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Liv Tyler - right Girl, right place, right now!
by Nick Compton, Arena, June 1997
She's done the hot young babe thing, she's done the rock star dad thing to death. For Liv Tyler, world's most lusted-after teenager, what's past is gone, what matters is the moment - and her moment is now
Liv's a big girl now. But she's not totally grown up. Not gone all the way. The screams and giggles and gurgles that come from behind the thick black curtain of the dressing area - the Mr Bean zone where Liv Tyler is being mutated from gangly New York, thrift-store boho to super-slick ultra vixen - belong to a teenage girl. They are teenage noises; emphatically, undeniably.
She's in there with Summer, her best girlfriend. And Summer is here to hold her hand and be a teenager too; to turn the dressing into dressing up, into fake pre-party-time fun. Then she teeter-totters out, six foot plus in heels, all legs and lips and perfectly sized nostrils in a perfectly sized nose with big happy, sulky eyes; all the fixtures and fittings of powerful photogenics. And she stops in front of me - slumped low on the studio sofa - and pulls up her skirt. "Look, look at my bruises." Teenage girl's legs! I struggle for air and she teeter-totters away.
In a moment she is arranged across the top of an armchair, limbs at crash-victim angles with her booty aimed high. From where I'm sitting, the view comprises visible panties and in-your-face sexuality. It makes me a little sad and embarrassed.
Not for her. She knows what she's doing. She can turn it on and off at will, that thing she does. No, not for her but for the machinery which has me slumped low and embarrassed in the sofa and has her backside in the air as if an over-zealous customs official were about to go to work. She's just a kid. A multiple-magazine-cover, modelling-since-pre-pubescence, worked-with-Bertolucci kind of kid, but still a gangling, giggling kid.
But that's what she's about, the late-Lolita thing, the late-flowering teenage beauty discovering her sexuality, learning to play with it. It is the slight clumsiness, the bruises on the leg that appeal. That's what Bertolucci saw and what everyone who sees her images in magazines knows. Even her dad sees it. "Liv is aware, she's putting her sexuality first because it's so pure and beautiful now. Bertolucci saw it, I see it, everyone sees it. It's a pure thing," he told Arena Homme Plus last year.
And why should I worry? Liv's having a great time, running over and screaming with approval at the latest batch of Polaroids, striking drama queen poses for Summer to laugh at. Liv knows what she's doing and she's having the time of her life.
Liv Tyler is 19 years old and has a little time left as the most famous and lusted-after teenager on the planet. But that's all right, her third decade looks as if it is going to work out just fine. She is just back from London where she was talking to British director about a part. It's a role she admits she has been obsessed with for over a year, and before we meet she's been told it's hers. She won't tell me what the film is or even who the director is; top secret, natch. According to her publicist - unobtrusively ever-present with a cell phone where his car used to be - this, and another glittering prize role she has just landed, should make Liv full-on Hollywood A-list.
She has made just six films, most of them modest-but-decent. Bertolucci's Stealing Beauty - in which lovely Liv's not-yet-lost cherry is fought over by various unpleasant Euro-brats in the rolling ochre hills of Chiantishire - is her biggest role to date. She followed that up with Tom Hanks's directorial debut That Thing You Do!, the modest but decent story of a Sixties beat combo. Next comes Inventing The Abbotts, a very modest but very decent tale of small town lust and wrong side of the tracks angst in Fifties America. All good due-paying stuff. But her next two moves on the La La Land snakes and ladders board should take her to the top. All this makes her happy.
She is also deeply and very publicly in love. She met Joaquin Phoenix, brother of River and Summer, and Nicole Kidman's homicidal stooge in To Die For, on the set of Abbotts. Joaquin (formerly Leaf; Tyler patiently tutors me through the correct pronunciation of the new moniker twice) turned in a star-making performance. He also walked away with Liv's heart. This is a young lady full to bursting with pure love and low-down lust for the Phoenix boy.
In between her posing duties we are flicking through a magazine and spot an ad from the latest Prada campaign featuring Phoenix. Joaquin is away filming in Utah, so maybe her feelings are super-charged by the absence, but suddenly she coos like a bassier Marilyn Monroe for one of her Kennedys and purrs like a Lauren Bacall for her Bogie.
