Not Strictly Naked Ambition

Sean Mitchell is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Two scenes that people remember from Robert Altman's "Short Cuts" in 1993 are the opening title sequence, which showed a fleet of malathion-spraying helicopters charging across the L.A. evening sky, and the one where Julianne Moore stood naked from the waist down, blow-drying a skirt with a hair dryer. In what to many was her Hollywood debut, Moore went bottomless not for a sex scene but as counterpoint to an argument she was having with her husband (Matthew Modine) as the two awaited dinner guests.

In the new film "Boogie Nights," written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, Moore shows off the rest of her body in the role of a sweet '70s San Fernando Valley porn star named Amber Waves, but this time, too, she's not really going bare in the service of arousal. Full of nudity, "Boogie Nights" nevertheless manages to denature sex by zooming in for an extended close-up behind the scenes of the passion-on-demand porno film industry.

Which is not to say the movie isn't waving a certain prurient-interest banner at the box office with its subject matter and flesh-toned dialogue that actually includes the line, "I have to go wash my vagina now," spoken by one of Amber's busy colleagues.

"My mother has always said, 'I'd much rather see you naked than dead,' " Moore says about the parental consideration factor in taking these parts. "It's funny, but it's true. What's really disturbing when you look at a movie is seeing a dead body. But how scary is it to see your daughter walk across a room with no clothes on? Not very. But if you see her shot up a million times or have her head cut off, that's scary."

No doubt. Is Quentin Tarantino reading this?

"You just hope you're in a situation that's safe. I did a nude scene in 'Body of Evidence' that was just awful. I was too young to know better. It was the first time I'd been asked [to get naked] and it turned out to be completely extraneous and gratuitous. Ugh. It was a terrible film and a terrible performance by me. It was about nothing, and I didn't need to be doing it. In this movie, where it was part of what was going on in the movie, it was very carefully handled.

"The same with 'Short Cuts.' There again, it wasn't gratuitous. We were trying to communicate something about marital intimacy and not about sexuality or coyness."

But back to Amber Waves. Though she is shown to be motherly at heart, this is not a part that will make anyone remember June Allyson or even Angie Dickinson, except as a measure of how much the movies have changed. This is a '90s role about a '70s character and involves hard-core scenes in which she has sex on camera with Mark Wahlberg (ne Marky Mark, Calvin Klein underwear model supreme), who plays a high school dropout from Torrance famous for his billboard-sized sexual equipment. Recalling the Las Vegas mom from hell that Sharon Stone played in "Casino," Amber snorts coke in a porn producer's office while moaning, "I miss my two sons."

But she's more complicated than that. "I loved her," Moore says about first setting eyes on Amber in Anderson's script, "because she's someone who's extremely well-intentioned. I mean, she's the nicest person in the world, but unbelievably deluded--as a lot of us are."

The film is in many ways a cautionary tale about the quest for stardom at any price. "Here's this kid who thinks he has this special thing, which happens to be a really big penis. Which is not the end-all and be-all and doesn't really make you a star. But in this world it qualifies him as something--and it leads to his downfall."

The role of Amber would seem a brave choice for an actress concerned about stardom at the studio level, but that may not describe Moore's ambitions. True, she had the female lead in Steven Spielberg's "The Lost World: Jurassic Park" as a headstrong paleontologist stalked by a Tyrannosaurus rex, and before that as Hugh Grant's pregnant girlfriend in "Nine Months."

But she has done her best work in smaller films like Louis Malle's "Vanya on 42nd St," "Short Cuts" and, most of all, Todd Haynes' "Safe," playing a neurasthenic casualty of unexamined affluence whose mysterious allergic reactions send her packing from L.A. to a remote retreat in New Mexico. She seems to feel this is her best performance.

"I really, really love that movie," she says. It was made for $800,000, or about the cost of the last raptor set in "Lost World." Come to think of it, "Safe" opens with a scene of her in bed finishing an obligatory marital coupling, apparently numb to sensation.

She also appears in "The Myth of Fingerprints," a low-, low-budget Sundance Festival crowd-pleaser just out from Sony Pictures Classics. It's written and directed by Bart Freundlich, the 27-year-old director with whom she now lives. The two met during the making of the movie and are expecting a child in November.

If "Boogie Nights," coming next month from New Line Cinema, represents the raunchy end of independent films, "The Myth of Fingerprints" is from the opposite, dysfunctional family drama end--a film about some painfully stolid New Englanders come together for a troubled Thanksgiving family reunion. Moore plays the unhappiest daughter of Roy Scheider and Blythe Danner. "ER's" Noah Wyle is one of her brothers. And come to think of it, the movie's opening sequence finds her having mechanical sex with her boyfriend on a train.

"I think people who are giant movie stars are just that--people that you can't look away from. That's not something that I set out to do or am even capable of. What I do are play these characters. . . .

"The people who are in 'Boogie Nights,' " she says, including, of course, Burt Reynolds, once the biggest of movie stars and here playing an aging porn director, "are people who take a lot of chances with their careers. A lot of people didn't want me to do 'Myth.' 'Why do you want to be in a movie like this?' And I thought, 'Why not?' It's a beautiful film and it says something that's really important.

"People talk about actors and say, 'Did somebody tell you to do this?' 'Did they make you do that?' But at the end of the day, it's the actor who decides. When you look at somebody's career, I think we've all made our own choices. I've made some clunkers."

