Don't let the cute voice fool you. Melanie Griffith-mother of three, recovering alcoholic-has finally grown up. And she has true love with Antonio Banderas and a critically acclaimed movie to prove it.
By Steve Pond
Melanie Griffith has always known how to make an entrance, and an impression. Just ask James Woods, her co-star in the new film Another Day in Paradise, who first met Griffith at the age of 17 on the set of one of her earlier movies, 1975's Night Moves. 'She walked out wearing these low-cut hip-huggers and a tiny halter top,' Woods remembers. 'She had the same figure then she has now and these beautiful, strange eyes, and she said, "Hi, I'm Melanie", with that magic toy voice of hers. And I said, "Boy, I guess you are, honey". Even then, she was insouciant and hilarious. She said, "I have to have a body double, 'cause I'm underage. But who are they gonna get to double this?" And I thought, this kid may be a star someday.'
That was nearly a quarter of a century ago. Since then, Melanie Griffith has made lots more impressions, some more favourable than others. On the plus side is her award-winning 1984 coming-of-age turn as the porn star in Body Double. Two years later, she was the indelibly reckless Lulu in Something Wild, and two years after that, her role as Working Girl's Tess McGill, the secretary with 'a head for business and a bod for sin', netted her an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe.
But Griffith followed those standouts with a six-year string of flops. She's been dismissed because of that baby-doll voice and been constant fodder for the tabloids: the three failed marriages; the stints in rehab for cocaine and alcohol addiction; the breast-enlargement surgery in the midst of shooting Bonfire of the Vanities. Woods calls her 'an actress, a star and a sex kitten,' but not everyone would place those labels in that order. Griffith would probably add a couple of new ones: wife and mother.
When she arrives at Green Moon Productions, the company on Santa Monica's Main Street that she runs with Antonio Banderas, she is accompanied by Stella del Carmen Banderas, an angelic but energetic three-year-old who can hardly bear to let Mom out of her sight. Her assistant had shown up first to announce the actress's arrival, prompting the handful of staff members to mill around expectantly. Which isn't to say Griffith cuts a stern figure. She breezes in wearing an all-black ensemble, looking more refreshed and natural than she has on screen lately. Lean and fit at 41 and to all appearances settled into an unlikely but blissful marriage to Banderas, Griffith is making another vivid impression and an undeniable play for respectability.
Her stripped-bare role in Another Day in Paradise, a low-budget slice of druggie noir from photographer-turned-director Larry Clark, which is yet to find a UK distributor, has caught the eye of critics who had stopped expecting much from her. In the movie, she looks terrible. There is no vanity in her performance as a heroin addict who has lost the will to leave her lowlife boyfriend (played, of course, by Woods).
While Griffith's characters haven't always been innocents, all of them had a touch of the little girl. That's not the case any more. Last year's Lolita found Griffith as the mother of the nymphet she once would have been a natural choice to play, and in Paradise, the little girl is long gone. 'I want to play this girl,' she told Woods, 'like she's a doll who hit a brick wall going a hundred miles an hour when she hit 40.' In the upcoming black comedy Crazy in Alabama, Griffith, directed by Banderas, plays another woman at the end of her tether. Her character kills her abusive husband, puts his head into a Tupperware bowl and sets off for Hollywood to become a star.
Griffith agreed to Paradise at the urging of Woods and despite the presence of Clark, a director with whom neither star felt comfortable (and who wound up in rehab after the movie wrapped). Not that she felt entirely comfortable with old friend Woods, either. 'Jimmy's a great actor,' says Griffith with a laugh. 'I can't say I loved working with him, because he was such an asshole, but I love him. Working with Jimmy is like being pregnant. In the beginning, you're so happy and excited, you can't believe you have this endeavor ahead of you. And then in the middle, you're thinking, I might have made the biggest mistake of my life. And by the end, you just want it to be over with.'
Woods, naturally, is familiar with the analogy. 'I've heard her say that a hundred times,' he says, 'and it makes me laugh every time. I tell her, "You always leave out the best part, which is that as soon as you're done giving birth, 10 minutes later you can't wait to do it again." She says, "I know, I just leave that part out to aggravate the shit out of you".'
It wasn't hard, Griffith admits, to slip back into the mind-set of a drug addict for the movie. 'I never did heroin, and that's a different thing from cocaine or alcohol, but it was completely easy to get back there,' she says. And could she ever see herself returning to drugs? 'I'm sure I could,' she says.'But I won't. I mean, I imagine the only thing that would get me to go back would be if there was an atomic bomb or something. If I was cut off from my children and I was desolate somewhere and somebody had drugs and alcohol, I would do it. But that's a far-fetched situation, I hope. Nothing else could make me go back because I know that nothing is as good as just real life. Before, I didn't know that. There was a lot of pain and I was trying to dull the pain of... whatever.'
