World Famous People
World Famous People - It's been a strange trip for Uma Thurman. Hailing from a highly intellectual background, she might have expected to lead an academic life. Instead, much to her bewilderment and horror, she was seized upon by Hollywood and thrust into the limelight as the latest teen sex symbol - a status that betrayed both her past and her desired future. And so began a decade-long journey to prove herself to be more than just a pretty girl who struck lucky - a journey that would eventually bring wealth, awards and worldwide respect.
That background was not simply intellectual, it was also hugely exotic. Her maternal grandmother, Brigit Holmquist, was a great Swedish beauty who, in 1930s Berlin, met and married the monocled Westphalian Baron Karl von Schlebrugge. After the baron had been briefly jailed by the Nazis for refusing to denounce his Jewish business partners, the couple would take off for Sweden, then Mexico and China. Such were Brigit's looks that a nude statue of her would be erected in the port town of Trelleborg, and her daughter Nena would also turn out a stunner. Spotted in a Stockholm playground by society photographer Norman Parkinson when she was just 16, she was taken to London to model for Vogue, then off to New York where she became a top fashionista. Caught up in the high-brow swinging set, she would find a father figure in psychedelic guru Timothy Leary and marry him in 1964.
Meanwhile, Robert Thurman, son of New York stage actress Elizabeth Farrar, was on a pathway all his own. Coming from a well-to-do WASP family, he'd gone to Harvard to study the classics but, at 19, had married Houston oil heiress Christophe de Menil, 7 years his senior. It didn't last, and Robert took off with some mates to ride across India on motorbikes. It was here that his life would change radically, for he'd meet the Dalai Lama and, after a protracted period of study, would become the first American to be made a Tibetan monk. He would henceforth be known as Tenzin - even his children would call him that.
Back in the US, Thurman was invited to lecture at the Hitchcock estate in Millbrook, New York, where, at the time, Leary and his acolytes were enjoying a frenetic course of acid experimentation. It was here that Robert met Nena, already attempting to extricate herself from a poorly conceived marriage. In 1966, when her divorce came through, Robert would renounce his robes and the couple would wed. Children would come soon. First Ganden (later a computer whizz), then Uma, then Dechen (an actor and director) and finally Mipam. All the names were culled from Buddhist theology.
Uma was born Uma Karuna Thurman on the 29th of April, 1970, in Boston. At age 1 and again at 11 she'd be taken to India, for around two years in total. The rest of her youth she'd spend in Amherst, Massachusetts and Woodstock, New York where Robert, the country's foremost Tibetan Buddhist scholar would hold various religious professorships. This campus life certainly invaded the home with the family discussing philosophy at the dinner table and all the kids being required to bring their own ideas to the party. Their house was often visited by Tibetan refugees, holy men and students, even the Dalai Lama himself. From the beginning, Uma's mind was forced to improve.
In many ways hers was an odd upbringing. Both Robert and Nena frowned upon Americana and did not encourage their children to engage in ordinary pursuits. This did not make life easier for the young Uma. Changing schools far more often than is usual, she already felt forever the new kid. Beyond this, her wacky name and wacky parents saw her teased mercilessly (she'd try calling herself Kelly or Linda to avoid this), and her soon-to-be-feted looks were initially a problem, too. Far taller than the rest, her features were all huge - eyes, ears, hands, feet (she'd grow to 6', with Size 11 feet) - bringing more taunts. Not particularly bright or athletic, with no social life, she felt like a freaky-looking oddball, a feeling that increased whenever she looked at her statuesque mother (and increased further when, at age 10, one of her mother's friends suggested she get a nose job).
Because of all this, Uma grew up an outsider. Indeed, given her mum's overt Eurocentricity, she did not even feel like an American. Thus displaced, she was incredibly angry, far beyond the teen norm. She might well have also been rebelling against her father's monk-like calm - she certainly went through a cheerleader period that annoyed her parents no end. She sought out extra-curricular activities that might ease her tension, bring her into contact with others in a way that she might feel was normal. Nothing worked - apart from acting. Being someone else was much, much better. From her first elementary school play she was hooked, taking acting lessons and appearing onstage wherever possible. Poetry also appealed, a big favourite being ee cummings.
