Sundance documentary peers beneath the skin of beauty
Sundance • In “About Face,” first generation of supermodels dish about exploitation and drugs.
Published: January 22, 2012 07:29AM
Updated: April 5, 2012 11:37PM
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"About Face" director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders. Courtesy image

Despite Sundance’s artistic pretensions and emphasis on important documentaries, the festival can’t escape being a cog in an industry defined by celebrity, glamour and fame. All too little of the festival’s buzz, web alerts and photos are generated by the indie films making somber statements about nuclear energy, hunger, military rape or war.

And what there is will be overshadowed if Kirsten Dunst shows up for the premiere of “Bachlorettes.”

So it’s somehow honest that Sundance found a place for Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ documentary “About Face.” Greenfield-Sanders, a portrait photographer and filmmaker, combines his talents to explore the lives and careers of some of the world’s legendary models, including Christie Brinkley, Isabella Rossellini, Cheryl Tiegs, China Machado, Carol Alt and Jerry Hall.

By interviewing cover girls of the 1950s to the 1990s, Greenfield-Sanders chronicles not only the beauty business, but a turbulent period of American cultural history. And his eyewitnesses are a group of beautiful women who started in a career that was once a euphemism for prostitution and were exploited as little more than, as Brinkley puts it, “clothes hangers.”

“We lived the greatest life of adventure in those days,” says Marisa Berenson, who was featured on the cover of Vogue in 1970. “We weren’t afraid of anything.”

“This film is about women who have done something with their lives and survived in incredibly tortuous worlds where it’s all about your looks,” Greenfield-Sanders says. “I allow them to say what they believe — and it’s not all positive. There was a lot of racism and drugs and exploitation.”

“These are amazing women,” says Greenfield-Sanders of cover girls such as:

• China Machado, who survived World War II in Japanese-held Shanghai to become a favorite subject of photographer Richard Avedon and ultimately the first nonwhite model on the cover of a major U.S. magazine, Harper’s Bazaar.

• Carmen Dell’Orefice, who’s now 80-something, and has the somewhat dubious fame in the fashion industry as its “oldest working model.” She started modeling at 15 in Vogue and will be working modeling in the upcoming season.

• Beverly Johnson, who in 1974 was the first African-American model to appear on the cover of Vogue and remains influential in the industry.

• Isabella Rossellini, who when she was dropped, after 14 years, as a spokeswoman for Lancôme, started her own cosmetics company, figuring that as an “old fox” she could help aging women find better makeup.

“About Face” doesn’t hide from exploring the dark side of the fashion industry, which includes exploitation of teenagers, sexual harassment, drug abuse and racism.

“I don’t think there is any 15-year-old girl who will turn down the chance to be called beautiful,” says Paulina Porizkova, recalling photographers and directors critiquing her as if she weren’t in the room. “They don’t know they will also be called ugly.”

Later in the film, Porizkova adds: “What other people call sexual harassment, we called compliments. When a 16-year-old is flattered by a man pulling out his penis — that’s noteworthy.”

Lisa Taylor, who began working in the 1970s, admits she abused drugs. “I was so insecure, I needed to do it. It made me feel I had something to say — that I was worth being photographed.”

In a particularly chilling interview, Jade Hobson, a Vogue editor during the 1970s and 1980s, acknowledges that the industry may have contributed to the young models’ drug problems. That was the era when the models’ look became more interesting, according to Hobson, because “the girls stopped smiling.”

At one shoot, the former editor recalled seeing track marks on the arms of heroin addict Gia Marie Carangi, who died at 26. “We maybe exploited these girls because it also brought a certain look to the photographers,” Hobson recalls. “Gia looked great. I feel somehow responsible — and the photographers and the industry — for using these girls when we were aware of the heavy, heavy use of drugs.”

Bethann Hardison recalls the industry rationalizing its racism as a photographer or designer’s personal “aesthetic.” “No matter how much they say, ‘It’s just not my aesthetic,’ the word ‘aesthetic’ is borderline racism,” she says.

But the models saw their biggest threat as aging. “It’s not that women want to stay young — it’s that the whole society wants us to stay young,” Machado says. “It has nothing to do with us.”

Karen Bjornson, who began modeling in 1980, admits she had plastic surgery when she was asked to do a show at age 50. “I did my eyes. I didn’t want to look younger­ — I just wanted to look well-rested.”

Dell’Orefice explains her decision to have surgery this way: “If you had the ceiling falling down in your living room, wouldn’t you have it repaired?”

Rossellini admits she often thinks “This is the new techonology — use it.” But, “Most of the time I wake up thinking, ‘Is this the new foot binding? Is this the new misogyny? Is this a new way to tell women, “You are ugly”?’ ”

And down-to-earth Texan Jerry Hall complains that cosmetic surgery creates “role models who look scary to small children.”

Even death seems less threatening to these women than age.

“We all have to go sometime,” Dell’Orefice says. “And when I go, I want to go with my high heels on.”

gwarchol@sltrib.com; facebook.com/nowsaltlake

‘About Face’ screenings

Today, 2:30 p.m. • The MARC, Park City

Monday, Jan. 23, 8:30 p.m. • Prospector Square Theatre, Park City

Thursday, Jan. 26, 11:30 a.m. • Library Center Theatre, Park City

Friday, Jan. 27, 9:30 p.m. • Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, Salt Lake City