You don't get to be Hollywood's best-paid actress by acting coy. Just ask Demi Moore

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Indy Lifestyle Online
I've always wondered what could be bought for $12m apart from an office building or a small hospital. Twelve very big ones will be the pay day for Demi Moore's next movie, which started shooting last month. It's called Striptease and, it will surprise no-one who has followed her career in the movies or the gossip columns, she is the star of a film in which women take off their clothes. But before we get to Moore naked, let's talk about the numbers.

Well, no; let's talk about Demi Moore first. The actress was in New York last week to promote her new movie, The Scarlet Letter, based on the Nathaniel Hawthorne classic. She has top-billing and looks like she's always been Hollywood's number one, the best-paid actress in Tinsel Town. Her dark hair hangs down like some rare substance found only on other planets. Maybe that's how she spends her money - buying impossibly exotic hair products at $1m a bottle.

Fame-wise, Moore is nouveau riche. It seems she's been on our billboards forever but she didn't constellate until 1990, when she starred with Patrick Swayze in Ghost. Before that, there was Young Doctors in Love (1980) and the The Seventh Sign (1988), among a dozen other obscurities that now surface only in games of Trivial Pursuit.

So she struggled early on and posed nude for Oui magazine (1982), but who hasn't? Now she has super-suite status in posh hotels like New York's Regency and she can talk about all the money. So, can she confirm the hype? Is she Hollywood's best-paid actress? "That's what they say." She laughs and plays with her alien hair, shrugging her shoulders with a touch of girlish embarrassment. "So far. Tomorrow may be different." She sucks her bottom lip between her teeth - something she seems to do when her answers won't quite come quickly enough.

That's Demi Moore - nothing taken for granted and always a little on edge. This is an actress with the most competitive instincts and she wears her wealth like she's had it forever. Her fame may be nouveau, but her style is not. In the luxurious surroundings of the Regency, she's dressed in soft blue jeans and a black knit T-shirt. There's a plain wedding band on her hand. A classy pair of diamond earrings occasionally glitter beneath her hair. On a gold chain around her neck hangs a matching diamond. When this isn't flashing, her eyes are. There is nothing ostentatious, and plenty that is graceful.

The huge sums she now earns may faze some people, but not Moore. She sees her pay days as a standard for other women. "The sum itself is inconsequential. The mark in time that women are finding an equivalent box office response to men is what's more important. The attitude changing is more important." In other words, she brought in the punters for Disclosure, not Michael Douglas, and she'll do the same for The Scarlet Letter. QED, Demi Moore gets the bucks and so should her fellow actresses.

It's hard to imagine who would dare to pay her less than a man, let alone suggest that $12m may be too much. "The day that happened to me, when I got that deal, I was really grateful. It changed the business for all women." Moore says the fees for A Scarlet Letter and Striptease have set a new standard for female stars that the industry will now have to follow. "Tomorrow, it may be another woman earning more than me, and that's OK, because in turn, that feeds back to me."

Not to mention future Demi Moores like her daughter, who looks like she could already play her mother in the early scenes of The Demi Moore Story. Rumer Glenn is enjoying being with her mother in New York while her siblings are in Idaho with their father, Bruce Willis. She scampers around with Moore's PR people, a young kid in ponytails.

Moore has stressed repeatedly how much store she sets by a stable family. Her children often come on the set with her and she's been known to delay shooting if the children need her for something else. Moore says Bruce put it best when he told Cosmopolitan that everything else seems pretty stupid alongside the "beauty and joy" of having children.

It may sound like the familiar patter of phoney PR-babble, but this isn't Moore simply doing the happy-families routine. Moore's father was a hard- drinking ad man working local newspapers across the western states. And she does not enjoy being reminded of those years. "Before I was 15, I'd never attended the same school for more than six months. When you change schools a lot, you don't really grow up with a strong sense of yourself. At one school, I'd be popular; at another, I wasn't." That must have been fine preparation for facing a movie audience, and Moore has put the lesson to good use.

There were times when the ambition almost fell apart. Moore got her first real notice in St Elmo's Fire, a buddy picture in which she co-starred with Emilio Estevez. With typical chutzpah, Moore rode up for the audition on a large motorcycle. After the movie pushed her up a few notches in the Hollywood game, she entered a relationship with Estevez and became a serious party animal. That phase lasted as long as it took Columbia to tell her she had to get straight. Few stars have ever taken such advice as quickly as Moore. Her need to be a star seems to have driven back any self-destructive impulses.

At 32, she's raking in the loot and doing it for women everywhere. "I never thought 'being the best-paid' was something I had to achieve," she says. A bit more lip chewing, the sparkling eyes thinking it over. "I'm grateful that the producers were willing to show their faith in what I would contribute to the film by paying me the money. It was not only showing a belief in me but in all women and what they see women are beginning to bring to this industry." The $12m woman pauses for effect. "And it has been a long time coming."