As her confidence grew, so did her ambitions. At 14, she was sent to Northfield Mount Hermon School, half an hour from Amherst. However, having been treated as an adult by her parents since she was a small child, she now found school unutterably tedious. Much like Winona Ryder, god-daughter of Nena's first husband Timothy Leary, she'd decided at a very young age that acting was for her. That summer, she and a friend took off for New York City, seeking acting classes and modelling jobs.
Returning to Northfield, she appeared onstage as Abigail in a production of The Crucible (coincidentally, Ryder would later take that role on the big screen), coming to the attention of some New York talent scouts. They suggested she return to the Big Apple and give acting a real go - it was just what she wanted to hear.
. Dropping out of Northfield at 15 and transferring to the Professional Children's High School, she began seeking auditions in New York. With her mother introducing her to various modelling agencies, she was quickly signed by Click and found herself in Glamour magazine, being shot by many of the country's top photographers. But it was movies she was after and, at 16, she won the lead in Kiss Daddy Goodnight, as Laura Pasholensky, a young vamp who cruises bars, picking up rich older guys, then drugging and robbing them - until one unstable fellow becomes obsessed with her.
The roles now came thick and fast, allowing her drop out of school before graduation. First came Johnny Be Good, a scrappy and fairly tawdry satire on the US education system, where Anthony Michael Hall played a school football star being bribed ever more outrageously to enrol at various colleges. Uma played his girlfriend, cop's daughter Georgia Elkans, who wants him to join her in getting a good education at the local college. As said, it was tacky stuff, a sorry attempt to combine All The Right Moves with the roustabout comedies of the time - a world away from Uma's next couple of projects.
The first of these was Terry Gilliam's magnificently ambitious The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen, an extraordinarily imaginative piece that saw the titular baron criss-crossing time and the universe, enjoying/enduring all manner of fabulous encounters. At one point he would come into contact with Vulcan, the God of War (Oliver Reed) and romance the god's wife, Venus. This would be Thurman, appearing naked and on one leg in a giant sea-shell, being dressed by cherubs. She and the baron would literally take off in an aerial ballroom scene, a beautiful and highly romantic distraction from the movie's ongoing mayhem.
Equally wonderful would be her part in Dangerous Liaisons, shot after Munchausen but released beforehand, concerning the massively decadent 18th Century French aristocracy, where Glenn Close sends a hilariously predatory John Malkovich to seduce the young and na've fiancee of her ex. Eventually he does the business, Thurman putting in an excellent performance as his "victim" - shy, initially horrified, but also flattered and eventually rather keen on this thrilling new experience.
The movie was a critical smash, and was Oscar-nominated as best film, bringing nominations also to Close and Michelle Pfeiffer. Yet despite her deft handling of such a tricky role, Thurman was not afforded such kudos.
Perhaps her sweet half-strip for Malkovich (an object lesson in vulnerability and longing) did the damage, perhaps it was her appearance on Rolling Stone's HOT cover the next year. Whatever, the media went wild and Uma was distraught to discover that she was now a bona fide sex symbol. Still scarred by those early "gawky" years, she couldn't believe it, didn't understand it. Despite her efforts to engage in classy productions, she believed people wanted her to be "an inflatable sex doll". She took to wearing baggy clothes and, for a while, even fled the country, hiding out in London.
. But there was more personal chaos on the immediate horizon. Then dating the director Phil Joanou, who'd just delivered U2's Rattle And Hum movie, she went down to meet the stars of his latest project, State Of Grace, a gripping tale of love and betrayal in the Irish immigrant underground. Sparks instantly flew when she encountered Gary Oldman - Joanou later said it was obvious that Oldman and Thurman were (at that moment, at least) meant for each other, so he gallantly stepped aside. Elsewhere on set, Sean Penn and Robin Wright were embarking on a similarly turbulent relationship.
By the end of 1990, Uma would have appeared in another two deliberately chosen "classy" projects. First was John Boorman's Where The Heart Is, where demolition magnate Dabney Coleman moves his supposedly spoilt kids into a building he's been refused permission to destroy to see if they can stand on their own. It was an acceptable mild comedy, with Thurman appearing as one of the daughters, the ethereal, Stevie Nicks-like Daphne. Far superior was Philip Kaufman's Henry And June, concerning the three-way affair between writers Henry Miller and Anais Nin and Miller's enigmatic wife, June in 1930s Paris. Fred Ward and Maria De Medeiros were excellent as Miller and Nin, but Uma was outstanding as June, despite her tender years appearing far more worldly than her husband and proving an understandable obsession for the sexual explorer Nin.
