The Models Who Made Cinematic History

Not many successfully made the transition, but a few left lasting film impressions.

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Tippi Hedren comes under attack in 'The Birds' (1963). 'A bad picture at every level,' Pauline Kael wrote.
Tippi Hedren comes under attack in Alfred Hitchcock's 'The Birds' (1963).

Friday the 13th is not always an unlucky day.

On that date in October 1961, Tippi Hedren, who had been working as a model for a decade, appearing in television commercials and even on the cover of Life Magazine, got a call from her agent, who told her that a Hollywood producer was interested in meeting her.

The man who wanted to see her was none other than Alfred Hitchcock, who was looking for a new blonde actress since his favorite, Grace Kelly, had left the film business to marry the prince of Monaco. Hitchcock had seen Hedren in a TV commercial for a soft drink.

Hedren accepted the offer and, thanks to the two Hitchcock films in which she appeared, became one of the few models who made movie history. She appeared in “The Birds” (1963) and “Marnie (1964),” cast in the latter film only after Kelly left the project.

Although several models became film stars, only a few of them made cinematic history.

Another was Lauren Bacall, who died last week at 89. Bacall’s story began almost like Hedren’s. At 17, she was working as a model. Her photographs appeared in Vogue and other fashion magazines. At the time, film director Howard Hawks was looking for an actress to star opposite Humphrey Bogart in his next film, “To Have and Have Not,” based on Ernest Hemingway’s novel. After Hawkes’s wife, Nancy Keith, showed her husband a photograph of Bacall, then 19, on a magazine cover, Hawkes met with Bacall and offered her the role.

Hawkes, like Hitchcock, insisted on shaping the image of the inexperienced actress he had hired. The only thing he did not like about her was her thin voice, so he forced her to go out every day to the hills around Los Angeles and scream until her voice acquired the low, sexy quality he sought.

Hitchcock’s abuse of Hedren in his effort to mold her in his fantasy image is a Hollywood legend and even the source of a made-for-TV film.

This magazine cover image released by Hearst shows actress-model Lauren Bacall on the cover of the March 1943 issue of "Harper's Bazaar." Photo by AP

Unlike Bacall, who had a long and prosperous career and in 2009 received an honorary Academy Award recognizing her central place in the golden age of motion pictures, Hedren’s career faltered after “Marnie.” Hitchcock did not want to work with her anymore, but she had signed an exclusive contract with him and he was unwilling to allow her to work for anyone else. She also had rejected him, and this was his revenge.

The only time Hitchcock allowed her to work on a prestigious film was in 1967, when Charlie Chaplin wanted her to appear in a small role as Marlon Brando’s wife in “A Countess from Hong Kong.” The movie failed at the box office despite the presence of Brando and Sophia Loren.

Hedren survived Hitchcock’s abuse to establish a dynasty of film stars beginning with her daughter, Melanie Griffith, and her granddaughter, Dakota Johnson, who is starring in the much-anticipated film version of “Fifty Shades of Grey.”

Models who become actors have been treated with suspicion and contempt. That’s what happened to Candice Bergen, a child of Hollywood aristocracy. Her father was the ventriloquist and comedian Edgar Bergen and her mother was actress Frances Bergen, who had also been a model.

During her modeling career, Candice Bergen appeared on the cover of Vogue before Sidney Lumet chose her to play the role of Lakey in “The Group” (1966), which was based on Mary McCarthy’s bestselling novel. Critics consistently panned her appearances until 1979, when Bergen acted in Alan J. Pakula’s film “Starting Over,” displaying comic talent that garnered her an Academy Award nomination as best supporting actress.

Candice Bergen, 18, Beverely Hills, Calif., daughter of comedian Edgar Bergen, smiles at her reflection as she poses after being names Miss University of Pennsylvania in ceremonies in Philadelphia Nov. 9, 1963. Photo by AP

It was the television series “Murphy Brown,” which was on the air for a decade and won her five Emmy Awards, that solidified her status as a successful actress.

Ali MacGraw’s story was almost the opposite. She was working as a photography assistant at Harper’s Bazaar and became a model whose image appeared in Vogue and other magazines. Her film debut was as a walk-on in a forgotten drama, “A Lovely Way to Die” (1968), directed by David Lowell Rich. But in 1969, she was chosen to act in the film adaptation of Philip Roth’s novel “Goodbye, Columbus,” directed by Larry Peerce. Peerce’s film, and her role in it, received excellent reviews.

A year later, Arthur Hiller chose MacGraw to play the role of Jenny, the young wife dying of leukemia, in the film adaptation of Erich Segal’s novel “Love Story.” The film was a blockbuster and earned MacGraw an Academy Award nomination. The critics liked her less after that, even when she starred in Sam Peckinpah’s “The Getaway” (1972) and “Convoy” (1978).

MacGraw’s marriage to the film producer and studio executive Robert Evans, one of the managers of Paramount Studios at the time, contributed to the critics’ ill treatment of her. The romance that developed on the set between MacGraw and Steve McQueen, her co-star in “The Getaway,” did not help matters.

Israeli model Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman.

Her affair with McQueen, whom she married in 1973 (they divorced in 1978) and their eccentric lifestyle did not sit well with Hollywood or America. MacGraw later appeared in a handful of films and TV series such as “The Winds of War” and “Dynasty,” and she has devoted her later life to yoga.

Of all the models who became film stars, the best known was Cybill Shepherd. She started out young and appeared on all the important magazine covers. After seeing her image on the cover of Glamour, Peter Bogdanovich chose her to play the all-American girl in a small, declining Texas town in his film “The Last Picture Show.”

Shepherd received good reviews for her performance in the film and for her performance in the 1972 comedy “The Heartbreak Kid,” directed by Elaine May and based on the screenplay by Neil Simon. She was also excellent in Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” (1976).

But her other collaborations with Bogdanovich — with whom she had a romantic relationship for eight years — “Daisy Miller” (1974), based on the novella by Henry James, and the musical “At Long Last Love” (1975), left her with the image of an amateur actress, an image that took her a long time to overcome.

Brigitte Bardot prepares for a scene in the 1959 film, 'La Femme et le Pantin'. Photo by Bloomberg

Like Bergen, Shepherd gradually discovered her comic talents and used them on television. Most of the films she starred in were likable or forgettable.

Brooke Shields started modeling at 11 months, and by 1978, when she was 12 years old, she’d appeared in small television roles and a forgotten horror film. At that point the French director Louis Malle cast her in the role of a child prostitute in his film “Pretty Baby,” which caused a sensation.

Shields kept modeling — her commercials for Calvin Klein jeans went down in advertising history — and in 1980 she acted in her next hit film, “The Blue Lagoon,” directed by Randal Kleiser.

Shields never won appreciation as an actress, and some of her films were dismal failures. Her greatest successes were on television, where she, too, displayed comic talent. With her diligence, friendly demeanor and goodheartedness, she has continued to work in the field.

Of course, the U.S. is not the only country in which film stars began their careers as models. The best-known example is Brigitte Bardot, who began modeling at 15 and appeared on the cover of Elle when she was 18. The aspiring film director Roger Vadim spotted her there and fell in love with her. They were married in 1952 — the year she made her film debut — and divorced in 1957. In 1956 she appeared in Vadim’s directorial debut, “And God Created Woman,” and the rest is history.

One photo was often all it took to turn a model into a film star, and many of the directors who saw those photos recreated the women as they made the transition from modeling to film acting. The case of Lauren Bacall was the best and most successful of them, but let us not forget Gal Gadot, who on her way to being Wonder Woman may end up even more famous than Bacall.

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