Cover Story

The girls of autumn

Lawrence O’Toole November 13 1978
Cover Story

The girls of autumn

Lawrence O’Toole November 13 1978

The girls of autumn

Cover Story

Lawrence O’Toole

Céline Lomez cranes forward, cupping the brandy snifter with her hands. Some strands of raven hair, pasted there, lodge in an amber glow. In the soft, splayed lighting of the elegant restaurant her long black lashes fling shadows below her dark brown eyes, which are as big and as expressive as a baby’s. She palms the snifter, lifting the trapped golden hairs to her mouth; her full lips meet the glass and drain it. Then, as she sucks in on a cigarette—a Gitane—her high cheekbones are highlighted to the hilt. A curl of white smoke drifts languorously from her nostrils.

A woman—fortyish, courting dowdiness—timorously approaches from the next table. “Excuse me,” she murmurs, raising several fingers apologetically to her throat. “I couldn’t help but notice you. I know that it might sound funny for me to say this because I’m a woman, but, I...” Pratfalls of prose. She continues: “I just

have to say that—well—you have the sexiest voice I’ve ever heard.” The woman finishes with a shivery little smile. “You aren’t an actress by any chance, are you?”

“Yes, je suis, I am an actress,” Céline Lomez says, thanking the woman and asking her name. Céline tells the woman to watch out for her in a movie called The Silent Partner. The woman swears she’ll go see it. “You really are sexy you know,” she says, shaking her head, returning to her table.

“It’s nice, om?” asks Céline Lomez. She runs five fingers through her hair, grazing her chin off her shoulder.

Oui

Céline Lomez has the luxury of being beautiful.

A few days later at the Holiday Inn at a place called Toms River in New Jersey, where she is shooting TheAmityviUe Horror, Helen Shaver, winner of the Best Actress Etrog this year for In Praise of Older Women, is slouched at a table. Long-

limbed, svelte and lissome, with high cheekbones and a deep, husky voice to match Lomez’, she’s casually attired in green corduroy pants, boots, a loose-fitting man’s shirt, a tattered checked vest minus several buttons, and loads of ornate hardware. Her makeup is haphazard; her curly blonde hair frames her face in a mess of disorganized ringlets. A grownup, sexy, Little Orphan Annie.

n elderly lady slowly makes her way to the table, asks Shaver whether she’s seen her on TV, possibly on Mero Griffin. Shaver confesses to her profession. “I just knew it,” the little old lady burbles. “Can I have your autograph?” Helen asks the woman her name, inscribes a piece of paper and sends the little old lady away, glowing.

Earlier this summer in Boston at a

sneak preview of John Avildsen’s encore to Rocky—Slow Dancing in the Big City, a fairy-tale romance between a newspaper columnist modelled on Jimmy Breslin and a modern dancer suffering from a disease-two girls, barely post-pubescent, gaze at the actress on the screen. “Isn’t she simply exquisite?” pines one of them. “Yes, isn’t she lucky,” counters the second. The story of Ann Ditchburn’s discovery by Avildsen (he saw her photo in The New York Times and singled her out above a thousand other hopefuls for the lead) is by now a happy cliché, the stuff of theatrical legend. Ann Ditchburn (United Artists is calling her Anne Ditchburn) is also a dancer with the National Ballet of Canada and the choreographer of some 17 ballets, including Mad Shadows, perhaps the best pop ballet ever made in this country. She has the washed-out, wan beauty of a Degas dancer. She’s almost wraith-like. Vivid blue eyes supply the only coloring in her face. Her nose is small and perfectly chiselled. A down of light hairs around the jawline helps sparkle the pallor. “I’m

quite anonymous in the street,” she says. “Choreographers are anonymous people. But that will change next week with the release of Slow Dancing. I might be a movie star.”

Céline Lomez, Helen Shaver and Ann Ditchburn are all urgent possibilities; they could become stars in their own country. All three share a similar, startlingly husky voice, classically sculpted bones, brains, an easeful sensuality. They are models with feeling. Time was when they would have been called starlets—girls who would try their damnedest to stand on their heads and spit nickels if they were told to—but that time has passed. The new glamor means brains, not boobs; sensuality, not gratuitous gender; direction instead of ambition. When and if their beauty fades and fails them, they’ll turn to their other gifts, give full vent to another outlet. Burden though it might be at times, beauty is also a boon; and Lomez, Shaver and Ditchburn are the girls who made good on the luck of the draw—the

girls of this autumn.