The movie was hugely provocative, its literary roots not saving it from the censor's attention. Staying true to Miller and Nin's notions of sexual liberation, it forced the creation of the NC-17 rating (which it then received instead of an X). Absolutely No Children. And quite right, too. It was far too stylish, intelligent and erotic for the likes of them.
Henry And June was not a big hit (Thurman's next co-starring credit with Medeiros, Pulp Fiction, would be a very different story). Neither was her next feature where she played Maid Marian to Patrick Bergin's titular Robin Hood. This was actually another good film but, consciously realistic, it was buried by Kevin Costner's huge, self-mythologising Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves. Lucky for her Brian De Palma had turned her down for Bonfire Of The Vanities on the grounds of lacking comedic skills.
It was proving to be a very difficult time for Uma. Having married Gary Oldman (12 years her senior) in October, 1990, she was watching the relationship rapidly swirling down the drain. Clearly she'd been attracted to Oldman's intensity and his ability - he was a true artist, just as she wished to be. But the intensity grew too much (there were also rumours of heavy drinking) and they were divorced by 1992. Both maintained a discreet hush about the split. Oldman once offered a revealing "You try living with an angel", Uma adding "Teenage weddings are in the category of things that don't count".
With her marriage over, Thurman now stepped up to deeper roles in more high-profile movies. First came Final Analysis, directed by her former beau Phil Joanou and starring Richard Gere who Uma had first met in the mid-Eighties when he and her father had been setting up the Tibet House organisation in New York. As thrillers go, the film was actually very effective. Gere played a psychiatrist treating a disturbed Uma and, in order to dig into the girl's past traumas, getting involved with her sister, Kim Basinger. This causes big trouble as it's possible Kim, Uma or both may be homicidal - and Kim's mobster boyfriend Eric Roberts certainly is.
There were more thrills to come in Jennifer 8, where Thurman took the brave step of playing blind woman Helena Robertson. Here city cop Andy Garcia is in a small town, tracking a serial killer of, yes, blind women, and it looks like Uma is next. It was another excellent performance but was not a hit, despite tight direction from Bruce Robinson, creator of Withnail And I - thus it did not silence the band of critics who could not see past Thurman's (unwanted) sex symbol image.
1993 served only to confuse matters further. In Mad Dog And Glory, an unusual comedy directed by John "Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer" McNaughton, she played a girl trying to pay off her brother's gambling debts by entering the service of gangster Bill Murray. When painfully reserved cop Robert De Niro saves Murray's life, he loans Thurman to him for a week and she, rather liking him, tries to open him up, giving him kissing lessons and the like. De Niro is naturally smitten so, when Murray wants her back, must overcome his meekness to battle for what he desires. Once more Thurman performed well, this time in hugely intimidating company, but once more the movie was no big hit. Though she was gaining experience fast, particularly from De Niro who would kindly scream at her off camera to get the right mood, to many outsiders she appeared to be treading water.
Treading water, that is, until she sank. For 1993 also brought the crazy failure of Even Cowgirls Get The Blues. Here Thurman was Sissy Hankshaw, a born hitch-hiker with enormous thumbs (easy for Uma to relate to, given her ungainly shape as a kid), who becomes a "feminine hygiene" model and hooks up with feminist renegades on the outlandish Rubber Rose cattle ranch. The original novel was a counter-culture hit in the Seventies, but Gus Van Sant's meandering adaptation seemed to miss whatever points were there to be made and, really, only John Hurt, as the massively camp Countess, emerged with his reputation undamaged.
For Thurman, as Cowgirls was her first major headlining role, this was not deemed to be good. In fact many believed that the movie's failure was final proof that this was just a pretty face. The death knell was sounded on her career. But Uma, still only 6 years in, was still learning, still stretching herself, and this had always been the plan. Harvey Weinstein tells a story of how Thurman turned down a $2 million role because it would've just involved looking good. Check the list of names she had already chosen to work with - Terry Gilliam, Stephen Frears, Glenn Close, Malkovich, Pfeiffer, John Boorman, Philip Kaufman, Robert De Niro, Gus Van Sant. This was clearly not an actress in for the short haul.
