Last night I pried myself away from the hot bodies of the London Games to watch a documentary about a different group of people who make their living with their hot bodies: supermodels. Timothy Greenfield Sanders’ feature-length HBO film About Face: Supermodels Then and Now gives viewers plenty to look at but, like they say about beauty itself, this documentary is only skin deep.
Comprised mainly of talking-head style interviews with iconic supermodels like Beverly Johnson, Carol Alt, and China Machado, About Face looks at the history of modeling through the eyes of its most famous players. There is some frank discussion of plastic surgery (Karen Bjornson: “I don’t want to look younger, I just want to look well rested.”), racism (Hardison Bethann on how designers say models of color don’t fit their aesthetic: ” The word ‘aesthetic’ is borderline racist at this point.”), and sexism (Isabella Rossellini: “Modeling taught me that women don’t need to depend on husbands and fathers.”), but the film doesn’t dig deep into any of these issues, remaining instead on the—admittedly fun—surface of photo shoots, hair, and makeup. Though it is interesting to hear about how these women got started in modeling and how the industry has changed over time, it felt like Greenfield Sanders was deliberately ignoring some elephants in the room: drugs, eating disorders, and ever-more-rigid standards of beauty, to name a few.
That’s not to say that this isn’t an enjoyable, worthwhile film. It is! In fact, I was far more charmed by the supermodels than I (feminist killjoy that I am) expected to be. Some quotes from my notes during the film include: “What amazing women!” “LOVE her,” and “Being a model in the ’70s sounds AMAZING.” At one point, Cheryl Tiegs says she was advised to keep learning new things throughout her life so that as a model she’d “always have something to talk about.” It’s easy to forget that these models are famous because they’re more than just pretty faces—they’ve been seducing the crap out of people their entire lives and they are so good at it. Just seeing them work their magic makes About Face worth watching.
Still, we only get to see the models interacting with one another for a brief photo shoot, and it would have been so interesting to see them in a group format. Paulia Porizkova and Rossellini both had such great anecdotes about sexism and ageism, and Jerry Hall and Eileen Ford had such different accounts of what it was like to live in the Ford Model House—why couldn’t we see them hash it out together?
All in all, About Face gives you a lot to think about but definitely leaves you wanting more. Then again, isn’t that what all good supermodels do?
About Face was featured on Fresh Air yesterday, and Terry Gross interviewed Carol Alt and Timothy Greenfield Sanders for the show. Also check out a trailer for the film, which airs all this week on HBO and HBOGo, below: