COVER

THE CHER EFFECT

CHER HAS EMERGED AS PROBABLY THE MOST FASCINATING MOVIE STAR OF HER GENERATION

BARBARA WICKENS March 6 1989
COVER

THE CHER EFFECT

CHER HAS EMERGED AS PROBABLY THE MOST FASCINATING MOVIE STAR OF HER GENERATION

BARBARA WICKENS March 6 1989

Dressed entirely in black—black leather jacket and crushed-velvet skirt, black stockings and boots—Cher emanates the aura of stardom. Still, the figure perched on the end of the long beige sofa in her New York City apartment seems strikingly different from the image that she projects on movie screens. The huge, expressionless eyes set in an impassive oval face are familiar enough. But the woman who in the past three years has graduated from mere celebrity to superstardom seems so small in person. Still recovering from an attack of flu, the five-foot, seven-inch star is slender, with almost translucently pale skin and tiny hands and feet that contribute to an impression of fragility. In conversation, she is strangely still, seldom moving her hands or raising her voice. But when she speaks, the words are vintage Cher, filled with the edgy bluntness that has made her one of Hollywood’s most outrageous and fascinating stars. “I don’t feel that I am here to be liked,” she told Maclean’s. “Certainly, if you make a personal statement as big as the one I seem to make, then a lot of people aren’t going to like you.” Now, Cher’s career is expanding in other directions.

Next month, she will be in Toronto to begin work on her next movie, Orion Pictures Corp.’s Mermaids. Scheduled to be directed by Lasse Hallström (My Life as a Dog), with Cher and British actress Emily Lloyd in leading roles, the movie will deal with the relationship of an itinerant mother and her two illegitimate daughters during the 1960s. At the same time, there were plans for the throaty-voiced Cher to record a new album during 1989 and the theme song for Chances Are, a movie starring Cybill Shepherd that is scheduled to be released this month. And some time this spring, Cher is also scheduled to appear in a major downtown Toronto department store to promote a new perfume.

In that, she will join a long list of stars who now promote their own toiletries and other products (page 46). Cher helped concoct a perfume, called Cher Uninhibited, that New York-based Parfums Stern Inc. put on the market last November.

Magnetic: The 42-year-old black-haired beauty of Armenian, French and Cherokee descent who began her career in the mid-1960s as part of the determinedly hip pop-singing duo Sonny and Cher has emerged as probably the most fascinating movie star of her generation. During a highly successful career that has made her a celebrity—first as a singer and television personality, then as a glitzy Las Vegas nightclub performer, and finally as an actress with a magnetic presence on the screen—she has managed to be at once boldly shocking and ultimately enigmatic.

Critics have accused her of being vulgar for the blatantly revealing clothes that she often wears. And in a May, 1986, appearance on NBC TV’s Late Night With David Letterman show, some viewers expressed shock after she called the show’s sardonic host an “asshole.” But Cher’s witty Oscar-winning performance as a love-smitten middle-aged woman in Canadian director Norman Jewison’s 1987 film, Moonstruck, proved that she is also a movie actress of considerable skill and sensitivity—and it established her among the handful of Hollywood actresses who can command multi-million-dollar film contracts.

Despite achieving the stardom that she had craved since she was a young girl, Cher’s life has included considerable tribulation. Like the character she portrayed in Moonstruck, she has formed a close relationship with a young Italian-American. At 24, Robert Camilletti is the latest of the younger men that she has favored since the breakup of her marriage to Sonny Bono 14 years ago (page 44). But the publicity surrounding her relationship with a man 18 years younger than she, particularly the persistent attention of reporters and photographers from the tabloid press, has troubled her. “I don’t expect these people to go through my garbage and crawl over my fence,” she told Maclean’s in an interview last month. “And then for people to say that I’m just looking for publicity anyway doesn’t make sense to me. But I also know the rules. Privacy and my business just don’t get along very well.”

Exhibitionist: Still, some of her stunning success is a result of her ability to attract attention. “What’s interesting about Cher,” said David Edelstein, movie critic for the New York Post, “is that she has no conception of privacy. She’s an exhibitionist, and I don’t mean that in a negative way. She projects honesty, rawness and emotionality. She wears her vulnerability on her sleeve.” Added Jeffrey Sagansky, production president at New York-based TriStar Pictures Inc.: “She’s unconventional in that she says and does what we all wish we could do. She’ll poke fun at herself. No female film star has her flamboyance. She’s more like a rock star than a film actress.” And there is another element—exotic and elusive—that contributes to Cher’s top-ranking star quality. Said David Denby, movie critic for New York magazine: “She has a look that is odd, a bit oriental and snaky. That’s the traditional definition of a Hollywood star—that you always want to see more.”

