Striptease's Demi Moore knows that it takes the "A" in ambition to get to the top.

By Gregory Cerio
Updated June 24, 1996 12:00 PM

AS Demi Moore WOULD LATER recall, she sensed “a certain animal fever” on the set when she performed exotic dances during the filming of Striptease. By all accounts, things got hottest on a day last October—the very first time Moore stepped onto the movie’s Fort Lauderdale nightclub stage. Some 200 male extras hired to play club patrons were gathered around small tables near the runway. Their fee was nominal, and they’d had to wait an hour—but the extras didn’t mind. They were there for one real reason: to see Demi Moore undress. When the cameras rolled at last and a hard-driving Annie Lennox tune, “Money Can’t Buy It,” kicked out from the loudspeakers, Moore strode onstage wearing a man’s suit with tearaway snap buttons. Maybe it was the anticipation. Maybe the sight of a superstar in the flesh. But as Striptease choreographer Marguerite Derricks recalls, Moore was just a few steps into her routine when the men in the audience erupted. “There was an uproar,” says Derricks. “The director yelled ‘Cut!’ They were really carrying on.”

Few, if any, top female film stars would have been out on that runway in the first place, ready to submit their bodies to the scrutiny of several million moviegoers. And after being confronted by 200 braying extras, even the most daring actress might have demanded a double. Not Moore. Order was restored, the scene was reshot, and Moore, 33, shimmied down to her bikini top and G-string. No big deal. When asked about the filming of her exotic dance numbers, Moore smiles the wistful smile of a born exhibitionist and replies, “After my experience, I felt very confident.”

Indeed, Moore has more to feel confident about than the physical attributes she calls her “goodies.” Her entire career has been marked by a determination to succeed, rivaling anything imagined by Dreiser—or at least Judith Krantz. A self-described “trailer park kid,” Moore kicked a drug and alcohol habit that nearly scuttled her career. She has also survived a turbulent family life featuring a mother, Virginia Guynes, 51, whose own substance-abuse problems have caused her several very public brushes with the law. Moore, for all that, has been the one member of the mid-’80s Brat Pack of young film actors (Judd Nelson, Ally Sheedy, Andrew McCarthy, et al) to achieve superstardom, thanks to hits like Ghost (1990) and Disclosure (1994). For Striptease, she was able to command $12.5 million, making her the highest-paid actress in movie history. “She works harder than anyone I know,” says Striptease director Andrew Bergman. “She wants to be in control of her life.”

Not even she can control everything, and as anyone who has been following her career can attest, Moore, for all her self-assurance, does have things to worry about. Critics gave The Scarlet Letter an F, and audiences flunked it at the box office, too. This spring’s The Juror also failed to draw as expected. As some in L.A. see it, for Moore this is make-or-break time. “I think Striptease has to work,” says Martin Grove, CNN film industry analyst and a Hollywood Reporter columnist “Otherwise, Demi may have to get a day job at Planet Hollywood. It’s hard to justify $12.5 million when you’re not packing them in.”

But the buzz on Striptease isn’t encouraging. In marketing tests, many potential ticket buyers confused the film, which the studio bills as a comedy-thriller, with last year’s sleazefest Showgirls. Just a few weeks ago, Moore, Burt Reynolds and the film’s other stars had to reshoot the ending after test audiences objected to having Reynolds’s character turn violent. Such portents of another flop, one film producer says, may give movie execs doubts about Moore’s marketability. “You begin to ask if there’s an audience out there for Demi, or if her success has been more a function of the movies she’s been in,” he says. Audiences have an abiding affection for actresses who play vulnerable characters, like Julia Roberts, he adds, “but it’s a different situation for Demi.”

