Whatever happened to Demi Moore?

She was the first $12m female star, a player who made big movies and even bigger demands. But in the last five years, Demi 'Gimme' Moore has made precisely one film – well, two, if you count voiceover work on a Disney cartoon. Now it seems that she's reinvented herself (again) and is making one last bid for the limelight. Andrew Gumbel reports from Los Angeles

Monday 19 May 2003 00:00 BST

Watch out, Demi Moore is positioning herself for a comeback. Or so we are told. After six years of near-total absence from the big screen – and there are plenty who think that's the best thing that ever happened to her, and us – the one-time box-office queen is about to grace us with her presence once more.

As she has been telling anyone with the inclination, or the patience, to listen, she's playing a good girl-turned-bad in the new Charlie's Angels movie, Full Throttle. Granted, it's only a small part, not one of the three leads. (Three! What kind of agent has she got?) Granted, it's still several weeks before the film hits the multiplexes. But the energetic Ms Moore has been doing all she can to attract the attention of the professional gossip class under the guise of advance publicity: attending a premiere here; popping up at Lara Flynn Boyle's birthday party there; snogging with Colin Farrell at the Golden Globes; getting sued for allegedly making unseemly advances to a former employee. You know, movie-star stuff. It's true that being a movie star usually entails actually starring in a movie or two, not merely taking a cameo in a cheapo sequel to a cheapo TV spin-off. But you know what the publicity people say, and are no doubt saying even as you read this: if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck...

That well-known oxymoron, "informed Hollywood opinion", suggests that our Demi has tired of her years of seclusion as an ex-wife and mother in the wilds of Idaho, and is now itching to get back to what she does best. No, not acting – she was never going to set the world on fire with that – but playing the prima donna, working the system, being a player, getting back on top of the showbiz game. Many of her former colleagues remember only too well what that was about: swanning about on movie sets with a vast retinue of cooks, personal assistants, stylists and make-up experts; throwing tantrums at production assistants who failed to obey her every whim; forever complaining how rottenly, rottenly she was being treated by the studio, and sending them babysitting bills to cover the entire period of her absence from home. (Moore herself has denied indulging in such excesses. She said recently: "I'm sure there were people who thought I was a bitch, but all I did was strive for perfection.")

No matter, the reports are unerring. Moore has been spending extended periods in LA, staying at the Beverly Hills hideaway, L'Ermitage, and holding meetings to thrash out a game plan. The tabloids have been working away at her overtime, reporting in breathless tones how she has spent close to $400,000 on a full body makeover, including liposuction on her stomach, buttocks and thighs, collagen injections in her lips, porcelain caps on her teeth, and an operation to replace her breast implants with smaller ones. They also claim that she has hired a large staff of full-time fussers and pamperers, including a nutritionist, a personal trainer, a yoga instructor and a kick-boxing coach. Several tabloid sightings of her over the past few months suggest that she looks a total knockout, passing for as much as 20 years younger than her real age (she turned 40 last November).

All or none of the above may be true – one spoilsport columnist dared to suggest that she looked like a dog when she turned up in New York last autumn – but the reports nevertheless deliver one mess- age Demi can be pleased with: she's on her way back, and she means business.

She's certainly long overdue for a comeback. Her acting credits since her much-publicised split with Bruce Willis almost five years ago are not exactly a lengthy read. In fact, this is what they look like in their entirety:

1998: Zero

1999: Zero

2000: A turgid little film called Passion of Mind that sat on the shelf for well over a year before being roundly panned by everyone, including her co-star Joss Ackland. Then nothing.

2001: Zero

2002: Voice work on The Hunchback Of Notre Dame II, one of several shameless recent efforts by a flailing Disney to mine its back catalogue for much-needed new revenue. Further voice work on a series of Chevrolet adverts. Um, that's it.

If Moore has been taking it easy, it's partly because she can afford to. Not only did she clear several tens of millions of dollars in acting fees in the early- to mid- 1990s, she also had the luck, or presence of mind, or whatever you want to call it, to pitch in as producer on a certain low-budget vanity project by her mate Mike Myers back in 1997. That film was Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, which has, of course, gone on to spawn a mini-industry of its own, including two highly profitable sequels, The Spy Who Shagged Me and Goldmember. Clearly, there's no danger of a yard sale any time soon at Moore's 20-acre Flying Heart Ranch, the $7m mountain home just outside Hailey, Idaho, which she shares with her three daughters, Rumer, 15, Scout, 12, and Tallulah Belle, 9.

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The authorised version has it that Demi withdrew from Hollywood precisely to spend more time with her family. For three years, she went out with a karate instructor in Hailey called Oliver Whitcomb. He was said to be distrustful of "all that Hollywood stuff", and encouraged her to live far from the madding A-crowd. Moore broke up with Whitcomb some time last year and that, the official story contends, gave her the impetus to resume her relationship with the film business and her legions of adoring fans.

