Something a Little Less Wild

Richard Natale is a regular contributor to Calendar

Melanie Griffith is like someone who is constantly at her own surprise birthday party opening gifts in front of a roomful of people. Even at age 42, she's still prone to outbursts of mirthful ebullience, but these days laced with healthy doses of self-awareness.

Director John Waters, whose "Cecil B. Demented," which opens Friday, stars Griffith, says he thinks her disposition arises from "a combination of a good sense of humor and a little bit of defiance. Like me, she's someone with a past who has made peace with it. Nobody can blackmail her. So she's happy. And why shouldn't she be? She has a wonderful family. She's married to Antonio Banderas. And Tippi Hedren is her mother!"

An unorthodox off-screen life has, at times, overshadowed Griffith's professional pursuits--a drug and alcohol binge followed by the obligatory rehab, her three other marriages (once to actor Steven Bauer, twice to Don Johnson) and cosmetic surgery (lips, breasts). Her affair with Banderas while both were still married to others (Griffith to Johnson, and Banderas to Spanish actress Ana Leza) became headline news around the world. The feeding frenzy continues even though she and Banderas are now married with a 4-year-old daughter, Stella.

"My mother-in-law called me from Spain the other day and asked if I was OK because she heard on the news that I was in the hospital--for anguish," she says in that unmistakable voice, permanently caught midway between a purr and a rasp. The tabloids are "always looking for a problem," she complains. "They never tell the truth. They never get it right."

For a week, she's been trailed by a photographer, who has stationed himself outside her home in Hancock Park. "Antonio, Stella and I went out for a walk with the dogs the other day and he followed us in his car. How tacky," she says, her dander thoroughly up.

"Doesn't he have anything better to do than scurry around like a rat? You would think these guys would get themselves a meaningful job. I mean, what do they tell their kids? 'I follow famous people around and take pictures of them and sell them.' There's not much integrity in that."

The photographer will have to move on, because Griffith planned to spend the rest of the summer in Europe. After a quick stop in Sicily at the Taormina Film Festival, where she was honored with a retrospective ("I thought you had to be dead for that"), she headed to Spain, and she'll go to Ireland this month to shoot a new film, "Limo Man." Then it's back home in September so the kids can start school.

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Griffith has not been easy to pin down. The official explanation is that she's busy with her family, tending to the summer activities of her three children, ages 15, 11 and 4. But it's also true that she's a little gun-shy when it comes to the media. Nonetheless, she doesn't dodge questions or proffer suitable-for-all-occasions responses. As in even her most tepid movie projects, she dives in without a life preserver. How many actresses will casually mention in passing that she wouldn't have cheated on one of her past husbands if he hadn't cheated on her first?

She first appears as something of a mirage. While the receptionist at her West L.A.-based Internet company, One World Networks, pages her and presses button after button trying to find Griffith, she floats past in a black pinstriped suit and high heels, laughs as if without a care--and vanishes. When she returns 10 minutes later, her greeting is warm yet guarded, as if she's admiring a handsomely wrapped present and hoping that what's inside doesn't disappoint.

Waters is right. It would be hard to find a way to blackmail her. In the quarter-century since she made her film debut--yes, it's been that long--in 1975's "Night Moves" and held her own against seasoned pro Gene Hackman, Griffith has had enough career reversals to give John Travolta the bends. For every good movie like "Working Girl" (which brought her an Oscar nomination) and "Something Wild," she's been in tankers like "The Bonfire of the Vanities" and "Paradise."

There have been missed opportunities as well. She had to turn down both "As Good as It Gets" and "The Sheltering Sky" because of pregnancy. (She also passed on the scripts for "Basic Instinct" and "Thelma & Louise.") But even in her turkeys, it's usually the projects that let Griffith down and not the other way around. And when she's in a good movie she can be a real star.

In "Nobody's Fool," opposite Paul Newman, she displays a kind of touching vulnerability reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe. Her unique vocal inflections in films like Brian De Palma's "Body Double" recall Judy Holliday (her subsequent appearance in the misbegotten remake of the classic "Born Yesterday" notwithstanding). In Woody Allen's "Celebrity," and especially Jonathan Demme's "Something Wild," Griffith flashes a kind of healthy, unfettered sexuality that bears comparison to Tuesday Weld.

