Accidental Heroes of the 20th Century

23: Cher, Singer and Actress
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THE JOURNALIST who wrote that in the event of a nuclear holocaust all that would survive would be cockroaches and Cher probably meant it as an insult, but is there not something rather heroic in the way Cher keeps reinventing herself and thus adding to the general store of public amusement?

As she said herself a few years ago: "Being ridiculous is a dirty job, but if someone has to do it, it might as well be me."

If Cher is a joke, though, it is a good one, and do not imagine for one moment that she is not in on it. Someone who started out in show business wearing a fun-fur waistcoat, a sequined bra top and hip-hugging flared jeans, as one half of the implausible pop duo Sonny and Cher, knows that she will never be taken entirely seriously.

In his Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson describes Sonny and Cher as "the horny little guy amazed that he had this languid statue. Their timing was drugged and dead on. When they sang together it was absurd and delicious."

When Cher divorced Sonny in 1975, the banter that drove their kitschy but very successful American TV show turned nasty and there was a deal of public vilification. "We were flippant and full of ourselves, and didn't pull punches," says Cher. "We made great copy."

If only every show-business personality were so aware of their duty to the reading public.

Cher's next very public partnership was with the archetypal Seventies rock star Greg Allman, whom she once described as "a heroin addict and a gentleman". What was described as an on-off relationship lasted two years, long enough to produce a son and a famously silly album called Allman and Woman.

Subsequent relationships, chronicled by the world's media, have tended to feature partners who are not her contemporaries - young men in tight trousers, such as the bartender Rob Camilletti, and most recently Richie Sambora, guitarist with the rock band Bon Jovi

Received wisdom is that Cher has the surgeon's knife to thank for her continuing physical acceptability to these young beaux, which she partially contests (she'll admit only to having had a bit of a wash and brush-up in the area of breasts, nose and teeth) while no doubt accepting that the stories make "good copy".

Through it all - the toyboys, the public spats, the alleged surgery - Cher has produced some fine work: middle-of-the-road rock music that continues to sell remarkably well, and at least two excellent screen performances, in Moonstruck (1987), for which she won an Oscar, and, especially, in Silkwood (1983), where she played Meryl Streep's feisty, working-class lesbian friend and seemed to be more herself than in any other previous incarnation.

Cher is 53 next birthday, her attitude to which is refreshingly forthright. "I hate my fifties," she says. "They suck. When I was 40, I was playing opposite somebody who was 21, and nobody noticed. But at 45, as you start to look older, all you can do is look good for your age. You have to wait till you can play the Shirley MacLaine/ Anne Bancroft roles. So what am I supposed to do? Like, go camping for 10 years?" She clearly does not intend to slip quietly into middle age.

But can you imagine an even older Cher, at 80 for instance? Easy. Unattached, the actress rattles around alone now in her splendid Malibu mansion, and claims to spend the days doing pottery and needlework and watching old movies. She's turning into Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard.

In an age of rock'n'rollers who behave like accountants, and actors who live like monks, Cher may be the last genuine star. "Ready for my close- up, Mr De Mille."