A screen goddess needs more than good looks

Despite the fame her red carpet appearances have attracted, Liz Hurley is not much respected it seems
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The Independent Online

Emma Thompson's late bid for a more glamorous sort of stardom has been delighting newspaper editors. No more worries about where to find an eye-catching front-page picture, or a splash of excitement for the traditionally frothy page-three slot.

Ms Thompson has been out and about more or less every night for the last fortnight, draped in diva-style Maria Grachvogel outfits, dripping with old-Hollywood best-friend diamonds, tottering on towering heels and swathed in fluff and feathers. Sunday night's Bafta triumph had nothing to do with awards. For once Ms Thompson came home empty-handed, but no one will remember that. More gorgeous photographs of her have been taken during February 2004, than have been previously amassed in her entire career.

And that is most of the fun of the spectacle. It's nothing new to see actresses vying with each other to gain the most attention by looking the loveliest. Many of them would not have a career to speak of, if they were not so brilliant at this part of the job.

But Ms Thompson has always been a bit stubborn about accepting that flashing the flesh as thrillingly as possible is part of the film star's curriculum vitae. She's always going for a more English style - arms tangled up in a grim homespun shawl, make-up touchingly wonky, and feet resolutely flat. It's not that Ms Thompson has never looked nice before. It's more that she always strived to emphasise that what she looked like was neither here nor there. That's one of the things we liked about her.

Most of us, though, like the good-natured transformation into swan stuff too. Notably though, Ms Thompson's mother, Phyllida Law, seems chagrined by her daughter's metamorphosis, and has shared her views uncompromisingly: "It takes Emma about four hours to doll herself up at the moment and, frankly, it's too much effort. Hair, make-up, nails, wax, exfoliation: the list of what women past a certain age have to go through is never-ending.

"Plus, she has a young child, so it's just not practical. To be honest, I'm not sure whether I like these dresses, but I'm Emma's mummy, and I'm used to her doing things like this, and there's nothing I can do to stop her."

Ms Thompson has shared her views back: "I'm afraid I've got some very bad news for my mother regarding the time it takes me to get ready for a night out. It took me three or four hours to glam up for tonight, and I think it's absolutely necessary. I don't want people taking pictures of me looking like some old bag lady. It will take longer and longer to fight the battle against a bad photo until one day, a long time in the future, when I resign myself to defeat and go out without a drop of make-up and wearing a tea cosy."

Which is strange actually, because all of my visions of Ms Thompson looking like a bag lady, without a drop of make-up or wearing a tea cosy, come from the past. Maybe this is what worries Ms Thompson's mother. Most people assume that the ability, at 44, to go out sporting a backless dress, blonde hair extensions framing one's cheekbones, and pedicured toes winking in the flashbulbs, is a sign of tremendous confidence. Maybe, instead, this is an indication of mid-life crisis, the equivalent of a man suddenly buying a two-seater sports car, even though all he ever does in a car is take the three kids to the park with their bikes.

If it is, it's a rather more attractive look than the dad in a bucket-seat look, even if it costs nearly as much. And anyway, Ms Thompson admits herself that her embrace of grooming and glamour is a lot to do with her age, and the feeling that she might as well have a final fling in the dressing-up box before senior citizenship starts to limit her wardrobe.

Anyway, there's every indication that much of her past reticence, unbelievably, was bound up in Ms Thompson's lack of confidence in her looks. She once called herself a "hulking great bluestocking" and has said that in the past her feminist beliefs had restrained her ability to dress in an overtly feminine fashion. Frankly, her discovery so late in the game, that she can, after all, do screen goddess, is charming. How splendid, to wait until your mid-forties to decide to have it all.

And how shrewd. While it is enjoyable to see Ms Thompson's ebullient enjoyment of her new found allure, it is also clear that such resort to the more shallow end of celebrity is just for fun, something Ms Thompson does not have to do in order to keep her career on track. Her reputation as an actress is utterly assured. Some actresses, dressing as Ms Thompson has been lately, would be branded as desperate. Ms Thompson, though, does not live and die by glamour.

Yet her casual appropriation of the stock-in-trade of the glamour girl perhaps serves to illustrate how brittle the existences of those who rely too much of their physical appearance to boost their careers. Poor old Liz Hurley has become the woman everyone loves to hate now. She is sniggered at for the thigh-slashed dresses that she looks no better or worse in now than she ever did, in anticipation that this cannot continue for too many years more. She continues to be cast in films, even though she has never been in a good one, because said thighs, as well as her face, can always be guaranteed to drum up publicity.

But despite the money and fame her red-carpet appearances have attracted, she is not much respected, it seems. This weekend, the director of her new film, breaking one of Hollywood's "unwritten laws", launched a pre-release attack on her. Suggesting that she trowelled foundation into an acne-scarred face of a morning, Duncan Roy reminded a public which is reminded constantly anyway, that Ms Hurley's time as the possessor of young, firm and smooth-looking flesh was almost up. (Though for the time being at least, it seems from his other revelations about life on set, one man at least still wishes to have sex with her.) She's 38, and already Ms Hurley's career is poised atop the skids.

It is possible that Ms Hurley is as carefree about the future as Ms Thompson, possible that she has enjoyed her time in the limelight, wearing her over-the-top frocks with post-modern glee, and looking forward to an absurdly early retirement into gardening.

The signs are not good though. Ms Hurley, as a matter of fact, is a keen gardener. But even when photographed at a nursery buying plants and pots, she was criticised for leaving the house in old wellies and without make-up. When she let the constant scrutiny get to her, and told the press that its intrusion (and its insistence on calling her Liz instead of Elizabeth) made her want to move to Switzerland, the nation gave a cheer.

It's an interesting contrast. The woman who built her career on the red carpet is sniped at as past it when she reaches her late thirties. Another woman, a few years older, can stake her first claim to the same territory and find that the public loves her for it.

Ultimately, all it says is that women are despised as much as they are worshipped for relying on their looks in life. Women such as Emma Thompson, generally agreed to be talented, can be given permission to enjoy the bonus of admiration. Women like Ms Hurley, whom few people argue is much more than a pretty face, are eventually asked to pay for the easy ride they're perceived as having hitched.