Supermodels, then and now

By Zoe Walker

Carmen Dell'Orefice and Isabella Rossellini discuss their careers as models in About Face, directed by photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders. Pictures / Timothy Greenfield-Sanders
Carmen Dell'Orefice and Isabella Rossellini discuss their careers as models in About Face, directed by photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders. Pictures / Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

They are some of the world's most well-known faces, who helped define what was considered beautiful from the 1940s to 1980s - although it's unlikely you have ever heard them speak or express an opinion. About Face: Supermodels Then & Now, which screens on Rialto this week, looks at the brains behind the beauty, featuring revealing interviews with top models like Jerry Hall, Marisa Berenson, Christie Brinkley, Pat Cleveland, Beverly Johnson and Isabella Rossellini - beautiful women reminiscing about their remarkable careers and lives.

"I was interested in how women whose careers are based on their looks, how they survive after those looks become less popular. What happens to somebody, and what is it like to be that person who is all about your looks and not your brain or anything else that you do - how do you deal with that?" explains the film's director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, on the phone from Upstate New York.

"I was interested in insecurity, I was interested in their take on surgery and facelifts, and I was interested in how they reinvented themselves."

The long-time film-maker and portrait photographer fell into the film almost by accident, deciding to make it after attending a party thrown by his friend, the hairdresser Harry King. "I ran in for a few minutes, and it was a room full of supermodels from the 70s and 80s who were his friends. I started to talk to them, and felt surprised at how interesting they were," he says, laughing.

Originating as a group photograph of the models of that era for Vanity Fair, the concept grew to include those who had found fame in the 50s and 60s - the likes of China Machado and Carmen Dell'Orefice. There were some that the director wanted to include but who weren't interested - he has mentioned Veruschka in previous interviews, and today says Twiggy would have been nice, "but she wanted to be paid".

Interviewing each woman separately in the studio, Greenfield-Sanders chatted to them candidly about everything from body image to drugs, ageing to racism. On plastic surgery, the typically sharp Rossellini ponders whether it's the modern equivalent of foot-binding, while 82-year-old Dell'Orefice opens the film with the killer line, "If you had the ceiling falling down in your living room, would you not go and have a repair?"

Though at times you want them to go deeper, their honesty is refreshing, discussing the darker side of the fashion industry that many prefer to ignore.

"I think I was able to get them to trust me and to talk to me in a way that you hadn't really seen them talk before," Greenfield-Sanders says, "I think most people ask them stupid questions, the same questions over and and over again; I wanted to take it deeper and I thought that they could take it. I thought that they were smart enough to be able to go deeper, and they certainly were."

Models China Machado, Carol Alt and Beverly Johnson with About Face director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, photographed at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Picture / AP Images
Models China Machado, Carol Alt and Beverly Johnson with About Face director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, photographed at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Picture / AP Images


It's not all about the dark side though. Lisa Taylor, a muse of Helmut Newton, talks of her creative respect for the photographer; the vivacious Pat Cleveland describes walking the runway as feeling almost orgasmic; Rossellini explains how modelling provided her financial independence away from her family.

She is one of the stars of the film, providing precise, intelligent insight into the industry and society's obsession with youth. Greenfield-Sanders remembers her arriving at the studio by subway - some others in the film were sent limousines - and thinking that she was a little surprised at how smart he was.

"I don't think she expected much. When it was over, we were talking and she said, 'I almost didn't do this, because I didn't like the title of your film'. We were calling it Ageless, and she said, 'I don't think Ageless is the right title for a film, because I think it implies that women are ageless but it's a different standard for men, and I think it's misogynist to use the word ageless with women'.

"At some point months later, the title got changed, and I called her and told her that we had changed the title, and she laughed and said, 'well I'm certainly not going to tell you how to make your film, but I'm delighted'."

Greenfield-Sanders' next film looks at ideas of age too, looking at the influence of baby boomers, interviewing the likes of Billy Joel and Eve Ensler; the day after we talk, he is heading to San Francisco to interview Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. He says he is considering doing something on male models, and has two other fashion films in the back of his mind - although don't expect a documentary on today's models.

"It's a giant industry today; it wasn't back then. It was run back then by a handful of agencies like Ford and Wilhelmina and today there are international agencies with thousands of women fighting for jobs, and tens and tens of thousands trying to be in the industry. Back then, it was a much smaller world, where everybody knew each other, they were very connected to the designers; which is not the case anymore. I think there's a certain loss because of that."

"[About Face] was an opportunity to make a film about people who had gotten famous for their looks, and then moved on - how did they move on with their lives? That story is interesting to me."


About Face: Supermodels Then and Now screens on the Rialto Channel on Thursday April 17 at 8.30pm.

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