By Karen S. Schneider
April 23, 2001 12:00 PM

Parents at Wood River Middle School in Hailey, Idaho, were thrilled by the show they crowded in to watch early last month. Up onstage was a dazzling spectacle—elaborate costumes, fabulous makeup, all the trappings befitting one of showbiz’s hottest sex symbols. And we’re not talking Demi Moore. No, Hailey’s hometown superstar was sitting on a stiff auditorium bench, watching a friend’s daughter and other sixth graders doing, among other things, their best imitations of Britney Spears. After taking it all in for two hours, Moore’s youngest daughter, Tallulah, 7, was ready for bed. And so her mother—who for more than a decade would do just about anything for attention, from posing pregnant and naked on the cover of Vanity Fair in 1991 to stripping down to a bikini before a stunned David Letterman to promote Striptease in 1996—gave her a piggyback ride to the car. No nannies, no entourage. As one fellow parent says, “She seems like a woman who has come to see a certain degree of folly in her old ways.”

Maybe, maybe not. But 11 years after she hit super-stardom in the supernatural thriller Ghost, Moore, 38, is looking differently at life—and life differently at her. Once an unabashedly ambitious actress who announced her desire to achieve “greatness” in her career—which by 1995 had accounted for more than $1 billion in box office receipts for hits that included A Few Good Men, Indecent Proposal and Disclosure—Moore hasn’t even appeared onscreen in three years (unless you count last year’s low-budget thriller Passion of Mind, which no one does). And now the woman once known in the industry as Gimme Moore for her extravagant demands—most notably jets for her crew of nannies, cook, trainer and stylist—appears disinclined to ask for anything at all. “I had a project about a year and a half ago, and we made an inquiry about her—a real good commercial picture,” says producer Irwin Winkler, whose credits include Rocky, Goodfellas and Moore’s ’96 drama The Juror. “She wasn’t interested.”

Perhaps that’s because while all the trainers and stylists may have made Moore look good, she didn’t feel so hot. “I just needed to stop and take a break,” she told IN STYLE last October. She has also dropped the grueling workouts that gave her one of the most spectacular bodies in Hollywood in favor of casual swimming and Rollerblading—as well as running around after her two birds, two cats, two dogs and three daughters, Rumer, 12, Scout, 9, and Tallulah. “One of my goals is to build a loving relationship so that my children, as adults, will want to share their lives with me,” she said to IN STYLE. “The foundation I lay—if it’s not there now, it won’t be later.”

By all accounts Moore is committed to a new ethos: Hailey instead of Hollywood, motherhood instead of movies, hiking boots instead of high heels. “In Hailey everyone becomes unfashionable. You just put your hair in a ponytail and wear sweatshirts and jeans and boots. That’s how Demi dresses,” says Spanish stock trader Maria Bravo, 33, who gained a measure of fame as Bruce Willis‘s first serious flame after his 1998 split from Moore, and who got to know and like Moore during her 18-month romance with Willis. As Bravo tells it, she and Willis were often in and out of Hailey in 1999, celebrating Thanksgiving and Christmas with Moore, her martial-arts-instructor boyfriend Oliver Whitcomb and the girls at what was once the Willis family’s $2.5 million home. Moore and the girls, in turn, regularly spent time with Bravo and Willis (who split amicably last September) at his $1.5 million home 10 miles away. The former star couple, says Bravo, “get along very well. Anything that was for the children was like a big family reunion. My relationship with her was beautiful—strangely nice, because it is an awkward situation. But she was very gracious. She has moved on. She loves to be in that small town doing the mother thing.”

Though Bravo calls Willis, 46, a “wonderful father” who is “the most patient and caring and loving man” to his kids, the truth is he spends far less time in Hailey than Moore does. He has made four films in the past year or so and is a regular on the international club scene, whether dancing to samba music last August with Mick Jagger at Boom in Manhattan (where he recently bought a reported $7.7 million pied-à-terre in the Trump Tower) or singing with a Czech band in March at a nightclub in Prague, where he is filming the World War II drama Hart’s War. But there were no such antics from his ex-wife, who for the first few days went unnoticed when she took their daughters to visit Willis on the set late last month. With her “modest” demeanor, says Marcela Pavlikova, an antique-shop employee who sold Moore $153 worth of purses, pendants and pillowcases, “it didn’t occur to me that she could be someone famous.”

Which is exactly how Moore seems to like it these days. While more than a dozen police officers were needed in Prague to contain fans outside a crystal shop where Moore, Willis and the kids were learning the art of glassblowing, she goes largely unnoticed in Hailey. She revels in her stable two-year romance with Whitcomb, 30, an Aspen native who lives in a rented apartment in Hailey. (Says a pal: “Oliver and Demi admire each other’s strengths. She’s a classy lady, and he’s a grounded guy.”) She has not one but two local coffee shops serving up her favorite 20-oz. double-skinny lattes with nonfat milk which she hits in between carting her kids from school to horseback riding lessons, gymnastics classes and soccer practice. And she even gets to dabble in a little showbiz: In January the audience at nearby Ketchum’s nexStage Theater was surprised to see Moore stroll onstage for an unbilled performance in Dinner with Friends as a wife helping to counsel another couple through a breakup. “She looked really healthy,” says a theater volunteer. “She was great.”

