Revenge of the Starlets

The subspecies synonymous with dazzling, showstopping entrances and a white-hot flash of paparazzi frenzy, starlets have roared back in the '90s with a vengeance--and a twist.


Starlet. The very word conjures up images of spectacular young lookers armed with wild ambition, steely determination and unapologetic exhibitionism. The girl perpetually poised on the brink of stardom has been an iconic figure in the Hollywood dream from the very beginning. In the Golden Era of studio-system Hollywood, knockouts on the make, some destined for fame, others for oblivion, posed tirelessly for shameless pinup shots clad in skimpy garb or exploded out of cakes at studio parties. In the '50s, aerodynamic sex bombs like Jayne Mansfield and Terry Moore posed in bikinis and tight sweaters, jostling with barefoot Beat Girl rebels like Tuesday Weld and Diane Varsi to dominate the era of 3-D and the drive-in movie.

By the '60s, frothy beach party confections like Sandra Dee and Connie Stevens coexisted with hip-booted, tousle-haired, hog-riding sex kittens like Ann-Margret and Nancy Sinatra. By the '70s, the new-style, non-frivolous Ali MacGraw and Katharine Ross were as much It Girls as the bodacious, old school starlets like Raquel Welch. In the '80s, buddy movies and feminism threatened to render the starlet extinct. But as the decade wore on, Madonna came along to reinvent starletdom for postmoderns, giving fresh cachet to all the image crafting, pose striking and showing off that are the starlet's stock-in-trade. And thanks to the way Madonna began consciously appropriating the style and moves of Marilyn Monroe, Jean Seberg and Louise Brooks by turns, starlets have roared back with a vengeance in the late '90s--with a twist.

The postmodern starlet comments on the fun and absurdity of starletdom while reveling in brazenly selling herself to the limit. She works the crowd and embraces the contradictions while effecting cool irony. Even an actress as serious as Minnie Driver plays the starlet game openly. If today's starlet has done her homework, she knows she could end up a dimly remembered cupcake, but no young actress who's managed to become a paparazzi target would ever really believe in such a fate.

Donna D'Errico

Statuesque, stacked and shamelessly camera-friendly, she looks like a '60s Playboy-video-Bond-girl fantasy babe reincarnated. But even if Donna D'Errico did spend two tanned, pneumatic, eye-popping years on Baywatch, she put the saving spin on it all with her spoofy appearance as a guest host on the E! channel's Talk Soup. The flashy, teasing photo sessions for which she's prized show her humorous appreciation of starlet glory days and her affection for the more baroque of her statuesque predecessors. D'Errico radiates so much infectious fun doing a nouveau Stella Stevens thing that you've got to wonder if, as with Stevens, maybe there's a touching, versatile actress under all that wriggly blondeness. Can she take this act to the big screen? Well, there's Candyman: Day of the Dead (straight to video!), but a project that would land her credibility isn't inconceivable. D'Errico has some of that '50s TV-to-movies blonde Anne Francis in her. A stylishly sexy thriller in the Francis vein would do splendidly.

Penélope Cruz

The top-drawer starlets are those who've already shown they're serious actresses but are too young and scrumptious to suffocate in overly prestigious surroundings. Penelope Cruz radiates the same pensive va-voom that helped make international stars out of onetime starlets Sophia Loren and Romy Schneider. She's a thinking man's European starlet. Having shown off her unforced sensuality and quietly assertive presence in Jose Juan Bigas Luna's Jamon Jamon and Pedro Almodovar's Live Flesh, she made her bid for Hollywood recognition opposite Billy Crudup in The Hi-Lo Country. The movie didn't do the trick, but it helped her win the role of the independent-minded, ravishingly beautiful young rancher's daughter who deepens the idealistic wanderer played by Matt Damon in the upcoming movie version of All the Pretty Horses. A Madonna-level superstar in Spain, Cruz knows how to I work her image, and as the winner of Spain's Oscar equivalent for Best Actress, she doesn't need to worry about being mistaken for a dumb, manipulated piece of eye-candy. With luck and canny career choices she could quickly become the millennium's pure product--a global starlet.