"Grrrrr," goes the Bacall in her. "Oh, he is such a babe, ohh, he is so beautiful." She points out her favourite features on his face. "Look at his little lips, look at the face, ohhh, I miss him so much." Liv is clearly happy as only a teenage model-turned-actress in love with an actor-turned-model, both with the world at their feet, could be.
Despite some glitches - she had an unhappy experience filming a small role in Woody Allen's musical, Everyone says I Love You, and then saw her efforts cut from the final film - Tyler is cruising to credibility. She has pulled clear of the latest hot young babe thing and established herself as an actress. And made it look easy.
The hot young babe thing
The credibility thing. Right now the media machinery is chewing up and spitting out hot young movie babes at an alarming rate. Babes, babes, babes; babes with bit parts in slasher movies, babes who play beautiful aliens and vampires in gory splatterfests, babes in cheesy sitcoms, babes in modest-but-decent American independents. Babes neatly packaged on double-page spreads, a bit of T&A and a Q&A about when they lost their virginity and the possibility of working with Francis or Martin and how Norman Mailer or John Cassavetes were constant house-guests during their formative years though, of course, they never knew it. He was just Uncle Norm.
Liv knows about the hot young babe thing. She has ridden this rodeo and held on for dear life and come out of it alive and credible. It pisses her off, the whole game, but she has played it very smartly. "Every time I look in a magazine there are these one-page things and they're saying that this person is the latest hot young thing and everyone in Hollywood is talking about them," she says. "And you're like, there are a hundred of them. How can they all be the latest hot young thing? Why can't they just be a good actor who made a good movie?"
Of course magazines have jumped all over Liv because she is a hot young movie babe with an angle. The angle with Liv, in case you missed it while you were in a three-year coma, is that she is the daughter of Aerosmith's Spandex-clad (ex) smack-head super-dandy, Steven Tyler, and "super-groupie" Bebe Buell. Not just that, but Liv spent the first ten years of her life believing that rock monster and one-man slaughterhouse Todd Rundgren, was her father. No wonder the press went for it, it's good lurid stuff.
Maybe the fact that Liv spent most of her childhood in Maine, the American equivalent of Devon, and not watching Iggy Pop jacking up in the bathroom or Robert Plant driving his Rolls-Royce into the swimming pool doesn't make good copy. Nor, for that matter, does the fact that her three parents seem to have done a pretty good job of bringing her up. Liv is warm, funny, bright and curious. Maybe Dr Spock wouldn't have approved but Liv turned out all right.
Whatever, Liv's tired of talking about all that. "Everybody talks about it, over and over," she says. "You know, I'll be 80 or something and somebody will say, 'So tell me about your childhood.' I really love it when people say, 'Well, I've read it all before, but tell me what really happened.' I'm like, butthole! You read it, that's what happened and maybe I don't want to talk about it any more."
Maybe a key to Tyler's appeal is that she did turn out all right. She's living proof that something good could really come out of the Seventies scene she was born into, an era marked as one of hell-bent hedonism and moral degeneration, when the tainted promise of the Sixties really hit the veins. The generation of young movie hot-shots above Liv Tyler - Winona Ryder and Uma Thurman and, ironically, the Phoenixes - all seem to carry and struggle with armfuls and headfuls of Sixties baggage. Maybe that's Liv's appeal: she doesn't appear to be struggling with anything.
I chat to Summer Phoenix for a little while, before Liv gets a free moment to join me. Summer's the same age as Liv and acts as effusive sidekick. We talk about Sheffield and Leeds where, for some reason, she has spent a lot of time. And we talk about life with her famous family in Florida. Then she talks about Liv. "You know the thing about Liv is that she is so pure and open and vulnerable but also really strong." I know it sounds like Summer's just flown in from Planet Cheese but all this seems heartfelt and I believe her.
Tyler has been welcomed into the tight Phoenix family set-up. And she clearly likes and needs that family feeling. "They're incredible," she says. "They're beautiful girls [Summer has two sisters, Rain and Liberty], the sweetest girls I have ever met.
"The first time I met Summer and Rain I was really nervous because I had been with Joaquin for a couple of months and it was the ultimate test," she says. "I walked in and they gave me a hug and a kiss and I'd never known that before, it was really nice."
