Start with the already famous, indeed controversial lips. just say she's got Bette Davis mouth; she kisses like Gelsey Kirkland; her Cinema-Scope pout could belong to Soupy Sales after he's been smacked with a cherry pie. Now let's move on. There must be more to discuss in the burning media matter of Liv Tyler. Can she act ? Does she possess a screen radiance ? Are her new movies any good ? Quick answers: hard to tell; could be; and no.
In Bernardo Bertolucci's Stealing Beauty, Tyler visits a Tuscan villa where the regulars rhapsodize over her innocence, her naturalness, her cutiful-beautifulness. In James Mangold's Heavy, she is a waitress at an upstate New York diner, and the cow-size chef gets mooncalf eyes at her approach. These movies are all about looking at Liv. They are votive offerings to a budding star from old connoisseurs and randy swains. When the camera isn't genuflecting before Tyler, it's copping a feel.
Could any young actress not wilt in this adoring, predatory glare ? All right, Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday--but that film had an old-Hollywood glow, and Hepburn was unique. The two Tyler movies are anemic, anomic art-house fodder. One comes from the director of The Conformist and The Last Emperor; the other from the guy who is about to make CopLand, the film Sly Stallone hopes will turn him into a certified Actor.
Bertolucci chose an odd genre, the European house party, whose best examples are Renoir's The Rules of the Game, set on the eve of World War II, and Bunuel's The Exterminating Angel, which was about a party that, mysteriously, no one could leave. This time there's no war, and it's the audience that's trapped. In Susan Minot's goofy script, Tyler ministers to ailing writer Jeremy Irons and other artsy layabouts while searching for the man on whom to bestow her virginity. The climactic deflowering scene provides the only giggles in an otherwise stodgy mess.
In Heavy, Tyler is the siren who leads a sad-sack cook (Pruitt Taylor Vince) to a full realization of the sweet misery of life. His bar-diner, which often looks deserted except for one resident grouse, is the anti-Cheers; it should be called Blahs. Heavy is a mood piece, which means there's not much going on and ain't ever gonna be. The characters shop, eat, sleep, do some world-class moping and, in general, wait for something the hell to happen. And all that happens is Liv.
In a way, Stealing Beauty and Heavy serve as cunning showcases for the ingenue by creating a vacuum into which she brings some fresh air. She lacks Alicia Silverstone's knowing perkiness; Tyler carries the hint of emotional exhaustion in her wide eyes, as if she had just wiped away tears or sleep. Yet she has the impact on these films that Murray Kempton said John Lindsay had on the 1965 New York City mayoral campaign: "He is fresh and everyone else is tired."
Partly this is because Tyler is virtually the only young person around; everyone else is tired or bored or dying. But also because she truly is at ease with herself and the camera. Her allure can seem a come-on, but she's not a flaunter; she doesn't shake her beauty. And remember, she's only a kid (the credits for Heavy include an acknowledgment to "Miss Tyler's tutors"). Even now she takes an unselfconscious delight in the attention paid to her--in the '90s it's called poise. And that will serve her well if she ever gets into a real movie.