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July 23, 2000, SUNDAY; ALL EDITIONS
YOUR TIME; Pg. Y6

COLUMN: REEL TIME

PEELING OFF TV IMAGE CONSTRAINTS

BOB IVRY

The Record (Bergen County, NJ)


Lock your doors, batten your hatches, hide your daughters. We're living through an epidemic of female exhibitionism. Call it the return of the casting couch. Call it a weird side effect of a successful feminist revolution. Call it the revenge of the nerds. In any case, the women don't seem to mind. In fact, they're volunteering all over the place. Most of these handsome young females with very little on come from the ranks of weekly TV. The gals seem to be hoping that a bit of I'll-show-you-mine will help them shed their wholesome images, making casting directors more likely to sign them for the edgy roles that will

impress their friends. First there was Melissa Joan Hart, Bergenfield's answer to Samantha Stevens. After years as the goody-two-shoes of"Sabrina the Teenage Witch,"the 23-year-old morphed into the"witch without a stitch"for Maxim magazine, the world leader in the figurative deflowering of young actresses. Jessica Biel came next. The 18-year-old plays Mary, a preacher's virtuous daughter, on the squeaky-clean TV family drama"7th Heaven."

Sick of being constricted by scripts that call for her to wear clothing, Biel doffed all for Gear magazine. Now comes Lacey Chabert, the erstwhile Claudia on"Party of 1 Five."

Fans of the show who haven't seen her photo spread in the current issue of Stuff magazine must be rubbing their eyes over seeing her name in this context. Little Claudia, the violin-playing 11-year-old on"PO5"? Well, little Claudia has grown up (she's 18), and though she keeps most of her clothes on for the photographs, she has that sultry look in her eyes that implores teenage boys to construct elaborate fantasies.

Is nothing sacred?

"It's sad, because these TV shows have young actresses in a loop they can't get out of,"says 21-year-old breath of fresh air Natasha Lyonne, who says she's turned down roles on youth-oriented TV shows to concentrate on films in which she mostly remains clothed. "They're young and they think TV is their ticket to stardom, but the next thing they know, they get older and find they're suffocated. That's the price they pay."

Dissatisfaction is, after all, human nature. But such public manifestations of disgruntlement about cushy, high-profile lifestyles can be, well, interesting. Especially when they play out as acting out.

Which brings me to a theory: The young actresses whose careers will best weather the years are the ones who've turned down the rockets to stardom provided by teen-oriented TV shows. There are exceptions, of course. Sarah Michelle Gellar, whose small-screen character is the worldly Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and who, before that, was bad girl Kendall on the soap"All My Children", never had to pose scantily clad to rebel against type. She's saucy on TV and she's extra-saucy in flicks like"Cruel Intentions."

The "Dawson's Creek"gals, Michelle Williams and Katie Holmes, are more successful on the big screen than most of their peers, including the two male leads on the show, because they're smart about their job choices. Williams already has a wide range of performances under her belt.

Alyson Hanigan, who plays Buffy's sidekick, also has a shot at a lasting career. That's because she's talented and she plays supporting roles. (She was hilarious in "American Pie.") But how many young actresses out there will never get out from under the sexpot parts they're playing in shows like "Popular,""Jack & Jill,"and"Angel"? Think of all the talented actresses in that 1 tender age group who launched their careers without ever having the golden noose of teen TV wrapped like mink stoles around their necks: Lyonne, Kirsten Dunst, Chloe Sevigny, Clea DuVall, Angelina Jolie, Heather Graham, Monica Potter, Joey Lauren Adams, Piper Perabo, Natasha Gregson Wagner, Mena Suvari, Tara Reid, Liv Tyler, Gabrielle Union, Anna Paquin, Alicia Silverstone, Tamala Jones, Drew Barrymore, Claire Forlani, Jennifer Connelly, Amanda Detmer, Regina King, Rachael Leigh Cook, Julia Stiles, Kimberly Elise, Christina Ricci, Kate Hudson, Brittany Murphy, you get the idea.

The irony of those TV actresses taking it off is that none of the aforementioned pinup girls, Hart, Biel, or Chabert, have been offered anything in the way of mature movie roles. The mind cringes at what attention-getting devices they'll be forced into next.

What parts would they be offered anyway? Surely nobody's lunatic enough to utter the syllables"artistic integrity,"but wouldn't these girls be going from compromising positions in magazines to compromising positions in movies?

These days, every movie, it seems, has a scene or two of gratuitous cheesecake. Was it important to the plot for us to see the female lead changing her clothes, coming out of the shower, or getting out of bed? Perhaps the answer to that question is too obvious. By all indications, this new breed of actress simply doesn't care. They've got it, so they'll flaunt it. The vast majority of Hollywood films are aimed at 14-year-old boys anyway, so why not give the lads what they want?

Still, there's solace for feminists who cringe at starlets who drop their pants at the drop of a hat: Never before have there been so many talented young actresses competing for roles in Hollywood, and never have there been so many roles to compete for. Some of those roles actually require them to make use of their talent.

Staff Writer Bob Ivry's e-mail address is ivry@bergen.com

GRAPHIC: 3 PHOTOS 1 - Stripped of their dignity? Jessica Biel, above, 2 - and Melissa Joan Hart, left, don't think so. 3 - Kirsten Dunst, meanwhile, wasn't forced to shed a teen TV image.

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