Reign of the Cover Girls

Models-turned-thesps try to prove they've got the skills

The model-to-actress trajectory has yielded a high quotient of Oscar-caliber stars — and an even greater number of less-fortunate souls whose lofty ambitions beyond print and commercials soared significantly higher than their box office draw.

Throughout the 1950s, 1960s and ’70s, a brigade of ingenues with flawless faces — names like Brigitte Bardot, Jacqueline Bisset, Candice Bergen, Ali MacGraw, Charlotte Rampling and Britt Ekland — struggled to be taken seriously as thespians. Despite early debuts with auteur directors here and abroad, it often took more than a decade of strong performances to prove their acting chops.

It seems the transition from standing to speaking will forever be a weighty proposition in the business of Hollywood. With a new crop of switch hitters entering the fray each year (think Cameron Diaz, Jennifer Connelly, Milla Jovovich and Rebecca Romjin-Stamos), this town’s popular stance remains intact: She’s pretty, but can she act?

For blonde bombshell and French import Bardot, the answer was yes. But it took a publicity machine working both sides of the Atlantic and a breakthrough role to secure her status. When a 15-year-old Bardot appeared on an Elle magazine cover in 1950, director Marc Allegret recommended her to then-aspiring filmmaker Roger Vadim. A year later she began a love affair with Vadim, marrying him in 1952, and appearing in a score of minor roles in France.

The international hit “And God Created Woman” (1956) marked both the end of her marriage to Vadim and the beginning of American critics considering her a credible actress.

“In promulgating Brigitte as a full-blown enchantress, the French have clearly sent a girl to do a woman’s job,” noted Time magazine during the film’s U.S. release in 1957. Despite the mixed reviews, the world was forced to take notice of her talents when the film broke records for foreign movies shown here and grossed a then-staggering $8.5 million worldwide.

By 1959, Bardot was the highest-paid actress in France and went on to work with Gallic directors Louis Malle, Jean-Luc Godard and Henri-Georges Clouzot. She was quoted in the Washington Post and Times Herald that same year: “Some people say I am not a very good actress, but I have not had much chance to act. Mostly I have had to undress.”

A photographer’s model at age 18, Bisset was mostly cast in sexy bit parts in British films in the mid ’60s. But upon making the transition to Hollywood, she was soon playing opposite such leading men as Frank Sinatra (“The Detective”) and Steve McQueen (“Bullitt”). By the ’70s, the English beauty was in demand internationally, working with such directors as Francois Truffaut (“Day for Night”) and Philippe De Broca (“Le Magifique”), even if most Americans remember her more for her wet T-shit in “The Deep” during that period. For her most recent role in Christopher Munch’s “Sleepy Time Gal,” which premeied at Sundance last year, she received some of the best reviews of her career.

“Bisset throws herself into what is by far the most emotionally demanding role of her career and emerges honorably,” wrote Daily Variety’s Todd McCarthy in his review.

Like Bisset, Rampling – a model before entering films in 1965 – seems to have improved with age. After attracting serious attention in films like Luchino Visconti’s “The Damned” (1969) and Liliana Cavani’s “The Night Porter” (1974), Rampling wowed American audiences with her intense, moody performance as Dorrie in Woody Allen’s “Stardust Memories.” Her recent turn in Francois Ozon’s “Under the Sand,” in which she plays a grieving widow unable to come to turns with the loss of her husband, requires the actress to practically carry the film entirely on her shoulders. The review were tantamount to the rediscovery of her immense talents, and have revitalized Rampling’s career.

Not in Rampling’s league, Swedish actress Britt Ekland, a striking blonde and former toothpaste model, was immediately relegated to sex kitten and seductress roles — a fate she never transcended. Though she had already appeared in several films, her hopes were dashed when the British thriller “Get Carter” (1971) did little to put her career on the radar. After appearing as a Bond Girl in “The Man With the Golden Gun” (1974) and surviving a much publicized breakup with rocker Rod Stewart in 1977, Ekland made a string of low-budget titles like “Tintomare” (1981) and “Fraternity Vacation” (1985) throughout the ’80s.

Ekland’s contemporaries Ali MacGraw and Candice Bergen — both former Ford models — were also casualties of the covergirl syndrome, though both emerged from the ’70s with Oscar nominations.

When Sidney Lumet cast Bergen as a lesbian in his 1966 film “The Group,” film critic Pauline Kael called her “inordinately beautiful,” and panned her performance: “She doesn’t know how to move, she cannot say her lines so that one sounds different from the one before. As an actress her only flair is in her nostrils.”

Reviews of her other early films such as “The Sand Pebbles” were mixed, with one critic noting that her performance “bore no resemblance to acting,” while another found her work “flawless and beautiful.”

In 1971, her portrayal of the Smith College student Sandy, opposite Jack Nicholson, in “Carnal Knowledge” upped her profile a notch. New York Times reviewer Vincent Canby, writing about the controversial film in 1971, said: “Candice Bergen projects so much intelligence, humor and feeling that the time has come to stop worrying about whether or not she’s a good actress. I think she is, but the point is really academic.”

In 1979, she earned a supporting actress nomination for her role in Alan Pakula’s “Starting Over.” She also won five Emmy Awards and a Golden Globe for her starring role on the hit television series “Murphy Brown.”

MacGraw, a former perfume model and one-time assistant to fashion editor Diana Vreeland at Harper’s Bazaar, had already appeared in “Goodbye, Columbus” and had inked a five-picture deal with Paramount by age 30. Though she had been pegged as a rising star, it was her role as ill-fated New Englander Jenny Cavillieri in the wildly successful “Love Story” that forced critics to rethink her talent.

A review appearing in Variety in 1970 said: “MacGraw follows up her ‘Goodbye, Columbus’ girlish eminence with a performance that permits her to be a fully realized woman.”

MacGraw was nominated for best actress for “Love Story” in 1971 and went on to make “The Getaway,” released in 1972, opposite her future husband Steve McQueen.

But she couldn’t sustain her success. As recounted in her memoir, “Moving Pictures,” a succession of flops throughout the’80s, combined with a trip to Betty Ford, stalled her career. Like many former models, MacGraw has reinvented herself in recent years, this time as a clean-living author and yoga devotee.

In a 1982 Interview magazine chat with Andy Warhol, the actress weighed in about her concept of beauty: “I don’t think the perfect body, with the perfect hair and nothing else going on is beautiful at all. I think it’s so boring and narcissistic. No matter how much you work out, you’ve got this soul and this mind, which is what you’re all about.”

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