Busy being free

Stardom generally means idiotdom - nobody home or everything for sale. But the French actress Emmanuelle Beart is beautifully different; she fights for what she cares about whether her paymasters like it or not. And they don't. By Serena Mackesy
No matter how accomplished an actor may be - nor how wooden - there is one role that confers a kind of sainthood, one job offer that confirms admission to the Pantheon - more even than the chance to play the lead in the next Scorsese picture, or an offer to open on Broadway from Lord Lloyd-Webber. That role is The Modelling Contract, that siren call to become The Face Of ... Estee Lauder or Chanel or Givenchy or Yardley or Oxfam. Except that it is rarely the latter, for the offer is this: come, be beautiful, be mute.

One of the scions of the modelling world explains her industry's infatuation with actors thus: "Fashion companies all want to use actors. Photographers find it more interesting - they say actors can give more". Among those who have been giving lately are Elizabeth Hurley (to Estee Lauder), Helena Bonham Carter (to Yardley), Melanie Griffith (tapping the white trash market for Revlon), Juliette Binoche (fronting Lancome's Poeme perfume), Elizabeth Shue (Gap), Sharon Stone (LA Eyeworks and Valentino), Raquel Welch (LA Eyeworks), Tina Turner (hosiery), Lisa Marie Presley (Versace), Demi Moore (Donna Karan) and Drew Barrymore (Guess jeans). And there are men in the field as well, of course - Rupert Everett, Bruce Willis, Carlos Leon (father of Madonna's child) and Tim Roth to name but a few.

All very nice: modelling contracts promise easily won supplements to the hard-won Hollywood deals. But the endorser, it seems, is expected to do more for her money than look nice. She has to behave herself as well. This means more than avoiding scandal and making sure you wear the right labels. It means that, to keep the sponsors sweet, an actress has to bite back her opinions as well.

Take the case of Emmanuelle Beart, 30, beautiful and talented star of such films as Manon des Sources, La Belle Noiseuse and Mission Impossible. According to the French magazine Voici, Mlle Beart may soon cease to be the visage of Christian Dior. The company is said to be considering whether to renew the star's contract; she may be replaced by Isabelle Adjani, who will be sporting Dior clothes at the Cannes Film Festival in May. Mlle Beart's alleged offence does not involve sexual misdeeds, drug taking, alcoholism or public brawling, but activism. Dior don't like her because her face doesn't fit.

Other reasons are being offered for her possible dismissal. It does, indeed, seem that Mlle Beart is lax in conforming to the letter of her contract, failing to make factory visits and being stroppy about which specific products she endorses. There must have been sharp intakes of breath through perfectly painted lips when, questioned about her taste in perfume, she replied "I wear it very rarely. I like to be natural: I like the smell of skin". But the real reason is this: she has got involved in the protest against France's immigration laws, and was photographed being hauled from a church in August last year during a demo, and again in February while marching against the government with her hair scraped off her face and wearing not a scrap of make-up.

There are, of course, many people who think that Beart looks much better without make-up, and that signs of some sort of commitment in a notoriously shallow business are signs to be applauded. Not so Dior. One can see their point, of course: they have, after all, a wealthy client base, and many wealthy people are pretty right-wing, or at least conservative. And if all Dior's clients took to scruffy jumpers and rubber-band-controlled hairstyles, the couture houses would be out of business.

What is strange, though, is the broader reaction to Beart's activism. There have been rumblings and criticism about politics not being an actress's place ever since Glenda Jackson, Vanessa Redgrave and Jane Fonda brandished their own beliefs. Beart is coming in for the same treatment. But why? Why does the public believe that working in front of camera is enough for a woman, that she has no right to opinions as well? Chris Morris's Brass Eye recently did a terrific job of demolishing the celebrity tendency to espouse causes without questioning their validity, but this doesn't mean that all belief on the part of a celebrity is necessarily wrong.

It seems, however, that, to the public at large, it's much better for an actress to sell a foundation than to support one. We're quite happy for beautiful, often talented, women, to fritter their lives away endorsing the pretty things of life - dresses, jewellery, make-up, perfume. What they're not allowed to do is address the serious. If an actress lets rip on subjects that affect the very fabric of our lives - freedom of speech, freedom of movement, human rights - her voice is likely to be drowned out in a chorus of boos. Brigitte Bardot has met with nothing but contempt for her espousal of animal rights. Certain camps seem to think that Julie Christie should shut her pretty little mouth on subjects like arms sales to Iraq and Indonesia, or interventionist politics in South America. And Glenda Jackson has had to give up her first career altogether in order to pursue an active role in politics.

It all seems a bit hypocritical at bottom, and there is a certain smack of the grand sexual double standard at play here. No one much seemed to think that Ronald Reagan's interpretive career should stop him being president. Gyles Brandreth continues to subject us to his word games and jumpers. And people, perhaps because of the confusion between actresses and models these days, seem to have forgotten that, in fact, to be a really good actress you have to have a really good brain.