On the Upswing
If a twister could talk it probably would sound very much like Ally Sheedy. It’s only 9 in the morning, and she hasn’t even had a cup of coffee, but Sheedy is already whirling around her L.A. hotel room, smoking up a storm (constantly dispelling the smoke with sharp flicks of the wrist). In a stream-of-consciousness ramble, she broadstrokes the good, bad and ugly of her life, starting with her recent experiences at the Cannes Film Festival, where her well-received new film, “High Art,” was recently screened.
“Cannes? Oh, God. You know what? I didn’t like it there. It was too much of a circus for me. Everything went wrong. I was working in Australia, and I flew 30 hours to get there and I couldn’t find the connecting flight to Nice. I didn’t realize it was in another terminal and that it was far away and I had to get on a bus with my bags and go through customs.
“I just couldn’t find it. I missed the flight and there I was crying in the airport just wanting to get on the first plane to New York.”
She pauses just long enough for a drag on her cigarette. “I was just there three days. And I’d never been there before, and there was so much international press, one after the other. Masses of people everywhere. As I’m walking down the street I just kept feeling people staring and wondering, ‘Are you important?’ ”
She shudders, trying to shake off the memory, then shifts gears. “But then they had the screening. The crowd was very silent and when it was over everybody just stood up and gave it a standing ovation: one of those magical moments you dream about happening. And it happened.”
“High Art” looks to a new turn in the road for Sheedy, 36, whose career has been in turmoil over the past decade. In the public mind she remains frozen in time, closely associated with her early films such as “War Games,” “The Breakfast Club” and “St. Elmo’s Fire.”
That Ally Sheedy was all energy and youth and promise. When “High Art” debuted earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival, there were audible gasps from the audience when Sheedy first appeared. In the film she portrays Lucy Berliner, a fiercely talented but hellbent on self-destruction photographer who, though only in her mid-30s, has been up and down and over and out--a woman on the outskirts of youth, looking back less with regret than with resignation.
“Her performance is intense and detached, present and absent at the same time,” says the film’s director, Lisa Cholodenko. “And that gives her a kind of power on screen. You’re attracted. You want to get up close to her.”
What better way for the actress to cast off what she labels her goody-two-shoes image? But “High Art” is more than a calculated career move. When she first read the script, there was an immediate identification. Though the character is said to be somewhat loosely based on noted photographer Nan Goldin, thematically the film subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) echoes Sheedy’s life, not only where she’s been but where she might have ended up.
Sheedy doesn’t shrink from the comparisons. She chews them over with gusto.
Like Lucy Berliner, Sheedy caught the spotlight early and has been a public figure almost continuously since the age of 12, when she published the best-selling children’s book “She Was Nice to Mice.” The notoriety she attracted then, and later as part of the putative Brat Pack, wasn’t what threw her into a tailspin, however. It was the reaction her celebrity provoked in everyone else.
“See, I grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Both my parents came from nothing, poverty, and succeeded against tremendous odds.” (Her mother, Charlotte Sheedy, is a noted literary agent; her father, John, is a successful marketing executive.) “The credo in my house was, anything you want to do, you just go out and do it.”
One afternoon she read her story to a family friend, a book editor who then took it to MacGraw-Hill. “She told me they were interested and could I turn it into a book. And I said, of course. So I wrote it. It was only afterward when I had to get up and talk at the American Booksellers’ Convention and people were asking if I really wrote the book because I was only 12. . . . It hadn’t occurred to me until then that it was this phenomenal thing.”
Sheedy survived her first brush with celebrity. The second time around was not so easy. In “High Art,” her character’s life choices displease her mother (played with sang-froid by Tammy Grimes). When Sheedy ventured into acting she also experienced parental disapproval.
“My mom’s nothing like Tammy,” she quickly explains. “At the same time, there was a similar tone of voice that happens when I talk to my mother. And I could hear myself going there [when acting].”
Charlotte Sheedy would have preferred her daughter hone her writing talents.
“She said to me, ‘You have this mind that you have to use,’ ” Ally says. “Her image of acting is someone who sits around all day and paints her fingernails--superficial. It went against her politics, her ideology.”
