alec Baldwin's slick, impassioned shark? Boys today are all good looks and manufactured edge. Even the old standbys have lost it. Once a dragon of lusciously ambiguous sexual and psychological trickery, Kevin Spacey has become a slightly more interesting Tom Hanks groveling for Oscar nominations. The aphrodisiac that was Sean Penn, especially during his pugnacious phase, wore off when he tried to pull a "Rain Man" and play a disabled character, which only the exceedingly gifted Dustin Hoffman has ever been able to pull off.

Audiences don't go to movies only to stare at pretty people. They want to feel something, to have their minds played with, to get a sensual thrill. They want actors to admire, sex symbols to desire and meaty relationships to horn them up. Good actors disappear into their roles, so arguably the performers' personalities shouldn't matter. But an insubstantial person usually produces insubstantial work, unless propped by good scripts and directors, which apparently don't exist in contemporary Hollywood. True, actors don't have to be smart to be appealing, but it helps. Today's film actors lack not only wit, but also edge and charisma, the qualities that make interesting layered performances and sexually charged films.

So what do audiences get? Tedious sex scenes and romances devoid of the playful, dangerous or just plain dirty interplay that colors genuine human relationships. Carmen Electra running in slow motion through lawn sprinklers, instead of grown-up women and men fucking, with all the wonderful and confusing consequences that ensue. Boring movie idols admired for their fashion sense and the exorbitant price tags of their weddings. These formulaic blockbusters and chick flicks drain the wallet, dull the spirit and leave audiences blue-balled.

Catherine Zeta-Jones and Ms. Lo as in J. lead the new breed of jaw-droppingly gorgeous superstars, but their sprawling, Chicago-size egos epitomize the problem. American celebrity is no longer the consequence of creative talent. Fame is the goal, and so out of the woodwork crawl thousands of megalomaniac nimrods convinced that the entire world should follow their every move. The art form is secondary.

All is not lost. Some cute-as-a-button actors also manage to be appealing entertainers, although lots of them aren't American. Classically beautiful, the strong-as-brandy Cate Blanchett steals every flick she's ever been in. Nicole Kidman is God's gift to salivating fashionistas, yet her choices as an actress are far more audacious than any of her contemporaries, especially considering her A-list status. Jennifer Connelly and Kate Winslet's poignant emotional roles are often as voluptuous as their celebrated bodies.

Ewan McGregor breathes rambunctious life into every character he plays, while Johnny Depp, though sometimes too heavy on the gloomy-artiste shtick, deepens even the shallowest movies. Edward Norton may be this generation's Hoffman, a versatile whiz kid who, when buffed up -- think "American History X" -- gives women another reason to envy Salma Hayek.

Jude Law is so obscenely sexy, watching him stare at a wall for 90 minutes would be worth the price of admission. Even superhunk George Clooney, who seems to occasionally enjoy decent filmmaking, may take over for Mel Gibson with his hot-guy-next-door bashfulness and playful charm. If Charlize Theron and Thandie Newton could find a good script, they might drum up some of Jessica Lange's delicate sensitivity. And if Angelina Jolie could break free of her freakazoid image and find parts that don't play off her storm-tossed sexuality, she'd be hypnotic. In fact, if she could take her Lara Croft super-jet tits and knock Sarah Jessica out of her Jimmy Choos, Americans might go to the movies again.

By Laura Warrell

Laura K. Warrell is a freelance writer living in New York.

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