Crowded: The power of Cher’s appeal was dramatically evident last November, when Uninhibited made its debut on the New York market. When she made a personal appearance at Macy’s department store to promote the perfume, nearly 10,000 fans crowded around the store to see her. In the two-month period before Christmas, Uninhibited quickly became one of the top three best-selling perfumes in the 250 stores across the United States where it was available, accounting for $12 million in sales. Said Robert Brady, general manager of Parfums Stern Inc.: “Everybody just wants to have a piece of Cher.”

There is also a quality of menacing toughness in Cher, which was clear last month during a meeting in the star’s three-storey apartment on Manhattan’s lower East Side. Two Parfums Stern officials presented her with proofs of a magazine advertisement. Cher, who had previously approved the photography, evidently was surprised by the final result. When she quietly asked, “Where did you get this?” a shudder of anxiety seemed to pass through the room. Then, as she left to go up to the second floor of her apartment, those remaining began arguing over what had gone wrong. One executive furiously told another, “If I could put my hands around your throat. . . . ”

The affluence and power that Cher has achieved contrasts sharply with the humble, and at times threadbare, surroundings of her early life. Born on May 20,1946, in El Centro, Calif., 300 km southeast of Los Angeles, Cheryl Sarkisian grew up thinking that her name was “Cherilyn”—the name that her family and closest friends call her. (When she legally changed her name to Cher in 1975, she discovered that the name on her birth certificate was actually Cheryl.) Her mother, Georgia Holt, a former part-time model and actress, was married eight times—three times to Cher’s father, John Sarkisian. Cher recalls that Sarkisian, who died in 1985, was “a gambler and a drug addict.” She added, “That’s not exactly a profession, but that’s what he did.” Holt’s numerous marriages and Sarkisian’s aimless way of life led to frequent changes of address and periods of poverty for the family, which included Cher’s half-sister, Georganne LaPiere. At one point, Cher briefly lived in a charitable institution for homeless children while her mother worked at an all-night restaurant, and she recalls going to school with elastic bands holding her shoes together.

Launch: Restless and unhappy, she left school after Grade 10 when she was 16 and moved in with a girlfriend whose next-door neighbor was an engaging 27-year-old man named Sonny Bono. Cher later recalled that Bono put a proposal to her: “Look, I don’t find you particularly attractive and I have no designs on you. I’d like you to move in with me and keep the house clean and cook. I’ll pay the rent.” She accepted the offer, which would ultimately help to launch her show-business career. At the time, Bono was working as a junior assistant to Phil Spector, the legendary record producer who presided over 1960s hits for such groups as the Ronettes and the Righteous Brothers.

One day in 1964, while Cher was waiting for Bono at a recording studio, Spector asked her to fill in for a missing back-up singer. Cher, who was hoping for a break into show business, gladly obliged. Later that year, Sonny and Cher launched their career as a singing duo. Their fortunes soared when I Got You Babe, a song written by Bono, sold more than four million copies after it was released in 1965. They followed up with several more hits. But their musical success proved short-lived as new styles in rock music overwhelmed their low-key approach. As a result, they decided to make a movie entitled Chastity, which Bono produced. The movie, which did poorly at the box office, was memorable largely for the fact that it had the same name as the baby Cher was expecting during filming. Her daughter, Chastity, was born in 1969 (now 20, Chastity is currently studying film herself as a student at Manhattan’s New York University).

Profitable: The couple’s luck improved again when Fred Silverman, then chief of programming for the New York-based CBS television network, saw them during a 1970 guest appearance on The Merv Griffin Show. Griffin asked them to do a pilot for a summer replacement show. As a result, The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour made its debut in 1971—and ran for four seasons until poor ratings took it off the air temporarily in 1974. The television show led to a profitable partnership between Cher and Bob Mackie, the Los Angeles designer who still creates the eye-popping and often outrageous fashions that have helped make them both famous. By the time the Sonny and Cher show died, relations between the two stars had also deteriorated, leading to their eventual divorce in 1975. Later, Cher had her own briefly successful television show—Cher, which ran on the CBS television network from February, 1975, to January, 1976. Later that year, Sonny and Cher also reunited professionally for a two-season reprise of their television show back on NBC.