Still, the good films have often been spaced so far apart that every time she turns in a good performance--like her bracingly honest heroin addict in 1998's little-seen independent film "Another Day in Paradise," co-starring James Woods, and her introspective portrayal last year of Marion Davies in HBO's "RKO 281," which earned her an Emmy nomination--one critic or another makes the startling discovery that the woman can actually act.

As with "RKO 281," "Cecil B. Demented" is a commentary on celebrity, and Griffith charges out swinging. She portrays a deliciously bitchy icon just slightly past her prime who in the course of the film gets her consciousness raised--Patty Hearst-style. Even in the movie's less focused moments, Griffith is its solid center.

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With three children at various stages of development, her life requires a great deal of strategic planning, she says. Son Alexander Bauer accompanied her to Taormina. She'll hand off Stella to her nanny and reunite with them in Spain. Older daughter Dakota (by Johnson) is at summer camp in Carmel. "She must be having fun because I haven't heard a word from her in two weeks," she says with mock maternal dismay. Another nanny is being sent to pick up Dakota and bring her to Spain.

A show-business daughter herself, Griffith endeavors to be more soccer mom than Hollywood mom. The kids usually travel to locations with her, and she and Banderas try to arrange jobs so they're never working at the same time. Since Alexander was born 15 years ago, her priority has primarily been tending the nest. So it's not surprising that when she talks about her career--her work with Waters, her upcoming projects--it's usually sound-bite time.

But when the conversation turns to family, she leaps to life like a proud mama lion: Alexander is "very intelligent, very beautiful physically. He's like an old soul. He's 15 now, and soon he's going to be driving and all that stuff. Last year he went away to boarding school in Colorado, which was great for him, but hard on me. My God, my baby. Do you know that I've been with him as a person longer than anyone I've known?"

If Alexander is the old soul, Dakota is the new spirit. "She's into dance, gymnastics, very rhythmic." Of the two, she seems more likely to follow in her mother's footsteps, though Griffith has counseled her to finish her education "so she can have something to fall back on." Again, she catches herself sounding like a mother and laughs.

As for Stella, "every day she blows my mind. I'm so glad I had her when I was older. I have more patience now, more interest. When I had Alexander, I was only 27 and struggling to keep it all together. It was scary as hell. After three, it's really easy. You know what to expect. You know they're not going to break." She intends to add to her brood, she says, at least one by natural childbirth and perhaps an adoption. Even One World Networks, of which she is co-founder and managing director, is merely a means for her to reach her goal of making $100 million so that she and her progeny will never have to worry about money.

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"Isn't it cool?" she says, clicking on to the company Web site. One World, she explains, which has been in operation since January, was founded by Griffith and three other women: investment banker Liz Edlic and two former marketing executives, Nancy Duitch and Rachel Edlich. "Did you know that our [Chief Technical Officer] Nancy Tyler was a rocket scientist?" she enthuses. (Tyler previously worked for Rockwell International.) Asked to define One World Networks, Griffith is not very specific. "It's a safe place on the Internet, like clicking through a community." Whatever that means.

Fortunately, a few minutes later the rocket scientist happens by. Tyler offers a more complete description. "One World does merchandising and promotions for celebrities and experts [fitness trainers, nutritionists, et al]. We find solutions to help them merchandise and extend their brand on TV, radio and online." When a reporter suggests that it sounds suspiciously like a glorified shopping site, Tyler concedes there's some truth to that. In any case, she says, One World tries to make sure that whatever it sells--from cosmetics to protein powder--is worth its customers' devotion.

Clicking on to OneWorldLive.com, one can also surf over to Griffith's own celebrity Web site (and soon Banderas' as well), which promises to help the visitor "discover the goddess in you"--which sounds like a heck of a lot more fun than locating your inner child.

"It's a great place for celebrities to be able to control their image," she says, launching into another of her peeves, a two-year battle to win back the rights to her own name.

"Five years ago, people started buying celebrity names on the Web," Griffith explains. "It only costs $70 to establish a celebrity dot-com. This guy [registered] my name and about 200 others. . . . So I called him and said, 'I would like my name back, thank you very much.' And he wouldn't give it to me!

