Profile: Decent gets you nowhere: Demi Moore - She sought fame. But notoriety served her purposes equally well. Michael Pye on a woman who knows where she wants to be

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The Independent Online
AT FIRST it seems like simple lese- majeste that Demi Moore could dare compare herself to Katharine Hepburn. Hepburn has been a presence for 60 years, a grand actress whose history includes the Thirties and Forties when Hollywood movies were built around her. Demi Moore has been hired for a handful of hits, and her fame rests, otherwise, on a notorious magazine cover and a famous marriage.

But fame it most certainly is. In the past few months Demi Moore has achieved a global ubiquity. In Britain, where her latest film, Indecent Proposal, was released last week, it is difficult to open a popular newspaper or magazine without finding her face and her body. The temptation here is to look back at Hepburn and conclude sadly that stardom has changed: sex and hype have replaced higher qualities - acting, 'personality' - as the route to Hollywood fortune. In fact, the careers of both women have a lot in common. Both started young and untrained, both flourished on publicity. Hepburn had studio contracts and allowed herself to be presented by publicists. Moore freelanced, and built her own reputation by acting like a star even before she could claim to be one.

The real difference is the climate in which a woman star has to operate - a much tougher climate (paradoxically, given the changed status of women) than Hepburn knew in her early days.

Moore is now among the most expensive woman actors in Hollywood, at a time when Hollywood usually sees a woman's role as mobile decor or a cipher. There are very few meaty parts for women, and ferocious competition for those there are. Stardom depends more than ever on creating and taking chances - chances such as Moore's performance in Indecent Proposal, which makes a 'moral dilemma' out of a hard-pressed couple's opportunity to make a million dollars as the price offered by a rich and infatuated man (Robert Redford) for a night of sex with the wife (Demi Moore). The wife takes the chance, just as Moore herself has been doing for the past 15 years.

SHE WAS born 30 years ago, the daughter of a peripatetic salesman of newspaper advertising space and a drunken mother. In 1976 the family came to rest among the scruffy apartments of West Hollywood, where her father walked out and Demi, aged 13, was left to prop up her mother's life. Later, she discovered that her 'father', who killed himself just before her 18th birthday, was not her biological father.

At 15, she discovered a purpose. There was a girl with a German accent down the hall, an actress whose English was not quite good enough to read scripts. Demi admired her style, her maturity and career, and decided she wanted to be just the same. This mentor, although Moore does not like to say, was Nastassja Kinski.

The trouble was that Los Angeles, then as now, was full of ambition and fine cheekbones. At 16 Demi had done some modelling and spoken two words on television, but mostly she worked in a debt-collection agency: 'I had to call people and say all that mean stuff to get them to pay up.' At 17, she was on the cover of the men's magazine Oui, more or less dressed; inside, she wore less. At 18, she was pursued by a giant slug in 3-D in the most forgettable movie, Parasite. She was as anonymous and as dispensable as any other starlet.

She needed a bridge between simple good looks and being an actress, and found it in daytime television soap operas, the starting point for many movie careers. At 19, she joined General Hospital as the new love interest. At last, there were press releases about Demi Moore, a fan club, promotional tours during which she once distinguished herself by grabbing a televison host, in her words, 'by the old crotch-o-rama'.

She says reporters exaggerate this wild-child phase of the early Eighties - the parties, the drink and the drugs, and the collapse of her three-year marriage to the British rock musician, Freddy Moore. But this was the time of Hollywood indulgence, when kids got through school on Quaaludes, pot and alcohol, and even powerful Hollywood figures got lost the same way.

Moore was hired to play a cocaine addict in St Elmo's Fire, the film which assembled most of the so-called Brat Pack of Hollywood - the young and cute and noticeable. When she turned up for make-up tests, she was, as they say, 'wrecked'. The director warned her: sober up, or be fired.

She has since looked back on those years with guarded remorse. 'The need to be accepted was so great that I found myself doing things that were not necessarily what I wanted,' she said. 'And it brought a lot of pain.'