Thankfully, artistic redemption came immediately in the shape of Quentin Tarantino and Pulp Fiction. In this extraordinary, multi-faceted crime drama, Thurman beat off Holly Hunter and Meg Ryan to take her place as Mia Wallace, wife of Marcellus, an uber-thug who, we quickly learn, has thrown a man out of a window for daring to massage his beloved's Size 11s. Of all the film's myriad memorable moments, Thurman appears in several of the stand-outs. Discussing milkshakes with Travolta and winning the contest with their wacky peek-a-boo dancing. Accidentally snorting Travolta's heroin and becoming cinema's most beautiful coma victim. Leaping back to life when they've slammed a syringe full of adrenaline direct into her heart (her hi-octane performance in this scene was actually based on the similar revitalisation of a drugged panther on the set of Baron Munchausen). And she dominated the film's poster. Oscar-nominated for her efforts, suddenly she was amongst the biggest actresses in Hollywood.
And, naturally, she took no advantage of this whatsoever, not making a big budget movie for 3 full years. Attempting to widen her experience further, she reunited with her Robin Hood director John Irvin for the comedy of manners A Month By The Lake, based on the HE Bates story. Here she played Miss Beaumont, just expelled from a Swiss boarding school in 1937 and working as a nanny beside Lake Como. As spinster Vanessa Redgrave makes a tentative move on ageing major Edward Fox, so Thurman gazumps her, for no good reason beyond brattishness, and sends the poor old man wild with desire. In a very contained, British kind of way, you understand.
Next came Beautiful Girls, with Ted Demme, wherein Timothy Hutton, back in a small town for a High School reunion, gradually learns from his adolescent neighbour Natalie Portman and enigmatic blonde Thurman, that men's desire for the perfect woman destroys their chances of happiness with a real one. It was a small movie, but a meaningful one, with Uma's appearance a high-point. It would also lead to a year-long relationship with Hutton. Like Oldman, he was another intense and highly respected actor - definitely someone to learn from.
Following this came The Truth About Cats And Dogs, probably Thurman's weakest movie yet. Often perverse in her choices, here she decided to play to and thus undermine her lingering reputation as beauty first/actress second. In a Roxanne-style set-up, Janeane Garofolo fancies Ben Chaplin, thinks she hasn't got a hope, and asks friend Uma to win his heart for her. As said, it was wretched stuff, with none of the leads having much to work with. It was a painfully far cry from the project Thurman had had in mind for this point - a biopic of Marlene Dietrich had been cancelled due to the untimely death of proposed director Louis Malle.
After contributing to friend Griffin Dunne's short Duke Of Groove, now Thurman chose to re-enter the big-time. And what better way to do it than as a super-villain in the Batman franchise? As Poison Ivy, a formerly mild mannered botanist now aiming to kill all humans and leave the world free for her evil, genetically-modified plant buddies, she really was quite special. For the first time since her screen debut, she was a true vamp, entrancing all the men with her air-borne aphrodisiacs (not that she needed those, given the sensuousness of her performance). Unfortunately, though Arnold Schwarzenegger delivered a surprisingly emotional Mr Freeze and merchandise tie-ins gave it a mighty profit, Batman And Robin was deemed a disaster, the death of the franchise. Much of the blame was laid on director Joel Schumacher, though really it was more to do with the undermining of Tim Burton's original vision by the silly and perfunctory presence of both Robin and Batgirl. Whatever, Thurman was the only one who emerged with her reputation actually enhanced.
Now her life changed radically. Appearing in the complicated and philosophical Gattaca, wherein a future world is ruled by a biotech-created super-elite, she fell for the movie's star, Ethan Hawke. They had met earlier, once at an ATM machine, then at the premiere of Pulp Fiction and Thurman had considered him too young for her (he was only a year younger, but she was always looking to gain experience). Now she recognised him as an actor, writer and director, and a sensitive and intense worker. Soon she was pregnant with daughter Maya Ray, born in 1998, two months after the couple married in New York's Cathedral of St John the Divine (their union being blessed by the Dalai Lama).
