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Hoc Docs fashion film must-see: The spotlight still shines on modelling legends
About Face director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders between models Beverly Johnson (left) and Cheryl Tiegs (right)
Sports Illustrated covers and editorial spreads flash across the screen and it’s as if
supermodel Paulina Porizkova is finally seeing what the rest of the world has been looking at for the decades that she’s been a star in the fashion and beauty biz. “I should have been naked all the time!” Porizkova, now 47, tells the camera, blue eyes wide and rapturous. Porizkova’s epiphany comes courtesy of
About Face: The Supermodels, Then and Now, a documentary screening this week as part of Toronto’s Hot Docs festival. The doc’s director is
Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, the famed American photographer, who displays his adeptness at teasing out
aha! moments about aging gracefully from some of the world’s most iconic faces. And it turns out they have a lot to say. The doc’s subjects—from Carmen Dell’Orefice and China Machado to Beverly Johnson and Christy Turlington— are fiercely critical and hyper-aware of the modelling world and their fleeting place in it.
Populated with the
all-stars who transformed modelling—once thought of in the same likeness as prostitution, we’re told by the cheeky Bethann Hardison—into a respected, highly paid profession, the film is both a tribute to living legends as well as a commentary on the painful realities of the modelling world. Greenfield-Sanders, a Grammy-winning filmmaker for his 1998 doc,
"American Masters” Lou Reed: Rock and Roll Heart, brings a human frame of reference to the lives of these remarkable women. Take octogenarian Dell’Orefice—the great American
Vogue cover girl at 15—who views plastic surgery with the same flippant necessity of repairing a falling roof (and who still works to this day). Or shared gems such as Marisa Berenson telling the camera that her grandmother,
Elsa Schiaparelli, permanently severed ties with Diana Vreeland after the legendary American editor recruited Berenson to be a model. Beneath charming anecdotes of life in the fast lane (courtesy of the deliciously flamboyant Texan beauty queen Jerry Hall) are heartbreaking tales of drugs and racism. But the biggest secret of the modelling world is a surprising one. In the doc, Porizkova and other models repeatedly relate their belief that without the clothes and makeup, bright lights and fame, none of them feel worthy of the attention lavished on them. They never felt pretty, secure or even loved during their prime. Greenfield-Sanders expanded a
Harper’s Bazaar photo shoot into a cross-generational, skewering film that plumbs the depths of a world as deeply captivating as it is darkly plagued. As a documentarian, he doesn’t lament the loss of golden era with a sentimental post-mortem. Instead, he lets the the lively characters he spotlights steer the narrative—frequently to backstage trysts and glitterati circles starring Dalí and
Warhol—while bringing to life commonly held pillars of friendship, merciless self-criticism and the knowledge that tilting their best side into the spotlight makes for a perfect shot (a request they’re not shy about voicing to the director). A love letter to modelling’s venerated past, the film ultimately circles back to the self-indulgent, material world we live in now, propped up by slimmer weight restrictions and a chain of superfluous, nondescript faces. But as the film makes clear, our desire to see beautiful women on runways and magazine covers hasn’t changed; the influence of the beholder has just gotten a whole lot stronger.
About Face: The Supermodels, Then and Now, screens Friday May 4 (6:30 p.m. at Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, 506 Bloor St. West). Tickets are available at
hotdocs.ca. The film airs this summer on HBO.