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Scratch the Surface

Avaluable look at the modeling industry --- from an insider, for a change --- "Scratch the Surface" lives up to its title by sticking to a group of nascent supermodels who came of age in the 1980s, and revealing the nuts and bolts of their experiences. It's not a pretty picture, but neither is it a lurid horror story. First-time helmer Tara Fitzpatrick, who grew up with Brooke Shields, Whitney Houston, Phoebe Cates and other teen models, has provided a valuable service for starry-eyed girls who think the biz is all glitz and money. Tube play is guaranteed after some fest exposure.

Avaluable look at the modeling industry — from an insider, for a change — “Scratch the Surface” lives up to its title by sticking to a group of nascent supermodels who came of age in the 1980s, and revealing the nuts and bolts of their experiences. It’s not a pretty picture, but neither is it a lurid horror story. First-time helmer Tara Fitzpatrick, who grew up with Brooke Shields, Whitney Houston, Phoebe Cates and other teen models, has provided a valuable service for starry-eyed girls who think the biz is all glitz and money. Tube play is guaranteed after some fest exposure.

Fitzpatrick and twin sister Tracy were roped into early careers by their mother and aunt, both of whom were youth models in another era. The younger women still have mixed feelings about this, since the expected loss of childhood was in some ways offset by the excitement of travel and responsibility.

Their pal Cates, it seems, was always fairly clear-eyed about the venture, jumping into movies at the earliest opportunity. Things weren’t as smooth for Cates’ less conventionally attractive sister Valerie, who was driven by sibling rivalry (and admitted opportunism) to join the biz — which is good, because she’s the most consistently articulate and amusing observer here.

Houston, who was already knocking on musical doors way back when, is more opaque, while peers Lisanne Falk and Pamela Gidley (another who made the switch to acting) have some pithy comments on their teen years, although all the women’s remarks stick to their careers without illuminating what the impact might have been on their personal lives.

Perhaps more revelatory are the old-timers who gave the girls their start. Agency pioneer Eileen Ford comes across as a battle-ax with a sense of humor. She’s still bitter about losing some of her best clients to the upstart John Casablancas — a rare hetero male in the works — and the latter has tartly bemused commentary on the obscene inflation of salaries: “The triumph of nothingness” is how he sees the recent ascent of blank-eyed supermodels.

His view is supported by brief interviews with current print-ad queen Bridget Hall, who makes her direct forebears sound like Rhodes scholars. With what seems like much prompting, the lank-haired blond admits to some pride over becoming a de facto role model, or, as she puts it, being “all that to women and stuff.”

Pic was co-written by helmer with another sister, Billie, named after their grandma, Billie Ryan Walsh, who exec produced. Film’s family-affair nature tends to keep it from digging too deep, but the interviewees are frank enough to push it into uncharted territory. Result is a fair-minded picture, put together with B&W panache from footage shot by seven lensers in different locations, as well as lots of pertinent mag stills, with a snappy oldies score as glue. Docu doesn’t have the focus that gave “Unzipped” theatrical legs, but commercial webs will gravitate to subject matter — and it should be mandatory viewing in high schools.

Scratch the Surface

(DOCU - 16MM)

Production: A Tara Fitzpatrick/Mildred Prods. (Los Angeles) production. (International sales: Jane Balfour Films, London.) Produced by Fitzpatrick. Executive producers , Billie Ryan Walsh, Joseph P. Finnegan. Co-producer, Tracy Fitzpatrick-Finnegan. Directed by Tara Fitzpatrick. Screenplay, Fitzpatrick, Billie Fitzpatrick.

Crew: Camera (B&W, 16mm), Niels Alpert, Phil Abraham, Robert Bennett, Sarah Cawley, Trish Govoni, Kyle Kibbe, Ellen Kuras; editor, Michael Bloecher; music supervisor, Tara Fitzpatrick; sound, Adam Joseph, Judy Karp. Reviewed at Seattle Film Festival, June 6, 1997. Running time: 71 MIN.

With: With: Brooke Shields, Phoebe Cates, Whitney Houston, Pamela Gidley, Lisanne Falk, Tracy Fitzpatrick, Valerie Cates, Bridget Hall, Eileen Ford, John Casablancas.

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