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Women on the verge: Liv for the moment

Benjamin Svetkey, Entertainment Weekly, June 1996

Liv Tyler has just returned from the Cannes Film Festival, and the journey has not been a pleasant one. Paparazzi dogged her at the airport in Nice. In London, the airline lost the reservations for her return flight to California. Then they lost her luggage

And now, back near San Francisco, she suffers the ultimate indignity: A visiting journalist has shown up for lunch with a bundle of gossipy newspaper clippings, salacious little snippets chockful of rumor and innuendo. "What's this?" the actress demands, snatching a particularly lurid item linking her romantically to head Lemonhead Evan Dando. "Oh, this is stupid. This is scary. You shouldn't have this." She shreds the article into dozens of tiny pieces. Then, as if flipping some inner switch, she flashes a smile so brilliantly luminous, so blindingly phosphorescent, it could light Candlestick Park. Such poise. Such grace. Such savvy. Only 18 years old and already she's playing the press like a Stratocaster.

To MILLIONS of MTV- Niks around the world she is the slinky schoolgirl who frolicked so fetchingly with Alicia Silverstone in Aerosmith's 1994 "Crazy" video. More-plugged-in Liv lovers know that the Tyler in her name comes from father Steven, Aerosmith's frontman and possibly the only rock star to make Mick Dagger contemplate collagen lip implants. True aficionados might even be aware of her pre-MTV oeuvre, including Silent Fall, a barely released Richard Dreyfuss thriller, and Empire Records, a barely released Gen-X comedy. Bonus points to those who recall her short-lived modeling career, posing for Seventeen and YM.

But this summer, thanks in part to Bernardo Bertolucci's Stealing Beauty, even those who wouldn't know a Buzz Bin from a Dustbuster will be learning lots about Liv. A sweet little movie about a virginal young American girl who discovers a more in the tranquil hills of Tuscany, the picture was THE hot ticket at Cannes last month—and Tyler was the hot young starlet on the Croisette. Billboards of her visage—her sky blue eyes smoldering, her sumptuous red lips so ripe you could almost pluck them—were plastered on every street corner. Even the surly European press fell in love, nicknaming her Liv Taylor, a nod to another brunet sex bomb who conquered the Riviera so many decades ago.

And Beauty—opening in the U.S. June 14—is just the beginning. This month, she's also starring in Heavy, a small indie flick about a bunch of lowlifes at a roadside tavern that premiered at Cannes last year and is only now getting released thanks to the Tyler buzz. This fall, she'll have a big part in Tom Hanks' directorial debut, That Thing You Do!, a rock & roll romance set in the early '60s, and a role in Everybody Says I Love You, Woody Allen's new musical (yes, musical), due in December. And right now, in Petaluma, Calif., about an hour from San Francisco, she's filming the '50s drama Inventing the Abbotts, lensed by Circle of Friends director Pat O'Conner. It's an impressive fleet of films that could turn Tyler into the most talked-about teen actress since, well, since her "Crazy" pal Silverstone.

"The thing about Liv," observes Hanks, "is that she's really smart about the choices she's making. At her stage in the business, it's very difficult to say no to whatever comes along, because of all the money, attention, and glamour being thrown at you. But she's saying no to all the right things. This is an extremely well-grounded girl. She’s the oldest 18-year-old I’ve ever encountered.

"When I first met her," Bertolucci remembers, his Italian accent so thick you could ladle it over cannelloni, "I could not make up my mind about her age. One minute she was 13, a little girl. Another minute she was a femme fatale of 25. It was as if she was moving through different ages. And that was very, very exciting."

Tyler was less enthused by her first encounter with the legendary director of Last Tango in Paris, The Last Emperor, and Little Buddha. More like nauseated. "I was so scared my ears were bright red and my stomach was making noises I never knew it could," she says. Still, it was obvious she was born to play the starring role of Lucy. For one thing, there were remarkable biographical similarities to the character, including the fact that like Lucy, Tyler had grown up not knowing who her true father was.

Her mother, Bebe Buell, hooked up with Steven Tyler in 1977, while on the rebound from a five-year relationship with rocker Todd Rundgren. (Buell, a former Ford model and one-time Playmate, apparently got around; ex-beau Elvis Costello even wrote "Party Girl" about her.) But after Liv was conceived, Buell took a long look at Aerosmith's better-living-through-chemistry lifestyle and made a beeline back to Rundgren, who briefly took her back and even pretended to be the baby's biological father. It wasn't until Liv was 10 that she discovered the truth, when she met Steven Tyler at one of Rundgren's concerts and they both recognized the striking physical resemblance. It is not a subject she's wild about discussing. "It's really personal" is about all she'll say on the matter—except to note that she and her father are now very close and even share the same jeans size ("Size 29, I think," reports her dad, who describes their relationship as "so open and outrageous even I get embarrassed by the things we talk about").