Moore is pursuing this theme elsewhere in movies that she says explore the lives women have to lead, women like her mother, maybe. Now and Then is a case in point. Moore has co-produced the low-budget movie as an essay in female bonding. Critics are preparing to dismiss it as a "chick flick". She repeats the phrase with a little menace: "'Chick flick', hmm." She puts a finger in her ear and scratches, another Moore mannerism when she's thinking. "I'm not offended by the description. But I'll tell you the big surprise - men love the movie."

The film stars Moore, Melanie Griffith, Rita Wilson and Rosie O'Donnell - although they all play second fiddle to the girls who portray them as 12-year-olds. "I think men will be charmed by the movie," says Moore, wanting me to believe and flashing a smile of enormous wattage. "Even though it's dealing with non-guy stuff like relationships, the period - the Seventies - really speaks to all of us through the music and the clips of old TV shows. Even though the guys are supporting players, they can all relate to the search for love and affection."

Some say Now and Then is an act of redemption for Disclosure, where her portrayal of hard-nosed super-bitch Meredith Johnson was criticised by several other leading actresses. If Moore sees herself as flying a banner for women's causes, she has yet to convince the likes of Michelle Pfeiffer, who remarked that offering herself to Robert Redford for a million dollars in Indecent Proposal wasn't going to do a lot to further the cause of women, or Meryl Streep and Susan Sarandon, both of whom criticised her characterisation in Disclosure. Moore defended playing the latter role, despite its obvious sexism, as part of her groundbreaking agenda. More cynical observers saw it as just another rung on the way to the big bucks.

She leans back and the dark cascade of hair ripples over her shoulders. Now I see why English director Roland Joffe had to have her for Hester Prynne, the outcast heroine of The Scarlet Letter. "Her face was beautiful from regularity of feature and richness of complexion," wrote Nathaniel Hawthorne, describing Prynne. "She has dark and abundant hair, so glossy that it threw off sunshine like a gleam." There's no sunshine in this hotel room but if there were, Moore's hair would fling it against all four walls at once. Hair, however, will not save her from the critics lining up to massacre The Scarlet Letter.

Imagine if Quentin Tarantino came to England and directed Tess of the D'Urbervilles as a romance in which Tess did not hang and all her enemies were annihilated by marauding Celts. That's about the kind of liberty Joffe has taken with The Scarlet Letter. The ending has been radically altered from the book. Moore has a saucy love scene with co-star Gary Oldman that certainly wasn't written by Hawthorne, and native Americans massacre most of Prynne's foes. In the movie, Oldman and Moore both do some serious over-acting.

Oldman has heard the criticisms of the changes and shrugs them off. Moore is much less relaxed. She feels compelled to repulse the charges as though her big salary makes her the poster girl for Hollywood's artistic values - but then many have said The Scarlett Letter is her audition to become a more serious character actress. The reception the film gets is probably more important to her than Oldman.

"I think the book is very dense and not very cinematic," says Moore. "Had we been doing a TV mini-series, maybe we could have been more faithful." It's clear the rising flak irritates the actress. "We take the audience on such a sad and tragic journey of loss and pain that the ultimate message of Hester Prynne would have been lost if we'd stayed with the original ending."

Hawthorne scholars will bristle at the thought of a literature lesson from Demi Moore, but that won't stop her. Above all, she is growing into the confidence that comes with being the A on the Hollywood A-list. In her future, Moore sees directing and writing and plenty more movies. When pressed, she will talk about her relationship with Bruce Willis but only to say they are as steady as a rock.

Bruce Willis always looks like the kind of guy to shoot pool with and drink tequila and Moore looks like that's the kind of guy she needs. For now, it's definitely who she wants. People magazine put her on their "Ten worst dressed list" this year and she scoffed at them. "Bruce and I will not dress to the role people want for us," she says. "We're around our children a lot so we're not going to be in a tux and a gown the whole time."

And sometimes Moore will not be wearing anything at all, which brings us back to Demi naked. Pregnant and naked but for body paint on the cover of Vanity Fair, raunchy sex scenes in Disclosure and now a movie about getting naked for a living. Is she exploiting some of her more obvious assets? What does Bruce think? After all, they say Willis is a jealous guy. "I would never do anything that would embarrass either myself or my husband," she says. After that, it's a question of the context. "Striptease is a great political thriller but it can't be done without some nudity. That's how Carl Hiassen wrote it and this time we'll be faithful to the book."

She smiles. Moore is where she wants to be and now we'll wait to see how she exploits her dominant position. She knows she'll have to exercise careful judgement. The pinnacle she sits on now was once occupied by Kevin Costner, and he was not the first to show how gold can turn to dross.