She still seemed very far from stardom, from the careers of 'Katharine and Ingrid' (Hepburn and Bergman, that is) that she so much admired. She was complimented by Time magazine, but only as 'solid and believable'. But she was learning the business, from good teachers. She was involved with Emilio Estevez, scion of a minor Hollywood dynasty and son of the actor

Martin Sheen. When they broke up in 1987, she married Bruce Willis who had emerged as the new hot action star.

There was carping. Moore got work, people said, because of her choice of co-stars and boyfriends - that, and a talent for crying on cue. Her response was robust: 'If I've picked good partners and good leading men, well, good for me. That means I'm smart.'

As Mrs Willis, she was immediately famous. Her scrapbook filled with stories that she went to screenings only as Mrs W, that her husband was furious at her spending sprees. 'I thought of it in terms of my career,' Moore has said, 'not my personal life. The most important thing was that I approached it in a smart way.' The couple wouldn't pose together for sweet, domestic magazine covers, nor would one talk about the other. 'I had my own agenda,' Moore said. 'To reach a certain level of notoriety based on the quality of my work.'

She was 25 when she married, nine years into her career, and there were still no certainties. She chose a dangerous path in a back-biting town: to play the star, whether or not she yet was one. She became known as 'Gimme' Moore - for her prodigious entourage, her demand for a personal limo when filming on an island only one mile square, for the number of bodyguards she requires with no very visible threat. Demi, Hollywood discovered, did not take scheduled flights. She made it her business to know which studio flew the most comfortable private jets.

Terry Hughes, who made The Butcher's Wife with her, accused her in print of being unable to take direction. 'Very offensive,' Moore said. 'I was fighting to make the movie good, not crying for orange juice on the set.'

This was put down to ego and greed, or to her lack of background as an actress. But it was also a strategy. 'I think being a star serves you as an actor,' she has said. 'The whole movie star element is not just the fans and having your picture taken. If that's working in your life, then you are going to get an opportunity at some of the best roles.'

Her opportunity came with Ghost, an unlikely romantic comedy in which the hero is dead, and the heroine loves him through tears. 'Being married to Bruce,' she insisted, 'did not get me the part.' It was a humane film among a parade of technocratic horrors in the summer of 1990. In less than a year, it sold dollars 203m-worth of tickets in America alone and Demi Moore, for the first time, had choices.

She knew that a woman can fade almost instantly, unlike most male actors. She knew her most reliable living would still come from her other career: as the sultry, sexy voice-over for television ads selling sneakers and spaghetti sauce. She also knew she would still be going to auditions knowing there were always plenty of other women in contention (Kim Basinger, Sharon Stone, Michelle Pfeiffer).

SHE HAD to make her own notoriety, anything to separate her from her rivals. She found it standing naked and grandly pregnant on the cover of Vanity Fair. The cover produced (Vanity Fair counted) 95 television stories, 64 radio shows, 1,500 newspaper articles and a dozen cartoons. Body-shy American provincials covered Moore's belly on the news-stands with a white wrapper.

'I think we used each other,' Moore said later of Vanity Fair. 'I would say in the usage of each other we were equal.'

This is not the usual kind of publicity - in which a high-paid publicist, in return for a percentage of a star's earnings, tries to make sure only useful things are said about the client. This was a coup which involved Moore's acquaintance with the photographer Annie Leibowitz, Leibowitz's clout at Vanity Fair, Vanity Fair's hunger for stunt covers involving known names and a certain chic attaching to pregnancy at the time. 'She is,' as one friend observes, 'one of the great bawdy ladies.'

She has to care about being noticed. She still reads the stories written about her, even after years of spurious appearances in the tabloids; she even reads the letters that follow the stories. She nurses a grand nostalgia for the days when 'the media and the studio worked together'.

'Working with Demi is like working with Rita Hayworth,' according to Bruce Joel Rubin, the writer of Ghost. 'You really feel a person in charge of her own career, not just as an actress but as a movie star. She's fashioning herself a star's career and persona.'

Rita Hayworth, of course, ended badly; we seem to expect that of a woman star. They fade; men retire. They despair; men invest. They drink; men have a social life. Demi Moore is quite determined not to do what we expect.

(Photograph omitted)