Cher next plunged into singing in Las Vegas, earning as much as $350,000 a week. Meanwhile, she was still determined to become an actress, even though few Hollywood producers or directors bothered to answer her telephone calls. Recalled Cher: “I just wanted to try it. I didn’t like the idea of someone saying, ‘We’ve decided you can’t do this other thing.’ ”

Cherished: Cher finally received her long-cherished break into acting when Robert Altman (Nashville, M*A*S*H) offered her the role of Sissy, a small-town tart who attends a reunion of a fan club dedicated to the memory of movie star James Dean in Altman’s 1982 off-Broadway production of Ed Graczyk's play Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. Although critics were unenthusiastic about the play, Cher received rave reviews. She was later in Altman’s 1982 movie version.

While the play was running in New York, director Mike Nichols went backstage and offered Cher a supporting role in his movie Silkwood. Released in 1984, Silkwood starred Meryl Streep in the role of Karen Silkwood, a nuclear-power-plant worker who died mysteriously after attempting to expose her employer’s safety infractions. Cher’s role as Dolly Pelliker, Silkwood’s lesbian roommate, required her to appear without makeup and wear several layers of underwear to make her appear heavier. Recalled Cher: “The first day I put on Dolly’s clothes, I started to cry. I wanted to look a little bit better.” Still, the part won Cher an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress.

Groupie: Cher’s next movie role was in director Peter Bogdanovich’s 1985 Mask. In it, Cher delivered a grittily convincing performance as Rusty Dennis, a real-life California motorcycle-gang groupie whose teenage son, Rocky, suffered from craniodiaphyseal dysplasia, a disease that grossly disfigured his face and head.

By 1987, her movie career had begun to soar. She starred in three movies, appearing first with actor Jack Nicholson—a personal friend—in the horror-comedy film The Witches of Eastwick. Then, in an effort to prove that she could handle serious roles, Cher played a Washington, D.C., lawyer who defends an accused murderer in Suspect. But the third of her 1987 movies—Canadian director Norman Jewison’s romantic comedy Moonstruck—has been her greatest success to date.

Cher says that she almost passed up the chance to star in Moonstruck because she thought that the role of a middle-aged New York accountant who falls in love with a fiery young man working in an Italian bakery might not suit her. “She thought it was dicey,” recalled Moonstruck’s Los Angeles-based producer, Patrick Palmer, who wanted Cher for the part. “The script was a little off-centre. It took many trips to her house and to New York to persuade her.” On the set, added Palmer, Jewison wanted more Loretta—Cher’s character—and less Cher. Said Palmer: “She gave Norman a run for his money.” In the end, Moonstruck earned Cher the best-actress Oscar at last spring’s Academy Awards presentation.

She now says that she looks back on 1987 as an exhausting period in her life. Besides making three movies, she recorded an album of songs entitled Cher and appeared in three videos based on tracks from the album—I Found Someone, We All Sleep Alone and Main Man. As well, Cher travelled to Europe four times during the year—three times to promote her movies and once to promote the album. “I will never do that again,” she said. “I think I’m Superwoman but I know I’m not that strong. It was really stupid, but I had never done that before and it took doing it to realize that I should never do it again.”

Relentless: Still, she has shown no sign of slowing down in her relentless pursuit of success. Part of Cher’s hectic life is devoted to her two children, Chastity and 12-year-old Elijah Blue, the son from her second marriage, to rock musician Gregg Allman. Recently, Cher sold her 31-room Benedict Canyon house to comedian Eddie Murphy and is now looking for another site in the Los Angeles area. When she finds the right piece of land, she plans to build a house almost identical to the one she sold. “I loved that house a lot,” explained Cher. “But I’ve finished with it and now I’m ready to go someplace else and start again. I’m not one for getting results. I like starting projects and doing them. I think that is why I keep switching my professions.”

Her venture into the perfume business began after Michael Stern, chairman of Parfums Stern, approached her last year. “She was highly visible at the time,” recalled Stern. “She had just received the Academy Award nomination, and I was surprised that she did not already have a perfume.” According to Parfums Stern, market research showed that Cher’s name was recognized by 96 per cent of those surveyed—the same percentage that knew who Ronald Reagan was.