Amanda Peet

Like most starlets, she's been cast in roles that almost invite you to dismiss her. But Amanda Peet tends to stand out in them, thanks to pushy wide-screen features. She simply demanded to be noticed as the office fox who flirted with George Clooney in One Fine Day, and she effortlessly outshone Sarah Michelle Gellar in Simply Irresistible. She exudes a deadpan, been-there-done-that sexuality that makes you think maybe she's not just a campy fashion model who got lost between the runway and the soundstage. She could, in fact, be one of those starlets who develops terrific comic chops. Writer/director Michael Cristofer saw something in her when he cast her as a messed-up, emotionally inscrutable club-hopper in the upcoming Body Shots. That movie may begin to tell us whether Peet is just an endearingly watchable ingenue or a coltish, brilliant comedienne like the classic '50s madcap Kay Kendall.

Tara Reid

As the bikini-clad trophy wife and adult-film queen in The Big Lebowski, Tara Reid radiated such wicked Lolita-esque trampiness, it's no wonder she sparked a mini-replay of what happened when starlet Sue Lyon did her thing for Kubrick. Reid has a knack for narrowing her gaze appraisingly, tossing off a bitchy line and proffering her body like a tray of hot hors d'oeuvres. In the gonad-driven American Pie, she plays one of the choicest high school seniors fixed in the sites of a class of guys obsessed with scoring. In the more challenging Body Shots, she's a lost, too-cool-to-live downtowner. Reid is a true postmodern starlet, absolutely free of any tiresome reluctance to display herself as a mantrap. Reminiscent of the teenage Melanie Griffith who vamped Gene Hackman in_ Night Moves_, Reid could do worse than ring a few changes on her persona (a la Griffith's Something Wild) and keep the variations on the starlet thing happening for years.

Jodi Lyn O'Keefe

The combination of upper-class beauty, precocious assertiveness and sunny sex appeal harks back to Ali MacGraw in Love Story and Cybill Shepherd in The Heartbreak Kid. As the daughter of Don Johnson on Nash Bridges, 20-year-old Jodi Lyn O'Keefe has mastered the impersonation of a pampered, spoiled Ivy League daddy's girl who might willingly shove a guy over the edge without batting an eyelash. And she proved she could translate her alter ego to the big screen when she played the terrorized private school beauty in Halloween: H20 and the high school senior bitch who dumps Freddie Prinze Jr. in She's All That. It's too soon to guess, though, whether O'Keefe has it in her to become a rightful heir to edgy Sharon Stone-type man-killer roles or whether she'll end up the next Jennifer Connelly.

Rachael Leigh Cook

That fine-boned beauty has sharpened right before our eyes in a way that recalls an earlier child actress who made the leap to adult roles, Natalie Wood. But Rachael Leigh Cook also has a likably kooky, off-kilter vibe that brings Tuesday Weld to mind. The edgy, brainy, boho loner she played in the surprise hit She's All That was so winning it was almost a letdown when Freddie Prinze Jr.'s character helped unleash her inner knockout. Like Weld, Rachael (note the attention-getting spelling) prefers to rebel against the most obvious starlet maneuvers. That could be why she chose to star with sensitive young Elijah Wood in the teen heartbreaker The Bumblebee Flies Anyway instead of some hipper fare. Cook's classy looks and bearing set her apart from many of her less subtly nubile contemporaries. She's a starlet by virtue of age, beauty and career position--a starlet by default, in other words. One role that shows off the actress in her should catapult her right out of the category.

Rebecca Gayheart

A history of modeling for Noxzema and acting on soaps like All My Children and Beverly Hills 90210 set her up to be the ultimate starlet cliché. Playing a scared sorority sister in Scream 2 and the villainess in Urban Legend added a certain camp quality to the equation. But Rebecca Gayheart seems sturdier than all that B material would suggest. Maybe it's her Italian-Irish-German-Cherokee heritage or her rural Kentucky upbringing that gives her such a tangible edge. Her singular looks sneak up and startle the camera. She was out to show she was no garden-variety starlet with the black comedy Jawbreaker, but that film turned out not to be her Heathers. Maybe her starring role in Kevin Williamson's new TV series wasteLAnd will be the breakthrough. With her good-time gal appeal, she just might be a classic in the making, a Pamela Tiffin crossed with Meg Foster, with a little Kirstie Alley thrown in for seasoning.