About Face: Sundance Film Festival

Sundance About Face Carmen Dell'Orefice P 2012
Sundance Film Festival
This love letter to the cover girls of the past is a fluffy but surprisingly engaging validation of the belief that true beauty is ageless.

Isabella Rossellini, Jerry Hall, Marisa Berenson, Christie Brinkley and Cheryl Tiegs are among the celebrated models who reflect on their careers and on getting older in Timothy Greenfield-Sanders' captivating group portrait.

PARK CITY – Many of us poor mortals wake each morning to the rude response of the bathroom mirror, assaulting us with prune eyes, deepening crevices of marionette mouth, a jaw line turned to Jell-O. So listening to some of the most genetically blessed women of decades past ruminate on beauty and aging has the potential to chafe. Yeah, boo hoo, ladies, you got crow’s feet. But Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ entertaining About Face is remarkably free of self-pity. Rather than gripe about the tyranny of youth, these gals celebrate the gains of age and experience with infectious enjoyment.

Does the documentary, subtitled The Supermodels, Then and Now, go more than skin-deep? Rarely. But Greenfield-Sanders, a portrait photographer and filmmaker who directed The Black List for HBO, clearly adores his subjects, whose careers spanned the 1940s through the ‘80s. They reveal a self-esteem that in many cases seems to have eluded them in their famous heydays. And they also present hard evidence against society’s decree that post-50 is not a sexually viable age for women, to paraphrase one of these runway survivors.

In addition to the candid interviews, shot with Greenfield-Sanders’ customary elegance, the film digs up to-die-for archive material from designer shows and fashion shoots, some going back to the dawn of advertising.

The subject who brings the most career longevity to the table is Carmen Dell’Orefice, who began modeling in the ‘40s. Photographed by Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Horst P. Horst, Cecil Beaton, Norman Parkinson and countless other giants, she is still a striking beauty with her platinum mane – and still working – at 80. Asked about the validity of cosmetic surgery as a choice, she arches a penciled eyebrow and responds, “Well, if you had the ceiling falling down in your living room, would you not go and have a repair?”

Some interview subjects freely admit to getting a little chemical or surgical help to look “well-rested,” as Halston model Karen Bjornson charmingly puts it. Others are opposed to erasing the natural expressiveness from their faces. China Machado, a firecracker and an Avedon muse whose looks were considered too exotic for mainstream work, says she’s scared enough just going to the dentist, so a facelift would terrify her. Isabella Rossellini asks of Botox and its kin, “Is this the new foot-binding? Is this the new misogyny?”

Rossellini came to modeling relatively late, at 28, and consequently appears to have been more centered than many of the women who started in their teens. She shows a matter-of-fact awareness of the dictates of marketing as she recalls Lancome’s controversial decision to dump her in her 40s from its anti-aging product campaign.

The philosophical insights tend to be fairly standard, but one common thread linking the women is their belief that beauty is sustained by education, cultural enrichment and confidence. Christie Brinkley and Cheryl Tiegs both talk about the importance of being more than just clotheshangers and were savvy about building their brand.

As for the negatives, Carol Alt is one of several subjects who see modeling as a profession that feeds insecurity as well as loss of a sense of self. “I’m a fireman’s daughter from Long Island,” she says, noting how important it was to remember that. Paulina Porizkova admits that having her every feature and body part scrutinized for flaws prevented her from feeling good about herself until she hit her 40s.

Sexual harassment, rampant drug use and eating disorders are discussed. One of the most interesting observations is how the cocaine consumption of the 1970s coincided with the decline of the fresh-faced smile in modeling, making way for the sullen pout. But aside from former Vogue fashion director Jade Hobson mentioning her unease at seeing track marks on Gia Carangi’s arms during a shoot, About Face doesn’t dwell on the casualties.

On the flipside, subjects like Jerry Hall and Marisa Berenson recall the excitement and glamour of mingling in a rarefied world of creativity, tossing around names like Dalí and Warhol. Hall still gets an obvious kick out of recounting her path from working the counter at a Dairy Queen in Texas to being discovered on the French Riviera, while Berenson’s back-story as the granddaughter of Elsa Schiaparelli, recruited to modeling by Diana Vreeland, outlines a more privileged entrée.

Greenfield-Sanders provides a solid account of the emergence of women of color in modeling. Beverly Johnson (the first African American to land a Vogue cover), Bethann Hardison and Pat Cleveland are among those representing that breakthrough. Hardison explains how modeling was not considered a legitimate profession, amusingly revealing that her mother thought she was a hooker until she saw her in a commercial. Cleveland touches on the tensions of traveling in the segregated South with the Ebony Fashion Fair.

Among the conspicuously absent is Lauren Hutton; the aesthetic influence of Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton in the 1960s is overlooked, as are international modeling superstars such as Iman and Veruschka. The film might also have benefited contextually from showing how the explosion of household names in the 1990s – Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, Claudia Schiffer, Linda Evangelista, etc. – pushed models’ earnings into the stratosphere and made the runway a starry-eyed career goal for millions of young girls. But maybe that’s another chapter.

Greenfield-Sanders makes no claim to being a comprehensive historian. Instead, his slickly packaged film is an affectionate valentine to a bunch of smart, gorgeous women who defined beauty over a number of decades. And they’re still looking good.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Documentary Premieres)

Cast: Carmen Dell’Orefice, Isabella Rossellini, Jerry Hall, Christie Brinkley, Bethann Hardison, China Machado, Marisa Berenson, Carol Alt, Paulina Porizkova, Pat Cleveland, Beverly Johnson, Lisa Taylor, Christy Turlington, Karen Bjornson, Kim Alexis, Dayle Haddon, Cheryl Tiegs

Production companies: HBO Documentary Films, Perfect Day Films

Director: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

Producers: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, Chad Thompson

Executive producers: Tommy Walker, Michael Slap Sloane, Sheila Nevins

Director of photography: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

Music: Neal Evans, Sebastian Blanck, M.L. Perlman

Editor: Benjamin Gray

No rating, 72 minutes