To hear her tell it, Tyler's early years growing up in Portland, Maine, far from her rock & roll roots, were so utterly conventional they'd make the Waltons look degenerate. "It was just me and my mother, my aunt, uncle, and two cousins in a big house with a big barn," she recalls. "We'd mow the lawn and run with the cows and slip in the patties and have barbecues." Of course, there were occasional rock & roll lapses, like the time she woke up from a nap backstage at a KISS concert, terrified by Gene Simmons' satanic makeup—but then, what kid hasn't experienced that?

In the late '80s, Tyler and her mom moved to New York City (where they still live, along with her stepfather, guitarist Coyote Shivers). It was there, at 14, that Tyler began her brief stint modeling, breaking into the business with the help of family friend Paulina Porizkova. Then, one day, she announced that she'd decided to become an actress. Buell immediately announced that she would be her manager.

By all accounts, it has been a smooth and congenial business arrangement. Certainly Buell has done an impeccable job of guiding her daughter's career so far, turning down stinkers like Fear, seeking out smaller, less-risky films helmed by well-known directors. "We didn't want Liv to do any slasher or nymphet-frolicking-in-the-wind movies," Buell explains. "We just didn't have any desire to promote that type of behavior in people-you know, the stalking and violence and blood." Even Tyler's notorious Aerosmith video, in which she cavorts with Silverstone in a strip club and teases a naked farm boy, had to be toned down before her parents gave the green light. "Steven and I vetoed the first script," Buell says. "Omigod, it had some racy stuff in there. It had a kiss between Liv and Alicia. Steven and I just looked at each other and went: 'Uh-huh, sure. When hell freezes over!"' Like the saying goes, Father knows best.

The "Crazy" video, incidentally, wasn't the only script that needed cooling down: Even Bertolucci had to make some adjustments in Stealing Beauty's pivotal deflowering scene. "It was originally written that she'd be in a villa with the boy and they'd get naked on his bed," he says. "But then Liv reminded me that when you are 18 years old, it is much more likely that you'd be dressed and explore each other's body through the clothing. It is more realistic." But not necessarily any easier; even fully clothed, Tyler was a nervous wreck. "The Italians were incredibly sweet about it," she says. "They didn't look. They would turn their heads away in respect. Except for the cameraman. And Bernardo."

One of the advantages of hitching your career to a highbrow filmmaker like Bernardo Bertolucci—or any other internationally respected auteur—is that if the movie flops, he takes the fall, not you. It is, after all, his name on top of the marquee—or at least it usually is.

Stealing Beauty is the exception. It is Tyler's face that adorns every ad; she's in all the trailers. And it's her fans—not Bertolucci's—being courted by the studio's marketing machine. Just listen to the film's soundtrack-with tunes by Liz Phair, Portishead, and Hoover—and the demographics of the situation become glaringly obvious. It's no coincidence that Beauty is the first Bertolucci movie with a rock video on MTV (Phair's "Rocket Boy," featuring clips of Tyler in the film, hits heavy rotation later this month).

"It's something new," admits Bertolucci. "I'm used to having my usual audience, people who have seen my movies before. This is the first time kids will be going. In Italy the movie opened in March, and it is a fantastic hit with teenagers. They have stolen something like 250 posters from the streets of Rome. So this is real exciting." He pauses for a pensive beat. "Of course, it is a sign of senility that I find this exciting. If I were 28, I would not be so happy."

Measuring Tyler's excitement level is a bit harder to do. As Bertolucci points out, she's a difficult read. Sometimes she seems utterly at home with the idea of stardom, impossibly sanguine for someone born in the Bee Gees decade ("I pride myself on keeping centered," she says). Then, suddenly, there are bracing reminders that she's still just a kid-like the copy of Charlotte's Web that pops out of her bag during lunch. ("I'm only on the fifth page, but it's incredible," she says. "Fran's so cute when she runs out and grabs the ax!")

Still, it is beginning to dawn on Tyler exactly what she's getting herself into. "It's a weird, weird, weird feeling," she sighs, her incandescent smile momentarily fading into a tiny dark frown. "The way Beauty is being sold, I'm carrying this big thing. People are waiting to see what kind of business I bring in. I've never experienced that before. It's just so scary." Welcome to the real world, Liv. Or at least to Hollywood.