"The Myth of Fingerprints" is as enigmatic as its title, taken from the Paul Simon song of the same name on his "Graceland" album. The film has something to do with pointing out that most people, as she puts it, "are defined by your family in a different way than you're defined by the world." And once children have grown up and left the nest, home-fire reunions tend to bring this conflict to the fore.

She recalls thinking about Mia, her character, as she first read Freundlich's script: "Great, here we go again. One of these people who's unhappy and by the end of the movie she's resolved and her problems are tied up. And it's not. I was so thrilled. She's absolutely unrepentant in her anger, like a real person would be."

We are talking about the two movies and acting and Hollywood in Moore's new house in Laurel Canyon--so new she and Freundlich have barely moved in after a summer spent on Long Island. The moderately sized modern hillside home is at the end of a cul de sac: bright, airy and marked by a deep canyon hush. Moore, visibly pregnant in a roomy black dress, is seated at the dining room table, surrounded by boxes, some open, some not. She has a casual elan about her that makes conversation easy.

"I've had a lot of people come up to me and tell me they really relate to Mia, which is sad in a sense if you realize a lot of people are feeling that estranged from their own life and family and are that angry."

Just then Freundlich passes through the kitchen and comes into view. Lightly bearded, still student-like in appearance, he's headed out on some errands and is finishing a piece of pizza. He is about eight years younger than she.

"This is Bart, by the way, if you want to meet him." Following introductions, he says, "I'm gonna leave those other two slices in there in case you get desperate and the baby needs pizza." They've just been to the doctor today for an ultrasound; they know the baby is a boy, and he's big.

Freundlich goes back into the kitchen and Moore continues, "Sundance is weird--we were just talking about it this morning. It's not so much fun anymore. All the studio people show up, and it's not about showing your film, it's about somebody hoping to pick up a film and make $30 million. It's not about, 'Oh, look at this lovely film,' it's an acquisitions thing. Now there's this notion that you can make a movie for under a million and more than triple your investment--make a killing." "Myth" cost just under $2 million.

With that cast?

"We didn't get any money, did we Bart?" she calls into the kitchen.

"You got SAG scale, didn't you?" comes the answer. "And you got a baby out of it."

"That's right," Moore says, laughing. "I got a baby out of it. I got a family out of it. But you don't do these movies to make money, you do them because you like them."

She and Freundlich fell in love during the filming in Maine. "Which was incredibly embarrassing for me to admit to because it seems so unprofessional. I'm not one of those people to get involved with people I work with."

Married to actor John Gould Rubin for eight years, Moore says she had never dated a writer or director before. "We started to see each other seriously afterwards. He was editing his film during the week while I was working on 'Boogie Nights' and then 'Lost World,' so he would come out on weekends."

She and Freundlich are not married. "We have no plans to be married," she says with a smile.

Moore once remarked that she believes the more successful you are, the more your beauty index goes up in everyone's mind. This from someone who has been told she was not pretty enough for certain roles.

" 'We thought you were really funny but we're going to give it to so-and-so because she's prettier,' that would literally be the feedback on jobs," she recalls. "Or 'We hired a model, she's prettier.' So, you hear that a lot coming up. But if you're successful, once you've made a few movies, then you become attractive." Indeed. By modeling standards, her nose may not be perfect, but she is routinely described now as a red-haired beauty.

A 1983 graduate of Boston University who learned her trade in regional theater and on a three-year stint playing both a good and evil twin on "As the World Turns," Moore repeats the classical dictum that "the more famous you become as a personality, the less you have to offer as an actor," meaning the less easy it is to slip unrecognized into different personas. It is her un-Hollywood hope along this line that we won't necessarily recognize her as "Julianne Moore" when she appears in the Coen brothers' "The Big Lebowski" later this year as an eccentric performance artist.

One of the things often said about acting is that an actress must find some piece of herself, however small, that connects with the character, however large, for the whole thing to work. Moore has found this to be true.

"There's always something of you in every character you play. You're the conduit. A character like Mia, who is so miserable and angry, I can access that, you know? I really can. It doesn't mean I'm happy to, but I am able to. I can dig it out of somewhere.

"And Amber's dislocation and disassociation I can always very easily access. Because, think about it: I have to perform what she has to perform, so I have to access that sort of disassociation to do it. For me to go and take off my clothes and do a scene with Mark Wahlberg . . . even though he's the nicest guy in the world, that doesn't mean it's easy for us to do it. In a sense we're performing the same act those characters are performing."

While "Boogie Nights' " backstage and back-bedroom view of the porn industry is fairly dark, one gets the feeling the truth is probably even darker. "I'm certain about that," Moore says. "If I had my druthers, everybody would die at the end of the movie. Amber should die, quite honestly, with the kind of abuse that you see her subject herself to." It doesn't make having sex in front of camera crews look like much fun. "I think it's unbelievably damaging," she says.

At the same time, she had no qualms about playing such a person on screen. "No, because when I read it, I didn't feel it was about pornography. It was about the people who live in this particular world where they make these films. It's the idea that these people are all somewhat marginal but when they're together, they're a family."

Somehow the story eluded the Hallmark Hall of Fame, but if you go with it, the family angle on "Boogie Nights" may come into focus, along with the film's nostalgic view of '70s film porn being far superior dramatically to the cheaper product that flooded the market once video made possible the "pro-am" movement, or "people getting a video camera and filming their next door neighbors having sex in a hot tub," as Moore describes it.

"When you start to look at pornography as a genre, you look at the stuff in the '70s and it was shot much better. There were actual stories--and acting," she says. "There were some actresses who were truly gifted."

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