To locals who have seen Moore up close for years, the transformation from diva to den mother has been remarkable—especially since her 1998 separation from Willis (they divorced after 13 years in 2000). “As a couple,” says one of Moore’s Idaho friends, “they were self-involved and competitive about their careers. They used to be surrounded by masseuses and nannies. If there was a play date, it was usually handled by the nanny.” When Moore did oversee an event—like the 1997 wedding of her nanny Madison Myers—it was pure Hollywood, says the friend. “There were something like 10 adult bridesmaids and 10 child bridesmaids, all in black gowns,” she recalls. The wedding was delayed two hours, in large part, she adds, “because Demi was getting her hair extensions done.” Just the sight of her in early March at a Ketchum ice rink—sitting with two of her daughters, Whitcomb and 500 other fans who had paid $7 each to watch an amateur hockey game—was enough to convince one spectator that her highfalutin days are done. “She spent the whole time playing with a friend’s baby, hoisting the child in the air and smiling,” he says.” “Years ago I saw her here, and she came in through a back entrance and sat apart. This time she waded into the throng and left through the same exit as everyone else.”

Of course, being like everyone else wasn’t always high on Moore’s wish list. “I’m very ambitious and very driven,” she told Vanity Fair in 1991. “I want [stardom]. I’m not like, ‘Oh, yes, well, if it happens, it happens.’ I really want this.” But proving herself a box office draw wasn’t the only thing she wanted. As she once told The New York Times, “To me, being a movie star without being respected as an actress would be nothing.”

Unfortunately her work in 1995’s The Scarlet Letter earned her more hoots than hosannas. But even she knew that rewriting Nathaniel Hawthorne’s bleak morality tale to provide a happy ending was a risk. It was the tanking of 1996’s much ballyhooed Striptease—for which she bared almost all of her body for a then-unprecedented $12.5 million—that seemed to hit home. When she arrived on the set of G.I Jane later that summer, says one of the film’s producers, “she was determined to do an exceptional job because her professional career was in jeopardy after Striptease.” Though another Jane producer, Nigel Wooll, as well as some critics, thought Moore “gave a fantastic performance,” it earned a modest $48 million, only slightly more than it cost to make. By the time she tried a John Travolta-like rebirth in Passion of Mind in 1998, for a fraction of her standard fee, she was in serious damage-control mode. “She was trying to regain credibility,” says Passion casting director Sarah Halley Finn, “to reinvent herself and reestablish herself as a serious actress.”

Most colleagues understand her decision to put off that task. The product of a chaotic home life—her hard-drinking parents, Virginia and Danny Guynes (both now deceased), married and divorced each other twice and moved Demi and her half brother Morgan Guynes, now 33, some 30 times before settling in a run-down section of L.A. when Demi was 14—Moore seems determined to protect her own family. Says Julia Roberts‘s former agent and current partner at Revolution Studios, Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas: “Good for her. I think it’s incredibly empowering to take time for yourself and your kids and your life. I don’t know how many people out there could say no to the seduction of the amounts of money being thrown at these superstars.” As Hollywood historian Molly Haskell points out, not since Greta Garbo has a star chosen to leave fame and fortune behind: “It is highly unusual to walk out on your career.”

Then again, Moore has not indicated that she wants out for good—though what Hollywood is willing to throw at her today is uncertain. “Nobody’s going around saying she’s not worth anything or that she’s not a good actress,” says Mike Medavoy, chairman and CEO of Phoenix Pictures, “but I certainly wouldn’t pay her the kind of money she was earning.” Like many colleagues, producer Irwin Winkler believes that if and when Moore decides to act again, her near-40 status could hurt her. “There are limited opportunities for women in that age group,” he says—especially for a woman with a string of flops. But most believe Moore has the talent and status to beat tough industry odds. “She’ll come back,” says Medavoy. “She’s a good enough actress for it.” Indeed, he believes her return to film is simply a matter of time; just a few months ago her agents at CAA suggested Moore for a project he was working on. He declined only because, he says, “I felt I had seen her in that sort of part already. It wouldn’t have been a surprise for the audience.” Or just as important, a challenge for Moore. Says one insider: “When there’s a role out there that’s more interesting than her life, she’ll take it.”

At this point, though, Moore seems less likely to take on a film than to hop in her boyfriend’s beat-up Ford pickup and head to the Liberty Theater (which she and Willis own) to see one. Or better yet, to see her daughter Rumer perform in a school play. “She’s very talented—way more than either of her parents,” says one of Moore’s friends with a laugh. “She’s got ‘star’ written all over her,” Says another: “Demi is so proud. She’s proud of all her children.” Let Hollywood wait for the return of its onetime wonder woman; just now, bragging about her kids over a skinny latte at the neighborhood coffee shop is greatness enough.

Karen S. Schneider

Lorenzo Benet and Vickie Bane in Hailey, Michelle Caruso, Elizabeth Leonard and Lyndon Stambler in Los Angeles, Liz McNeil in New York City and Jan Stojaspal and Caris Davis in Prague