A son, Levon (often called Roan in the press because that's what Maya used to call him) would follow in 2002.
. Professionally, she moved on to Victor Hugo's relentlessly depressing Les Miserables. Though the story was based around petty thief Liam Neeson rising to prominence despite a lifelong pursuit by obsessive copper Geoffrey Rush, it was Thurman who stole the show. As Fantine, an unfortunate fired from her job at Neeson's factory for bearing his bastard child, then turning to prostitution before succumbing to a fatal illness, she hit an impressive balance of decency, strength and terrible vulnerability.
Now, though, came her third high-profile disaster with The Avengers. As an eye-catchingly leather-clad Emma Peel opposite Ralph Fiennes funky Steed, battling Sean Connery and his destructive weather-machine, you'd have thought she'd have been onto a winner. Sadly, confusion reigned, the plot was lost (in fact many plots were lost) and, having been hacked from 150 minutes down to 89, the film sneaked out to the multiplexes without press showings. Reviews, of course, were not kind. Thurman, it was said, was lost somewhere between a vamp and an ice-queen. Whether this would have been the case had most of her performance not been left in the editing suite we will never know.
As ever, she took the slings and arrows without grumbling and moved on to another series of more "artistic" projects. First there was Woody Allen's Sweet And Lowdown, where she played a mean-hearted novelist and society-type who coaxes wayward jazz guitarist Sean Penn away from the true love of mute Samantha Morton and into an unhappy marriage. Then there was a long-overdue return to the stage in a New York production of The Misanthrope, followed by more Frenchness in Vatel, directed by Roland Joffe, where a prince, hoping for favours, throws a 3-day feast for Louis XIV. Here Thurman was a much-desired lady-in-waiting who causes trouble by engaging in an affair with the prince's head honcho Gerard Depardieu. It was a lavish piece, but strangely unengaging, though Thurman was often impressive in her stunning baroque poses.
Also lavish, but far more interesting was Henry James' The Golden Bowl, a Merchant-Ivory production. Uma had originally turned down the movie but was persuaded to reconsider by her friend Natasha Richardson. A good move, as it allowed her to engage with a fascinating character in a complex menage a quatre. Here she's Charlotte Stant, lover of impoverished Italian prince Jeremy Northam. When Northam marries Uma's mate Kate Beckinsale for money, Uma then marries Beckinsale's rich daddy Nick Nolte, in order to stay close to her beloved. Of course, her manipulations can only lead to emotional catastrophe.
Briefly, a working relationship with her husband Hawke flared up in 2001.
First came Richard Linklater's Tape, based on Stephen Belber's play, where she, Hawke and Robert Sean Leonard were old High School friends discussing a painful past - and in particular dealing with the boundaries between sex and rape. For this Uma would be nominated for an Independent Spirit award. Then came Hawke's own directorial debut, Chelsea Walls, 5 stories set in one day at the infamous Chelsea Hotel, invoking the spirit of the Beat generation. In Thurman's segment she's the object of painter Vincent D'Onofrio's desire, but turns him down in favour of some absent lover. The movie, an extremely arty mosaic of images, often more a painting than a movie, was critically well-received.
. And more acclaim was now to come. With Mira Nair's Hysterical Blindness, based on Laura Cahill's play, Thurman acted as star and executive producer (having optioned the script after seeing the off-Broadway production). Here she played 80s Jersey girl Debby Miller, a beautiful woman but so emotionally needy she continually flies into outbursts that not only drive men away but eventually cause her to lose her sight. Ably backed by Juliette Lewis and Cassavetes stalwarts Gena Rowlands and Ben Gazzara, Uma went way overboard, dancing to Phil Collins and freaking out big-time. Some found it too much, most though found it deeply fascinating and eventually true to the story. It was certainly a courageous effort and deserved the Golden Globe it won.
Now came the biggest step yet, when she donned a Bruce Lee-style yellow track-suit and reunited with Tarantino for Kill Bill. Various joys were to be had even before production began. First, she turned down Brian De Palma's Femme Fatale, avenging that Bonfire Of The Vanities setback. Then Warren Beatty, originally set to play the titular Bill, asked that Uma, then pregnant with Levon, be dropped in favour of Winona Ryder or Gwyneth Paltrow. Tarantino, who has publicly stated that Thurman is a form of muse to him, decided to wait for his girl, and it was Beatty who left the project.