The trio represents a new breed of actress: up-and-comers with stylish drive. Beauty being the commodity it is, they are intent on marketing it themselves, careful not to let anyone else exploit it for them, distrustful of slippery, helping hands. They run their own shows, pass up the fast flash and the quick buck, and hold out for the future.

he kittenish character Ditchburn plays in Slow Dancing might catch fire with an audience currently craving sweetness and light. There’s also something tantalizingly remote about her in the movie; she’s pure and inaccessible—an object to be viewed out of reach, and her hauteur adds to her sexiness. The beauty threatens to ice over any minute. Look, but don’t dare touch. Lomez’ career after her performance in The Silent Partner (see page 70) should really start to soar: there’s no reason why she shouldn’t become Canada’s next exotic, erotic French-Canadian .star, her viscous voice the lullaby to send males off to sleep with their fantasies. The enthusiastic, exquisitely equine Shaver is waiting for that big, international break—a thoroughbred waiting, poised, for the gates to fly open. She’s the girl next door who can show anyone a good time with

her smile and her patter.

Immensely determined, all three are carefully calculating their next and every move.

Last year Shaver, 27, turned down an offer from Hollywood, a seven-year deal to make five TV movies and two features. “I just wasn’t going to sign my life away,” she snaps. Lomez, 25, offered the lead in a movie days after The Silent Partner was released in England, says she’ll take the part—on condition she’s allowed to make additions and subtractions to the character (“a bad girl”) herself. For several months Ditchburn (deceptively older at 29) has been mulling over an options contract with United Artists; she’ll wait to see how the new movie will do.

he also had the smarts, as did Shaver, to get a U.S. agency behind her. (Personal management in Canada is not one of the country’s protean assets.) “I made it a little difficult for my agents,” recalls Ditchburn. “When I hired them I said ‘You know you’re not going to make a lot of money out of me. I really only want to do specific films and I want to continue my dance career.’ ” She got what she wanted, and continue she does: three new ballets for a new chamber ballet company called Ballet Revue (Elizabeth Swados, who created Broadway’s long-running hit, Runaways, is composing music for her; she got a film version of Mad Shadows off the ground; she’s tightening up Shadows for future performances. Simultaneously, she’s steeling herself for an intensive publicity blitz in the U.S. to coincide with the movie’s release there this week. (It opens in Toronto Nov. 17.) Recently Vogue dubbed her one of the people “People Are Talking About.” Like Shaver and Lomez, she has the chutzpah to take her time and consider, the canniness to say “No” at the turning point. And they wrestle with the fact that they’re Canadian.

Lomez and her twin sister were born in Montreal and adopted by a middle-class French-Canadian family when they were a year old. That her father was Argentinian and her mother Italian accounts for her striking coloring and features. (There is no accounting for that voice.) Ditchburn was born in the grey mining town of Sudbury, Ontario, grew up in Toronto when her parents divorced, and spent much of her time at the National Ballet School. Most of the people who remember her from that time term her “slightly difficult” and “slightly withdrawn.” Shaver is the second youngest of six daughters by a French-Canadian mother and English father from tiny St. Thomas, Ontario. Her dad drove trains. And look at them all now. It’s a familiar story, still fascinating, the envy and admiration of the luckless.

When Shaver trotted off to Hollywood four years ago with five Canadian movies

to her credit, she was told to come back when she was a star in her own country. “ ‘Look,’ I told him, ‘you don’t know Canada. We don’t have stars.’ ” Her tune has changed to up-tempo: “It’s marvelous now in Canada for the film industry. It’s like being a baby. Everything is wide open, a blank sheet. Now Canadians are having the chance to be themselves—just like me.” Ditchburn believes “we’re cautious, not willing to take chances and be bold. It affects one’s personality and it affects, one’s work. The film camera (which she claims likes her; i.e., she is photogenic) sees everything and if you restrict yourself—and it’s a restrictive quality we have—it shows on camera. When I see that happening I say That’s bullshit.’” Lomez is less opinionated, but as practically oriented: she’s deciding whether to move from Montreal (where she is already well known as an actress and a singer) to either Toronto or L.A. She favors the former—if there’s enough work there.

ornez and Shaver are saddled with the demands of a certain contingent who crave their curves. A Playboy spread on Shaver, yet to be released, has been bothersome from the outset. uPlayboy asked me to pose and I said no. That’s a magnificent point to begin negotiations, don’t you think? Then they asked me what I wanted to do for them and I decided to give an interview and do some pictures, provided I had the right of approval. We shot in black and white. I think it’s really more mysterious, far more subtle than the pink and white polyester Playboy nudes.” (She patently refused an offer from Penthouse.) The spread for Playboy includes everything from a distaff James Dean in leather jacket and seamed stockings holding a can of beer to a cleaning lady on the order of Carol Burnett’s, except her skirts are hiked up somewhat further than television would deem healthy for its consumers. They were shot in Paris, some of them in Salvador Dali’s apartment. “The nudity is minimal,” says Shaver staunchly. “What’s seductive is the game.”