After signing a multimillion-dollar contract with Parfums Stern last April, she personally helped to choose the exotic floral and spicy scent that now carries her name. Uninhibited goes on sale in Canadian department stores this month at prices ranging from $36 for a 1-1/2 ounce bottle of toilet water to $400 for a 1.65 ounce bottle of perfume.

At the pinnacle of her success, Cher is unrepentant over the incidents that have brought her the sharpest criticism. She told Maclean’s that she insulted Letterman on the air “because he is such an asshole. He can be so mean and he thinks that his IQ is so much higher than most of his guests’ that that gives him the right to trash them.” Of her flamboyant clothes, Cher said: “I believe in my work. When I go out to do my work, I dress appropriately.” Looking back on her career, she says that the important changes never came about according to any plan but simply because each move seemed like a good idea at the time. “Everyone thinks you are on top of things if you happen to have a string of successes,” she said, “but I never know what I am going to do.” Still, she does have some definite goals in mind for her acting career. One is a determination to perform in roles that have an effect on the people who see her movies. When she first became famous as part of Sonny and Cher, she recalled that “I didn’t like being famous for no reason. I would rather do something that touches fewer people more deeply.”

Another goal is simply to keep acting as long as possible. Said Cher: “When you get to be a certain age, you don’t get the parts. But there happens to be a whole lot of women right now in my age group and we’re pushing with our fingers and toes and hands and everything so that we can still get the chance to do the thing that we like to do.” After 25 years in the limelight, 25 years of proving people wrong when they told her what she could not do, Cher is not about to disappear quietly. And for millions of fascinated Cher-watchers, that can only be a welcome development.

CHER: IN HER OWN WORDS

In a relaxed and thoughtful mood, Cher talked with Maclean’s Associate Editor Barbara Wickens in the star’s apartment in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village on Feb. 16. Among her observations:

• On acting: My sister, Georganne, said to me—I think it was when Mask came out, I don’t even think it was when Silkwood came out—‘I’m so glad you’re talented. I was so frightened you wouldn’t be.’ It was exactly what I was thinking, too, because I had no idea that I was going to be talented. I just wanted to try it.

• On the Academy Awards: Meryl Streep told me once: ‘You never do a part to win an Academy Award. It’s just a bonus.’ And I think that’s the truth, that you don’t wish for it—it’s really fabulous to get, and the moment you get it is unlike any moment in your entire life. It’s like having a child. You don’t know what to compare it to, and no one has given you any kind of instructions to know what to expect. It’s just unbelievable.

• On fame: When Robert [Camilletti] and I first got together, I was just making The Witches of Eastwick and we had a relatively long, happy time before any of the movies came out and when people didn’t really care about me. It had been such a long time between Mask and Witches, everyone had kind of forgotten me. It’s not fair that you can’t keep much of your private life, but it is the way it is. It’s also not fair that I can make more money in a year than some people make in their lifetime. It’s just the way it is. I didn’t make the rules.

• On being a public personality: I saw a photographer on television the other night who was saying, ‘Oh, these people will do anything for publicity to sell their movies, and then they get angry when we take pictures of them.' I felt what he was saying was such a bastardization of what I do. I believe in my work. But I don't expect these people to give me no privacy—at least the same amount of privacy that any American deserves. That photographer also said that Michael J. Fox didn't have the right to a private wedding. I was wondering where it got so perverted, where it got so that we had no rights?

• On Los Angeles: Los Angeles is my home and so I’ve been friends with the same people my whole life. After the Academy Award, I must say things changed. I remember the day afterward, Robert and I went to a place called Duke’s—where I’ve been going my whole life—and people were stopping and yelling on the streets, ‘Yea, Cher.’ I’ve been famous my entire life. But when people look at me a certain way, it takes me a second to realize what they’re doing. It takes me a minute to figure it out.

• On drugs: I just don't get it. I mean, the idea of going up to some guy on the street and buying drugs from him when you probably wouldn’t take directions from him and putting some substance into your body that’s going to eventually distort your life and kill just doesn’t make any sense to me whatsoever. I’d rather start a bonfire and burn my money than do drugs.

• On women: I don’t think I’m much of a feminist. I’m a woman’s woman. I really like women. I really want to see them succeed. I really feel that, on one level, women have really been screwed. But I’d much rather be a woman. I think there’s so much more opportunity in being a woman than there is in being a man. I like men a lot, but I just think we’re better. I just think we’ve got more possibilities.