Certainly it may be hard for Moore to engender much empathy among women when almost every signal moment in her career has involved a display of flesh. Beginning with her first major picture, 1984’s Blame It on Rio, and now with Striptease, Moore has appeared topless six times on the screen. There were her notorious nude Vanity Fair covers in 1991 and ’92, and at this moment a photo in Arena magazine of Moore—made up as a man and baring her breasts—is causing a stir in Britain. Just one indicator that there’s no love lost on Moore comes in a story called “Public Enemies” in the current issue of Allure magazine. The article derides Moore’s “preternaturally perky breasts,” and dismisses her as a “famously buff mother of three [who] is despised by unbuff mothers of three everywhere.”

At the same time, she isn’t exactly being cheered on by Hollywood, where her tough-girl determination often causes her to be perceived as demanding and difficult. Even moguls who like Moore describe her in terms more commonly applied to the Dallas Cowboys on the eve of the Super Bowl. “She is extremely focused, really committed,” says Barry Levinson, who directed her in Disclosure. Others are less discreet. Adrian Lyne, who directed Moore in 1993’s Indecent Proposal, told Britain’s The Guardian, “If you want her to sit down, she tends to want to stand up. Or she wants to know why you want her to sit down.” Then, mixing his metaphors but making his meaning clear, he advised future Demi directors to “put on a suit of armor. She’s a very tough ride.”

In her own defense, Moore told Cosmopolitan, “I do take a stand about how a scene should be played. I have a passion for my work, and that sometimes triggers creative conflicts.” Carl Hiaasen, author of the novel on which Striptease is based, was impressed by her smarts—and surprised that she’d read his book thoroughly and then “struck out with a journalistic appetite and researched the stripping business.” While the movie was in production, Moore’s daily exercise encompassed a long predawn run on the beach, as many as three hours of dance rehearsal, a session with her personal trainer in a special trailer outfitted with $15,000 worth of gym equipment, and 2½ hours of yoga. Vanity may motivate Moore, but by making sure she looks every inch the $12.5 million woman onscreen, Moore also maintains her superstar status and the leverage that goes with it. “Everything is a matter of Demi trying to have a sense of empowerment,” says director Bergman. He pauses, then adds, “Given her early life, you can understand it.”

Moore was born Demetria Guynes in Roswell, N.Mex., and grew up as the older child—half brother Morgan is now 28 and a film technician—of Danny Guynes, a newspaper ad salesman, and his wife, Virginia. (Her mother, Moore has said, got the name Demetria from a beauty product she saw in a magazine.) By his daughter’s estimate, Danny had moved the family some 30 times before Moore was a teenager. Sometimes the moves were prompted by a better job, but just as often they were to escape his debts. The accommodations, needless to say, were far from commodious. One scene from Striptease was shot in a trailer that, says Siobhan Fallon, an actress with a supporting role in the film, “was this dark, dreary one-bedroom thing, full of knickknacks.” But Moore’s reaction to the place “was a little shocking,” Fallon recalls. “She said, ‘Believe it or not, this is a pretty nice trailer. I’ve seen a lot worse than this.’ ”

Poverty wasn’t Moore’s only problem. At 12, she developed a crossed right eye, which required two operations to correct. At 14, she discovered that Guynes was not her biological father—she had been conceived during Virginia’s two-month marriage in 1962 to an Air Force man named Charles Harmon. That revelation, and the constant drinking and fighting of her parents, set her adrift. “I got lost,” she told McCall’s. “I had an essence in my life that I was nothing.”

Guynes and Virginia divorced when Moore was 15, and in 1980, Danny Guynes committed suicide by breathing carbon monoxide from his car exhaust. By that time, Demi was on her own. At 16, soon after she and her mother had moved to L.A., Moore dropped out of Fairfax High, got a job at a debt collection agency, took her own apartment and did some modeling. At 18, she married Freddy Moore, a rock musician 12 years her senior.

The seed of Moore’s acting ambitions was planted about the time of her marriage, when she took to reading scripts with a young German neighbor and aspiring actress named Nastassja Kinski. Moore enrolled in some drama classes, and in 1982, though she had little experience, beat out 1,000 other actresses for a role on General Hospital. “She had street smarts,” recalls GH veteran Norma Connolly. “She learned fast.”