What this official version glaringly omits are the serial crimes against cinema that Moore committed in the years immediately preceding her disappearance from the Hollywood scene: The Scarlet Letter, GI Jane and, especially, Striptease. As conceived, Striptease was supposed to propel Demi Moore into the Hollywood record books, partly because it was considered unprecedented for an actress of her stature to take her kit off quite so brazenly for the cameras, and partly because her $12.5m fee was then the highest ever paid to an actress. (Julia Roberts and Nicole Kidman have since glided effortlessly into the $20m bracket, but that's another story.) Its only claim to fame, in the end, was that it turned Demi Moore from box-office gold to box-office poison in startlingly short order.

She might claim that her absence over the past few years is merely a way of keeping the appetite of cinema audiences whetted. Less is more, in other words. But that would neglect the fact that the Moore in question only ever was a Demi-tasse, never quite the whole cup. Critics have been wondering for years how a woman so strikingly devoid of acting talent or screen presence could do so well for herself. "What's the point of Demi Moore?" the New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane asked in his witheringly brilliant dismemberment of The Scarlet Letter. "It's not that I don't get her; I simply can't see what's there for the getting." Even in her box-office heyday (the surprisingly brief period from Ghost in 1990 to Disclosure in 1994), Moore was dependable only in the sense that Kevin Costner has always been dependable: anything she was in could be firmly counted on to be worth avoiding.

You have to hand it to Moore, though, for sheer tenacity. One look at her, on screen or off, and you immediately understand this is someone who would crawl stark naked across broken glass and rusty nails if that was what it took to make it. (And if you've ever seen GI Jane – described by one critic as "less of a performance than it is the Stations of the Cross" – you'll know she's come pretty damn close.) She may, in fact, be our first work-ethic movie star; what she lacks in natural charm she more than makes up in sheer grunting determination. Bike 30 miles before breakfast? Force a tomboy body into the Iron Maiden of Hollywood orthodoxy? Strip on the David Letterman show? She's done it all without, admittedly, any evidence of actual enjoyment, but willingly nonetheless.

Some chalk up her attitude to her inauspicious upbringing: the itinerant trailer-park lifestyle, the father she never knew, the alcoholic mother, the stepfather who killed himself when she was 13. Young Demetria – it sounds a classy name but actually it was taken from a brand of shampoo – showed extraordinary determination to escape the world she was born into. At 16, she married a rock musician almost twice her age and used his connections in show business to promote herself. At 19, the marriage was over, but she was on television in America's favourite daytime soap, General Hospital.

At 22, she kicked a drink and drug habit that had almost derailed her before she even got started, was cast in St Elmo's Fire, became part of the Brat Pack, and never looked back. "The quickest route to power in Hollywood," Moore once said, although she pretended that she was talking about someone else, "is to hook yourself up to someone who can put you in a good position, and make yourself a sex object."

It might have been easier to accept her rising fortunes were it not for her unfortunate reputation as a hard-knuckle, tantrum-throwing, spoiled Hollywood brat. "Gimme Moore", someone once called her, and the name stuck. She and Willis retreated to Idaho ostensibly in search of peace and quiet, but conducted themselves like veritable lords of the manor, buying up large chunks of the blue-collar town of Hailey and converting its shabby storefronts into restaurants and nightclubs for the weekend amusement of their Learjet-flying Hollywood chums. Until, that is, they got bored and closed most of the establishments down, without warning, and tossed hundreds of employees out of work.

Is this the Demi Moore who is now plotting a comeback? It is hard to believe that the world really wants to gather her into its embrace for a second time, no matter how carefully she has rehoned her muscles and her cheekbones. And, in her case, it's got nothing to do with her hitting the big four-o. The only director who ever truly got her was Woody Allen, who cast her against type as an Orthodox Jewish wife in Deconstructing Harry and actually made her funny. Otherwise, it has been one long parade of plodding mediocrity.

Remember A Few Good Men? Or The Juror? Didn't think so. Demi may fancy that she still needs the movies, but the movies surely don't need her. Do they?

Big names, big pay cheques, big trouble?

Arnold Schwarzenegger

He said he'd be back, and here he is (again) but this time to the tune of $30m. Yes, it's Terminator 3, but spot the differences – director James Cameron decided to have nothing to do with it, and co-star Linda Hamilton pulled out after reading the "soulless" script. Hmmm. Is this Arnie's last stand?

Bruce Willis

He's already had three chances to make Die Hard a winner, but fourth time lucky for 46-year-old Willis, who's filming it at the moment. He was supposed to be in the thriller Me Again (now there's an irony), but relinquished the role, allegedly after discovering the pay cheque was only £19m.

Julia Roberts

One of the highest paid actresses, Roberts commands almost £13m per movie. Reports are she turned down an offer to make Pretty Woman 2 for £6m. Her acting (as in The Mexican with Brad Pitt, and Runaway Bride with Richard Gere) doesn't seem as interesting as her love life. A movie about that, Julia?

Kevin Costner

Dragonfly made £10m for Costner, but didn't do much for his street-cred. Waterworld was notoriously expensive (£110m), and seemed to signal the career of a drowning man, as he went on to the non-acclaimed The Postman and Message in a Bottle. He is reduced to turning up at Cannes with no "product" to promote.

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