But the strong-willed daughter was already laying the groundwork for her acting career. After being accepted to USC (which she used largely as a pretext to get her to Los Angeles), Sheedy almost immediately landed an agent. A year later she was cast opposite Sean Penn in “Bad Boys” and immediately thereafter with Matthew Broderick in “War Games.”
“I never expected it to happen as quickly as it did. But I paid a price for it,” she admits.
By the time she was 21, she was famous and part of a new generation of promising young talents including Penn, Emilio Estevez, Tom Cruise, Andrew McCarthy, Judd Nelson and Molly Ringwald, who were haphazardly thrown together in various combinations in a number of youth-oriented films, most notably “The Breakfast Club.”
“It was actually enjoyable there for a while,” she recalls. “I felt like I had this network of friends, all doing the same thing, all very young, all of whom had managed to realize their dream. It was the first time in my life I really felt I belonged somewhere.”
But after New York magazine defined them as the Brat Pack, this loose circle began to feel constricting and its members chafed. “It all suddenly became a negative. The entire group splintered. And I experienced it as a loss.”
Cast in a succession of “cheerleader girl-next-door roles” (“Short Circuit,” “Maid to Order”), Sheedy says she felt pressured to build herself into a movie star, which “boiled down to making myself into some kind of sex object: Pile on the makeup, wear tight, short dresses, go to parties, do provocative photo spreads in magazines, have my teeth straightened, my breasts enlarged, change my weight--either up or down, depending on who I was talking to.”
Not good advice for someone who was already battling bulimia. Even if she had been able to conform, it would not have taken her in the direction she wanted--which was to follow in the footsteps of her idols, such as Helen Mirren, Alfre Woodard, Frances McDormand and Judy Davis. She tried. She took on several quirky character roles in little-seen films like “Heart of Dixie.”
“And suddenly I wasn’t commercially viable anymore. When you’ve fallen, that really brings out the animus in people. That’s when you really find out what everybody’s made of. I remember telling a really highly powered female agent that I was having a problem because I didn’t want to take off my clothes in a movie. And she said, ‘If a high-powered director in a big studio movie decides for whatever reason you have to take your clothes off, just shut up and take off your shirt.’ ”
Sheedy howls with laughter now. Ten years ago however, “it completely freaked me out.”
The depiction of drugs in “High Art” is harrowing. Lucy Berliner’s female lover is a heroin addict and Lucy finds herself sucked into a vortex. And this bears comparison to another defining moment in Sheedy’s young life.
Though it lasted less than a year, her affair with Bon Jovi guitarist Richie Sambora ended with Sheedy in drug rehabilitation for a dependency on Halcion, Xanax and antidepressants.
“Things change when you fall in love with someone. For all his problems. And I was in love with that guy. It was a key relationship in my life--not his. It destroyed me. I ended up in a lot of trouble.”
Sheedy was woefully unprepared for the subculture of the rock world. “As smart as you can be, there are a lot of things you can only learn through painful experience. I started taking drugs to be with him [Sambora] on his level and in his world. It not only relieved the anxiety of being with him but also helped me to deal with someone who’s behaving horribly toward me.”
The irony that she was the one who wound up in rehab is not lost on her. As she sat in the Hazelden clinic in Minnesota, “I thought to myself, how did it end up that I’m the one who’s here and he’s running around . . . treating people badly--and functioning?”
Sambora recently denied all of Sheedy’s assertions in an interview with Us magazine. “These allegations are ludicrous and false. I think, over time, Ally has embellished her memories of the brief time we spent together.”
Sheedy has been glimpsed over the past decade in a TV movie here, a play there, sometimes working just to work, sometimes to pay the bills. Slowly, with the support of her manager Neil Koenigsberg and husband actor David Lansbury, she has begun Act 3. In 1991 she even returned to seriously writing, publishing a volume of poetry, “Yesterday I Saw the Sun.”
Despite the glowing notices for “High Art” (she has three other independent features in the can) she says the scripts are not exactly jamming the mailbox yet. But she’s not 18 anymore and no longer in such a rush.
“There were times over the past 10 years when I thought maybe it shouldn’t have happened this way,” she says. “But I got to see what it’s like to be that successful that young. And I realized I didn’t want to be a big movie star. Fortunately, it all happened early enough for me to change my life.”