And what a project. Uma starred as The Bride, a retired assassin whose ex-boss (Bill) turns her wedding party into an abattoir and thus starts a quite startling cycle of murder and revenge. Tarantino pulled out all the stops, aping many of the greatest Asian action flicks to gore-flecked effect and remaining true to his stylish and well-written oeuvre. Far too long but apparently impossible to cut, the film would be released in two parts, ensuring that Thurman would be the world's most visible actress throughout 2003 and 2004. Her performance deserved it, too. Engaging in lengthy and brilliantly choreographed scraps with Lucy Liu, Daryl Hannah and Vivica A Fox, as well as several hundred ninjas, she also managed to bring great humanity and pathos to her relationship with mentor and forner lover David Carradine.
On top of this, as he had done in Pulp Fiction, Tarantino worshipped her with his camera, lending great weight to claims that she was truly the most beautiful actress in the world. It all made the Kill Bill phenomenon massively profitable, Volume One shirting two million home videos in its first 24 hours on sale. And it saw Thurman twice more nominated for Golden Globes.
. Sadly, this visibility brought serious press attention when, in August 2003, while Thurman was in Vancouver filming Paycheck, Hawke (now also high profile after his Oscar nomination for Training Day) was spotted away from the Montreal set of Taking Lives with Canadian model Jen Perzow. The tabloids went wild and Thurman, who had never courted celebrity, was forced to suffer a very public humiliation. Eventually the story circulated that Hawke had simply reacted to a fear that his wife was acting as more than a muse for Tarantino, but this seemed unlikely. Then it was said that her desire to be movie star put too much pressure on the raltionship. Whatever, this marriage of seemingly well-suited independent spirits was over. Adding a further minor injury, her 3-year relationship with Lancombe, for whom she had launched the Miracle fragrance, was terminated. She and Hawke would file for divorce in 2004, and she would soon be spotted with hotel tycoon Andre Balazs.
Thurman, as ever, would soldier on. Between Kill Bills would come Paycheck, a John Woo take on a Philip K Dick tale, where Ben Affleck would play a computer wizard who's hired to illegally break vital corporate codes then has his memory erased to stop him blabbing. Sadly, he also has his memories of a love affair with biologist Uma erased, and the pair attempt to rekindle it as they battle against an evil corporation trying to steal a machine that can predict the future. Of course, being Woo the effects were startling and explosive, but Thurman still managed to bring depth to her character.
2005 was another busy year. It began with a reunion with John Travolta in Be Cool, a follow-up to Get Shorty. Penned by Elmore Leonard, it saw Travolta's gangster Chili Palmer switch his attentions from the movie industry to music. While he's trying to cut a deal over lunch with indie label owner James Woods, Woods is killed and Travolta moves in on Woods' widow, Uma, passing himself off as her new business partner. And on we go, the problems this time including pushy managers, Russian mobsters and gay bodyguards who want to make it as actors.
Following this would come Prime, where Thurman played a sophisticated divorcee and career woman in Manhattan who becomes the love object of a much younger Brooklyn artist who happens to be the son of Uma's therapist, Meryl Streep. Viewing love from all angles, it was a character-based comedy and one which Uma had stepped into at very short notice, when Sandra Bullock bailed out.
She'd continue in the comedy vein by replacing Nicole Kidman as Ulla, the sexy Swedish secretary of Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick as they plot their ill-fated theatrical disaster in The Producers: The Movie Musical. On the cards, there was also the long-delayed Accidental Husband where, applying for a marriage licence, she'd discover that she's somehow already hitched to Brendan Fraser. It was another great opportunity to once more prove to Brian De Palma that, yes, she could do funny.
One thing's for sure, having worked so hard to add ability to her undoubted looks and ludicrous gracefulness (co-star Kate Beckinsale once said of her "She gets up out of a chair and you want to applaud"), Uma Thurman will continue to impress in the occasional big-budget role, then impress some more in a series of indies. She has proved herself to be devoted to good work, away from the cult of celebrity that deadens so many of her peers. As her name suggests - the woman's a blessing.
Uma Thurman, World Famous People, Artists, Actress