On the dance card of life, Michelle Phillips has already tangoed with the best, the brightest, or at least the wildest. John Phillips, her first husband, founded with her that breakthrough folk-rock group of the ’60s, the Mamas and the Papas. Her second husband—for eight days—was Dennis Hopper, director and co-star of Easy Rider. Michelle rebounded in the ’70s as the love of Hollywood’s arch-bachelors, Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty. She was even pregnant by Nicholson until she miscarried in 1971. Next came Beatty, whom she cajoled as close to the altar as anyone. Briefly, last year, Michelle ricocheted back with Jack before an encore with Warren. Meanwhile, in her latest line of work, acting, she made new headlines with a set-side set-to with the legendary Rudolf Nureyev in the movie Valentino. Rudi, in a pique, slapped her on the hand and she slapped right back on the butt—”hard,” she emphasized.
Michelle Phillips is indeed no one to mess with, and at 33, for the first time, her career is more luminous than her love life. Over the weekend she played the prime bitch Gloria Osborne in NBC’s latest three-night avalanche, Aspen. Simultaneously, her first solo album is hitting the record racks. It is called Victim of Romance, but Michelle swears, with a laugh, the LP’s “not autobiographical—it just happens to be a good title.”
“Michelle wants to be a star,” explains one acquaintance. “Everything she does is calculated. The men she’s had were merely stepping-stones.” A more sympathetic rendering comes from actress Mackenzie (One Day at a Time) Phillips, 18, Papa John’s daughter by a previous marriage. Says she of her ex-stepmother: “When it seemed that Michelle had dropped out and was only heard of linked with other people, she was studying acting and voice, and not about to do anything until she knew she was ready. If you’ve heard the new album,” observes Mackenzie, with justice, “you know she’s damned ready now.”
As to whether Michelle has, in fact, been a victimizer, not victim, of romance, well, Nicholson and Beatty are big boys. “I’ve known them both forever,” says Michelle, “and we’re all good friends.” Similarly, she’s remained tight with Phillips, who wrote one track, Trashy Rumors, and helped produce her LP (two of the compositions are her own). She recalls how they collaborated on the first and most lasting of the Mamas’ hits, California Dreamin’. “He woke me up in the middle of the night with the first lines, All the leaves are brown, and the sky is grey…He was always up in the middle of the night, and I was always asleep,” she continues. “I was a young girl needing my rest. He said, ‘Get up, goddamnit, help me. You’ll thank me someday.’ ” Now she concedes, “I’d never have written without John.”
Will she ever be equally grateful to Nureyev? “Working with Rudolf is not an experience I would care to repeat,” she says, though she now dismisses their slapping bout “as a small incident. I’m coming off as this very strident, aggressive co-star of Rudolf’s. I thought such studio image-making went out with the ’50s. Of course,” she adds, “that kind of thing didn’t hurt Bette Davis, and I guess I’m not the girl next door anyway.”
She used to be, back in Los Angeles. Her mother died when Holly Michelle Gilliam was 5, and she was raised by her beloved father, a World War II merchant seaman and later postal worker who decided to attend Mexico City College, carting Michelle with him. When they returned to L.A., she was in high school, winning varsity letters in three sports and playing a bit of piano, guitar and cello. Michelle also modeled briefly, and one evening in her senior year met John Phillips, 26-year-old leader of a little-known group called the Journeymen. So much for school, she recounts. “I was a woman in love.” She traveled along until, for economic reasons, John asked her to become a member. “I had no aspirations to sing, but he persuaded me to go to Sausalito for the summer and learn a few songs,” she recalls. Joined by Denny Doherty out of the Halifax Three, and then by his former partner Cass Elliott, the crew went with family and friends to the Virgin Islands. There they regrouped as the Mamas and the Papas—after playing house on the beach. (John had custody of Mackenzie, then 5, who slept in her own pup tent.)
John and Michie were gettin’ kind of itchy just to leave the folk music behind, as the M’s and P’s put it in their true-to-life 1967 tune Creeque Alley. Pioneers in the pop progression to folk-rock, they were perhaps the first major rock group to include two women and the first to appear onstage in rag-tag uncoordinated hippie drag. As the bread rolled in, they even integrated chic Bel-Air with rockers. (The Phillipses’ house previously belonged to Jeanette MacDonald.) But by 1968 the gorgeous four-part harmonies were breaking up, as was the Phillipses’ marriage. Mama Cass died tragically of a heart attack in 1974. Denny is back in Nova Scotia jamming with buddies in local clubs.
Ironically, the boss’s wife, presumably the least promising, became better known than any of them including John. Michelle moved to Malibu with their daughter, Chynna, then 2, and joined a Hollywood acting workshop. “It wasn’t easy,” she recalls. “I had to struggle with the very irresponsible image I had coming out of rock ‘n’ roll.” She didn’t help by her wham-bam marriage to the director of her first film, Hopper, while high in the Peruvian Andes shooting The Last Movie.
Then, except for Dillinger with Warren Oates, she had a dry spell in which “the films I was offered I didn’t want to do, and the films I wanted to do I wasn’t ready for.” Valentino director Ken Russell, though, had spotted Michelle. “I think I got the part,” she now says, “because during a dinner with Warren I showed Ken I was a dominant lady like Valentino’s wife.” Russell did question whether she could dance, but what she needed in the picture was solved with a tango course at a Fred Astaire studio.
The movie is not her favorite subject, and she notes, “More people will see me in Aspen in three nights than will ever see Valentino.” She is admittedly slightly defensive about television because she personally doesn’t watch. That proved embarrassing in taping the Battle of the Network Stars ’77 (which aired last week). “Here I was asking these stars of established hits what they did.” But old school jock Michelle, running for NBC, won the obstacle race despite a sprained ankle that put her in a cast for two weeks.
With that and the letdown after completion of the movie, the miniseries and the album, she’s awarded herself the rest of the year off for “fun, fun, fun.” She and Chynna live in a second-story walk-up apartment on the south side of Beverly Hills, which purposely doesn’t require prodigies of domesticity. But they have a live-in Mexican housekeeper, so Michelle is free to chase her ambitions. “I’ve worked since I was 17—and I have a need for attention,” she says with the frankness of a new analysand (she started with a shrink last March). “I like taking control of a project. I designed my own album cover for Victim of Romance. Film is frustrating because I can’t be in there telling them how to cut it.” She implies that Valentino would have worked better if they had listened to her editing ideas. “I’m an executive at heart,” she claims. “Directing is an inevitable step.”
She also confesses to a hankering for another child, though she’s not doing anything about it. “Right now,” Michelle says, “there’s no man in my life and it feels fine.” But is there a boy? She laughs off last month’s column rumor about her and then 15-year-old actor-teenyrocker Leif Garrett. “Some of the things they print about me can reduce me to shock and tears,” Phillips declares, looking very earnest. “I think of myself in such different terms. To me, I’m a moderate, clean-living, struggling young actress.”