Lomez began acting when she was 16, in low-grade movies made for the skin trade. She was once even approached by Roger Vadim to play the lead in an upcoming movie, the only stipulation being that the leading lady in this picture would also become his next wife. (Vadim’s track record for this double deal includes Jane Fonda and Brigitte Bardot.) Lomez graciously demurred. While playing a stripper in Gina she felt “a certain hostility from other women friends. Now I know how to use the sex object as a weapon. I’m learning from it, using it.” (“Never is much skin showing in Slow Dancing,” Ditchburn points out, “unless you want to count rubbing my thigh with liniment.”)

Both Ditchburn and Shaver have been through disastrous marriages; Lomez cut off a seven-year relationship before taking on The Silent Partner. Independent, strong-willed and private, they all flinch when asked questions of a personal nature, as though a code of behavior they live by is being violated. They’re offering their talents, not intimate glimpses into their lives. Like most post-liberation women they manage to be aggressive without being coarse. Businesswomen. Sensualists. Amateur seers. Hopefuls.

“I wanted to see what I was capable of, to push myself to a new frontier,” Lomez reflects, partially summing up the odyssey of all three. “In Silent Partner I was dancing with great partners. ‘It’s your step now,’ I kept telling myself when it came time for my scenes. And, now, I do believe I’m a good dancer.”

“Acting has become therapy for my very elaborate fantasy life,” says Shaver. “For a while back in 1970 I thought the world didn’t need another actress, so for

about six months I took up nursing with the intention of working with emotionally disturbed children. But I missed the therapy. Acting is a business of seduction and illusion. The writer seduces the director with the script and the director seduces the cast with the direction, and they act out the illusion for him. I miss that too much if I go away from it.”

As for Ditchburn, she’s deliberately, even desperately, trying to lose her “littlegirl voice,” trying to toughen up. “My little-girl voice is something I’ve never liked [her voice in the past often segued from mezzo to a Minnie Mouse squeak]-1 think it was a reflection of feeling insecure and intimidated. Slow Dancing seemed to have changed all that for me.”

Searching for themselves, not quite sure of the range of their abilities, the trio will probably pull through because they’re pros. Lomez, for instance, never had any compunction about doing her nude scene in The Silent Partner. “For the second you do it, you forget about it because it is a job. There’s also several thousand dollars invested in the scene, and it can go higher if you do it wrong.” Shaver will finish her role in The Amityville Horror in L.A. several months after shooting in New Jersey. Won’t it be hard for her to recreate the character after such a gap? ‘That’s what I’m paid for,” she replies.

eyond the professionalism is something else; call it a need to be accountable to oneself or what one is doing. ‘The person who plays Beethoven wants to seduce Beethoven, not the people listening,” says Lomez. “That will take care of itself if you find that perception you’re after. I have a contract with myself to find that. I want to excite the erogenous zone that’s called the mind. I’m thinking of a large range—character, density, eyes, like Irene Papas.” She draws attention to her face by throwing out a rigid stare: “I might not look like this when I’m 30. But I don’t ever want to sit around in a chair with a cat and a shawl. That’s why I’m studying with Strasberg. If I know the autopsy of acting it will be there for me to fall back upon.”

Despite the push, the hard work, the hundred cunning considerations that go into a career, the girls of this autumn have a quality that places them aside from others who push, work hard, and engage in cunning considerations. Beauty, for want of a few better words.

Céline Lomez walks down Toronto’s main street in the dappled, late-autumn sunlight of an afternoon. Her hair has another, different, amber glow. Heads turn. The looks aren 't leers.

When Gary Cooper tells Ingrid Bergman in Saratoga Trunk that she’s beautiful, she slowly turns profile, thinks for a moment, and says, “Yes, isn’t it lucky?” Perhaps it should be left at that. P?