There is a noticeable calmness to Griffith now, a softness. She seems to be a woman in search of refuge, sanity, peace - or maybe a woman who's found some of that and is trying to hang on to it. 'Isn't everybody?' she says, settling into a black leather armchair in an office decorated with movie posters, family photos and modern art. 'I think you get to a point in your life where you want that. This morning, I took a hike up to the top of the mountain at Will Rogers Park. And just walking and being quiet, there's something magical about that. It seems like everybody's always rushing. We're in traffic and we're annoyed and we're fighting about this, we're fighting about that, and the kids are crying. I need to have a peaceful time at some point in my day just so I can be normal.' Normal, of course, doesn't come easily when your mother is Tippi Hedren, the actress with whom Alfred Hitchcock was obsessed. Or when you left home at 14 to take up with a 22-year-old actor named Don Johnson, married him at 18, divorced him a year later; married another actor, Steven Bauer, at 24, had a son, got another divorce; took up with Johnson again, got pregnant, got married, had a daughter, got divorced; married a Latin heartthrob, had another child. And in between all this and the stints in rehab, had the kind of career that defines the word chequered.
For Melanie Griffith, there are always complications. Asked if her two older kids, 13-year-old Alexander and nine-year-old Dakota, see their fathers often, she smiles and says yeah, but after a pause, her easy answer gets harder. 'Steven's in rehab right now,' she says. 'We did an intervention on him about two months ago and he's great. And Don is doing great - from what I hear. I don't talk to him, but Dakota said he's good.'
When she talks about Banderas, all this messy emotional baggage seems far behind her. The couple met on the set of the lamentable comedy Two Much in 1995, in the final days of her second marriage to Johnson. 'After meeting him,' Griffith says of Banderas, 'I was ready just to be by myself for the rest of my life if he wasn't going to be with me. It's better than any relationship I've ever had, stronger and more fulfilling. And the love is stronger than it was in the beginning, which I've never had. Before, the romance was the great part, and then when you got to really know the person, it wasn't so cool. But it hasn't been that way with Antonio.'
Are there perils to living with an international object of desire? 'Well, he's anything but an object that's for sure,' Griffith insists. 'And it would be one thing if he really were into it, but he's completely oblivious to it, which is really nice. I mean, he's aware of it when it's right there.' She pauses and allows herself a little grin. 'But it's not like something he lives for... which I have experienced before.'
Griffith and Banderas plan to have another child, probably within the next year or two. (This could cause problems with their Spanish-style house, a smallish former mission in Brentwood, but at this point, Griffith thinks she'd rather renovate than move.) And their production company has several projects in the wings to follow Crazy in Alabama. But she's simply not as career-orientated as she has been in the past. 'My family life is more important to me,' Griffith says. 'It's not the same as it was.'
Then again, the period when she concentrated most on her career - the days of Body Double (1984), Something Wild (1986) and Working Girl (1988)-also ended when she put family first: she rekindled her relationship with Johnson, got pregnant, got married and moved to Aspen. 'That was a pretty hard time for me, actually,' she says slowly. 'How can I say it nicely? It was difficult to be successful in that relationship. And so I had to back off from a lot of stuff. I shouldn't have and if I could do it all over again, I wouldn't have. But I did.'
Now Griffith figures that age may limit her options in the years to come. 'I wouldn't mind doing some theatre,' she muses. 'Getting older, at least I could always do that. Not that I'm so old - I mean, I think I still have a good 10 years in me.' Ten years and she's out of the business? 'No,' she says. 'But 10 or 15 years until I become a character actress - you know what I mean?' She sits up straight and leans forward. 'It doesn't bother me; it's not a problem. I'm just trying to e realistic about the way it is.'
Turning 40 was a milestone that Griffith refers to again and again. I can't do the kinds of movies I used to do,' she says evenly. 'I mean, I couldn't want to try to be Tess McGill for the rest of my life - or now, even - because it doesn't work. I have too much life experience, I've been round way too long.'
'This is a crucial time for a woman,' Woods concurs, 'and Melanie is very upfront about it. You hit 40, and you make a choice. You cut yourself to ribbons and do all that crap to pretend you're 35, and nobody's gonna buy it. Or you just face it, go screaming into the darkness and win. Another Day in Paradise is the kind of part where you do that. You say, "This is who I am, so fucking take me at face value."
'I wish I'd never told anyone my age, ever,' says Griffith with a laugh. Now I can't say I'm 30 and have people believe it.' She insists that her days at the plastic surgeon have been grossly exaggerated. 'One tabloid wrote that I had $100,000 worth of work done,' she says, incredulous. How could anyone have that much work done on their body? I mean, wouldn't you notice?'
Then she shrugs and admits there is one procedure she'd consider. 'If they could cut off my head and put it on to a body that was 20 years old, I would do that,' she says, laughing. 'Then I wouldn't have to work out as hard as 1 do. If that was a possibility, I would love to do that.'