August 4, 1975

Griffith: 'Anyone can be sexy'

She has the body of a sensuous woman, the pouting, chipmunk face of a teenager and the voice of a child ‑and, suddenly, she's showing them all. This summer, Melanie Griffith, the 17‑year‑old daughter of actress Tippi Hedren, is featured in three major films: as a provocative Lolita giving the come‑on to Paul Newman in "The Drowning Pool"; as a runaway teen‑ager in Arthur Penn's "Night Moves" who drives a lonely Gene Hackman to distraction before retiring to her stepfather's bed; and as a beauty‑pageant contestant in "Smile" (page 70), in which she fully lives up to the script's description of the character as "hot, sweet and dumb."

For all of these roles, Melanie Griffith seems typecast. At 14, she willingly relinquished her virtue to actor and would‑be singer Don Johnson (star of the forgettable "Harrad Experiment"), with whom she now shares a house in L.A.'s Laurel Canyon. "She's always been a young filly at the gate," says Tippi Hedren, who is best remembered for playing the terrified society girl in Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds." "She can't wait to get into the race."

Griffith was born in New York and lived there until she was 2, when her mother and father, a real‑estate developer, split up. Five years later in Hollywood, Hedren married TV director, agent and later producer Noel Marshall, shoots the occasional state finals of a "You American Miss" competition, backed  by Jerry Belson's razor‑accurate script and the splashy cinematography of Conrad Hall.

Treasures: Ritchie and Belson have done their homework, The rhetoric and posturing of their post‑pubescent contestants ring all too true as they croon out little homilies about wanting to help the unfortunate. Among them are such treasures as a ghastly, grinning Mexican-American miss (Maria O'Brien) who brazenly bribes the judges with gifts of guacamole dip and pitches, for Mexican-American friendship‑until she is undone by a scheming competitor (Melanie Griffith)‑and a thoroughly calculating contestant (Annette O'Toole) who turns her talent test into a striptease under the rubric "Striving for Simplicity." Ritchie rightly sees these contests as just another way 'of pushing product in a country that sells everything, including young girls, to the networks.

Young American Misses: Teen‑age product in a country that sells everything.

But after he has unmasked these contests as what we always knew they were anyway, what has the sophisticated Ritchie accomplished? He has made smart fun of some dim, rather sad 16‑year‑olds. He has entertained us with the onstage ineptitude of these talentless girls and has smiled smugly at their hypocritical attempts to conceal their competitive drives. He has mocked the residents of the host town Santa Rosa, Calif., for their poor taste in everything from fast food to a fast buck and for their adherence to every American banality.

Bruce Dern, in a one‑dimensional role as Big Bob Freedlander, used‑car hawker and head judge, speaks for all of them in sentence‑long sermons on life' like "No rest for the weary" and "You can lick your problems in your own backyard." In the end, it is this total disaffection with mainstream American culture that blinds Ritchie to any appreciation of his vulgarians as themselves victims worthy of compassion. Without this balance, "Smile" simply slaughters an all‑too-easy sitting duck.