"Then he asked for an outrageous sum of money. Some people actually paid him. Fortunately this cyber act was passed and I was able to get my name back for 70 bucks."

Griffith then unleashes her own inner goddess, pulling out a port-able fan and lighting a cigarette, which seems more than a little politically incorrect (not to mention illegal) under the circumstances. "I guess it's a bit of a contradiction," she says and giggles.

Though she's definitely settled and mellower, Griffith will never be mistaken for a Carmelite nun. As Waters suggested, there's still a remnant of the headstrong young woman who left home at 14 to move in with 19-year-old Don Johnson. After a brief marriage to the actor, she began working steadily in movies such as "Night Moves," "The Drowning Pool" with Newman and the teen beauty contest satire "Smile."

By the end of her teens, she was not only acting regularly but also regularly acting out. "I didn't get to have a childhood," she says with a sigh. "An acting teacher once said to me that acting is a child's game played by adults, which is fine. But when you're a kid, it's very stressful to have to be so responsible. You can't mess up. It's too much pressure. If I hadn't gone to work so young, I would have had time to develop emotionally much sooner."

It took several years to bring what she calls her "addictive personality" under control, she says. And she realizes how close she came to becoming a Hollywood casualty.

"Last year I did a movie called 'Forever Lulu' that hasn't been released yet. I played a paranoid schizophrenic, and I was very comfortable in that role. I met with a lot of women who are on heavy medication, and I didn't see a lot of difference between them and myself. I think actors are on the borderline of being insane and normal.

"Did you see that TV show the other night on Judy Garland? I didn't know that she was schizophrenic. But it makes so much sense, given her behavior. She could give her all on screen, but when it came to her personal life, she hadn't been taught to nurture herself. So she had these addictions to take the pain away.

"Actors can be so vulnerable, so raw because they have to be open to everybody and everything. But in your real life you have to be taught how to deal with that vulnerability. I don't think we're all necessarily schizophrenic. But we're more sensitive than the average person. Does that make sense?"

Griffith specifically recalls the moment when her instinct for self-preservation kicked in. She was 19 and overheard one actress remark about another: "Look at her. She's never going to make it." Griffith knew the woman could just as easily have been talking about her. "And that's when I decided, I am going to make it, [expletive]."

The way she was raised, Griffith doesn't feel she ever developed the emotional foundation that might have helped her overcome these obstacles more quickly. "Growing up in my generation, I was never told about how to make myself strong--the kind of normal conversations I have now with my kids. With Dakota, I talk about sex and being proud of herself and her body and not going with the first guy who kisses her and makes her go a little wacko and thinking that she owes him."

Although she and Hedren have a caring mother-daughter bond, Griffith implies that they are not exactly what one would call close. "You have to remember I only lived with my mother for 14 years," she says. "I've had more life without her. She gave me life, but we separated early and she's not extremely involved. She's got her country out there and her animals. I think she's very brave in her endeavor to save wild animals. It's a great cause, but it takes up all her time."

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Through her relationship with Banderas, she says, she has become part of his extended family in Spain. "I feel very comfortable there, like it's my home too. His family is different, entwined, solid. He's built a life, a foundation and they're very proud of him. I've noticed a big difference in my children when they're over there.

"With Antonio's family, I can relax and I know the kids will be looked after. Nothing against my family, but it's not the American way. Here it's an imposition to put the kids on your whole family."

Her relationship with Banderas is founded on mutual commitment, she says. And for the first time in her life she's ready to abide by it. She's made the promise before, "but I never really felt it," she admits. "I know that as long as I'm faithful to him, he's going to be faithful to me. And that's the only link in the chain, that if it was broken, would destroy our marriage. Everything else we can deal with. That's the only thing. Don't betray me. I have to be able to trust. That's on both sides."

The stability of her relationship has enabled her to expand into being a businesswoman and to endure the vicissitudes of being an actress in her 40s.

"I'm looking forward to the rest of my life," she says with a self-satisfied laugh. "The older I get, the more I can handle emotionally and intellectually. I want to experience life and keep going and not get depressed if people say I'm over the hill or something like that. That's why I love my Revlon ad. 'Defy it.' Whatever they say I can't do, [expletive] 'em, I can. And that's what I'm going to do, defy it."

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