She remains very close to her mum, her manager until last year; clearly adores Steven and is even starting to spend time with Todd Rundgren again after a long estrangement. She says she's keen to have kids, though not just yet. Right now it's family and friends that matter, especially with fame starting to exact its demands.
"I've never wanted to believe that I couldn't have a normal life, I'm in kind of denial about that," she says. "But I'm a little scared about people my own age now. I used to love New York so much because of the personal contact you could have, you know you could make eye contact with a hundred people a day. Now I walk with my eyes down and it's embarrassing more than anything. People look at me like I have a penis growing out of my head.
"I had the most horrible thing happen to me recently," she continues. "I was flying. I had my eyes closed and I could see movements when I work up and I saw this kid staring at me. The stewardess kind of saw her and told her to go away. Anyway I went back to sleep and woke up a few hours later and now there was this older woman standing in front of me, a mother.
"Anyway she says, 'I've got all these seventh or eighth graders in the back of the plane, and they really want to meet you. Would you mind coming back.' But the plane was landing in ten minutes, I wanted to have a pee and my shoes were off. And the most embarrassing thought in the world to me would be to walk to the back of a plane and greet people. So I said, 'Look, do you mind if I don't, I'm really sorry.' Anyway, I thought that she understood.
"Five minutes later a little girl comes up and says [adopting bitter and twisted eighth-grader tones]: 'This is from your fans' and drops a load of notes in my lap. And all the notes were like 'We thought you were nice, but you were obviously just acting.' They were really vicious notes and I was so sad and mad at that woman. I just wanted to scream at her. I mean, excuse me if I need to piss."
The bit where Liv regrets having said vagina a lot
It begins when I ask whether she prefers Beavis And Butt-Head or The Simpsons and leads into stories about Summer Phoenix's suspect sense of humour via the worst Butt-Head impression I have ever heard. Momentarily, I thought it was a good Homer.
"Now Summer is really funny," she explains. "Like sometimes she will meet new people and not say anything and after a few minutes just say something like 'vagina'. She wanted me to go on Letterman and just say vagina and I'm like, 'Summer?' It's very adolescent of her. But it would be so funny to look at someone square in the eye with a blank face and just say vagina." The last "vagina" trails off with a hint of regret. "Vagina is such a good word but we probably shouldn't be talking about that."
We return to the subject later. Does she like doing interviews? "Not really," she says. "I mean, it's good to talk to people but it's just the fact that you print everything. And you say things that you regret, like what I just said." "What, about vaginas?"
"Yeah." "But it was just a funny story."
"But it was silly. I went and did it anyway because I could use the word vagina and that's the way it goes."
In truth, the media have been very kind to her, so far at least. But then she's been good to them too, doing the vixen thing for photo spreads, recounting the details of her childhood ad nauseam, knowing that her mother will be called a trollop and her dad a horse-head degenerate again. She hsan't been antsy or difficult or pretentious or precious. And so far it's been a profitable two-way street.
Press attention may now shift away from the rock soap opera of her childhood to her relationship with Joaquin, especially as both their stars seem to be shooting at the same pace and to the same heights. Is she wary of enquiries about their duvet action, home furnishings or planned joint projects?
"Not really. I mean, I love him dearly and I'm very happy that he's in my life," she says, "but what am I going to say to a stranger about my lover?" It's a fair point, of course. But then, they were interviewed and shot together for a cover of Interview magazine earlier this year, looking like a New Age Liz Taylor and Richard Burton. In some ways, Liv has had her cake, eaten it and gone back for seconds. But so have we.
It's getting dusky in the Tribeca streets below the studio. And Liv is getting tired. She is getting tired of being nice to me, of constantly throwing smiles in my direction. And fair play, she's done her duty. She's a good kid.
She is exchanging relatively jovial "fuck offs" with the photographer who is trying to squeeze a few more shots out of his subject. And then it's over. Liv gets back into her Village thrift-store gear and she's away, out on to the streets starting to come alive with the after-workers. Six feet of the most famous teenager on the planet shuffles past them, eyes to the ground, thinking about the penis on her head and wishing she hadn't gone on about vaginas.