A big box of eye candy as well as an indictment of genetics, “About Face” revisits some of the more famous faces of the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s — women who were beautiful then, are beautiful now, and set a standard of beauty for several generations. Helmer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders allows his subjects to reflect on what it meant to work at a time when “model” meant something other than just anonymous faces on glossy magazines; what it meant exactly isn’t often articulated, but the women are charming, candid and honest about who they were and how. HBO pic will likely be a highly popular entry.The recollections from the likes of the brassy Jerry Hall, the sardonic Paulina Porizkova, the saucy Christie Brinkley and the self-deprecating Carol Alt don’t usually address the issues head-on, and it’s often up to the viewer to dig up deeper meaning from their memories. But in telling their stories, the women touch not only on the more sensational aspects of life at the top (the clubs, the drugs, the celebs, etc.), but the insecurity that seemed to afflict so many of them; the clinical appraisals they got from bookers, photographers and modeling agencies; and the overall sense of exploitation. One particular area Greenfield-Sanders (who helmed three installments of HBO’s “The Black List”) barges boldly into is race. The cast of “About Face” includes numerous models of color, and Bethann Hardison, Beverly Johnson, China Machado and Pat Cleveland all contribute mightily to the story of modeling’s color barrier and how it came toppling down. Still, it wasn’t just race that proved an obstacle to the women’s advancement. Hardison recalls that the profession was held in such low esteem that when she told her mother she was modeling, the older woman assumed she was a prostitute until she saw her daughter in a TV commercial. On the subject of models and drugs, fashion director Jade Hobson admits, “We created a monster,” as the aesthetic changed to fit the wasted look of the women being photographed. It’s a startling insight, one that feeds into the ever-changing preferences of the fashion industry; to hear some tell it, the world’s most successful model now would be a 7-year-old with breasts. Such was not the case when these women were girls, which they certainly are not now. Plastic surgery is not the film’s central subject, but while some subjects admit nothing, others are quite frank about having had work done. “I don’t want to look younger,” says the elegant Karen Bjornson. “I just want to look well rested.” (She does.) The oldest of the working fashion models, the silver-maned Carmen Dell’Orefice, doesn’t come right out and say it, but slyly asks, “If you had the ceiling falling down in your living room, would you not go and have a repair?” Besides its bevy of gravity-defying beauties, “About Face” provides a window into the very insecurities to which models are supposed to be immune: They were supposed to act, walk and pose as though they’re the most glorious things ever born, and to try and believe it. But judging by the very likable subjects of Greenfield-Sanders’ film, they’re beset by the same uncertainties as the rest of us mortals. Production values are topnotch, and the archival footage is fascinating.
An HBO Documentary Films and Perfect Day Films presentation. Produced by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, Chad Thompson. Executive producers, Tommy Walker, Michael Slap Sloane, Sheila Nevins. Directed by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders.
Camera (color), Greenfield-Sanders; editor, Benjamin Gray; music, Neal Evans, Sebastian Blanck, M.L. Perlman; music supervisors, Hal Willner, Tom Sarig; sound, Francisco Latorre, Jim Spickler, Lucas Michael Lee, Mat Dennis, Stefan Springman; sound designer, Nicholas Sjostrom; associate producers, Beauregard Houston-Montgomery, Jade Hobson. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Documentary Premieres), Jan. 23, 2012. Running time: 70 MIN.
Carmen Dell'Orefice, China Machado, Paulina Porizkova, Carol Alt, Jerry Hall, Isabella Rossellini, Lisa Taylor, Christie Brinkley, Karen Bjornson, Kim Alexis, Cheryl Tiegs, Calvin Klein, Bethann Hardison, Beverly Johnson, Pat Cleveland, Jade Hobson.