In some ways, too fast. Drugs and alcohol took their toll while she worked on forgettable films like 1982’s Parasite, about a marauding giant slug. She left GH in 1983 to work on Blame It on Rio, and she and Freddy divorced in 1984. That same year she was cast in the Brat Pack drama St. Elmo’s Fire. But when director Joel Schumacher discovered the extent of Moore’s dissolute ways, he threatened to fire her.

That did it. Moore promptly entered a rehab program and arrived on the set two weeks later clean and sober. She never looked back. Her mother, who has a long record of arrests for crimes, including drunken driving and arson, has not been so lucky. Virginia posed nude in 1993 for High Society magazine, imitating her daughter’s Vanity Fair pregnancy cover. Through it all, Moore tried to get help for her mother, but when Virginia walked away from a rehab stay Moore had paid for at Hazelden in Minnesota, Demi broke off contact with her.

Given that background, it’s almost remarkable that Moore now finds herself in what is, by Hollywood standards, a long-running marriage. She met Bruce Willis—then the fast-rising star of TV’s Moonlighting—in August 1987, shortly after she had ended a three-year, on-again, off-again engagement to Elmo costar Emilio Estevez. Though Willis had a hard-drinking, womanizing reputation, Moore found him warm and funny. They married three months later. Kevin Pollak, Moore’s costar in A Few Good Men, recalls her early times with Willis as “basic, silly puppy love.”

Today, with their three daughters, Rumer, 7, Scout, 4, and Tallulah, 2, Moore and Willis have entered a more mature phase of their relationship. “We don’t have a storybook marriage,” Moore has told Cosmopolitan. “We argue. We fight.” But, she added, “the children are our glue, and we’re each other’s best friend. Those two facts see us through tough spots.”

A little walking-around money never hurts either. Moore employs two nannies and a personal staff that includes her assistant, the assistant’s assistant, bodyguards, a tutor, masseuse, yoga instructor and cook. With $21 million in paychecks over the past two years, she is the only movie actress on the Forbes list of top-earning entertainers. She and Willis, who according to Forbes has himself earned more than $35 million since 1994, own a $2.5 million white stucco home on the beach in Malibu, a 14-room pied-à-terre on Manhattan’s Central Park West, and a six-bedroom, seven-bath ranch house worth $5 million on 48 acres near the town of Hailey, Idaho. In Hailey, the couple has bought much of Main Street, including the Liberty Theatre and a club called the Mint, where Willis often sings with his rock band. Along with stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and her husband, Moore is also a partner in the Planet Hollywood restaurant chain, which last year pulled in $21 million in profits.

Such loot makes life a movable feast. On the Striptease set, Moore made “a little home for herself,” says Siobhan Fallon. She fenced in a patch of lawn outside her trailer for her two dogs. Mommy’s favorite artworks—crayon drawings by her daughters and Polaroid snaps of Dad and the kids—covered the walls. And on every flat surface, from tables to countertops to shelves, sat dolls from Moore’s 2,000-figure collection. It might not take a degree in psychology to conclude that these icons help Moore find a piece of her lost childhood. And, indeed, among her dolls, notes choreographer Derricks, “she’s like a little kid.”

Away from the dollhouse, though, Moore projects a different image entirely. She is confident, in control, serene. One night last September, Fallon recalls, huge, boiling cumulonimbus clouds rolled across the Florida sky, packing atomic-blast thunder and releasing crackling lightning bolts. Fallon lay in bed, fretful. The next morning, when she mentioned the storm to Moore, the star simply shrugged. “Last night,” said Moore, “I went running in the rain, then I took a swim in the ocean.” Spoken like a woman who fully expects to ride out all of life’s tempests.


CAROLYN RAMSAY and JEFF SCHNAUFER in Los Angeles, LIZ MCNEIL in New York City and GREG AUNAPU in Miami, with bureau reports