It would be hard to convince someone born in the '60s now that Cher ever stood by Sonny's side and sang Sonny' songs at dates that Sonny booked wearing clothes that Sonny selected.
Nor is it easy to remember that there was a Vegas Cher, a woman who headlined 20 weeks a year at Caesars Palace, making eleven costumes changes and sliding down a 20-foot high-heel shoe.
The more important thing to remember about the Vegas Cher, though, is that she walked away from a $350,000-a-week gig in the desert to pursue her childhood dream of becoming an actress. And that she stuck with that dream even though her progress was slow and her first acting job called for a $345,000-a-week cut in pay. Her problems, as she sees it, was not a lack of talent but "the sad fact that people want to stick a label on you so they don't have to think about you anymore... [and] I refuse to accept other people's limitations."
Cher won applause for her first real dramatic role in the 1982 Broadway production of "Come Back To The 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean", directed by Robert Altman, yet that was just the beginning of her struggle. When she dropped by a theatre in L.A. to see a preview for "Silkwood", her first film since a late-'60s stinker called "Chastity", she watched as her name flashed on the screen -- and the audience laughed.
Eventually, she earned an Oscar nomination for her performance as the lesbian friend of Karen Silkwood, a whistle blower on nuclear radiation played by Meryl Streep. That only made the two-year wait for her next part, in "Mask", all the more frustrating. She was proud of her work in that film, the true story of a drug-addicted California biker with a heart of gold and her hideously deformed teenage son. She stayed proud even when "the studio chickened out and refused to put my picture in the ads and on the posters because they didn't know what to make of me."
Now those days seemed like a dim memory. The roles Cher played in a trio of movies later brought her to that exclusive Hollywood zone called bankability. The first was "The Witches Of Eastwick", a film which Cher vaguely called "a disaster in so many ways" but which enabled her to act with Jack Nicholson. Then there was "Moonstruck", a relatively low-budget comedy about an Italian family in Brooklyn. The film, she said in her blunt fashion, "is the first movie of mine that I ever watched without wanting to throw up."
Cher is not worried about her lifestyle being a bad influence on her kids for the simple reason that "my lifestyle isn't what you'd think it is from reading the papers." She doesn't drink or do drugs, and if she stays out late it's just to go dancing. There is evidence, however, that she may be cross-addicted to clothes. Kiss lead singer, Gene Simmons, a former boyfriend, told of her legendary spending sprees. "She's the deadliest shopper I've ever seen," he remarked, recalling a three-minute splurge at Fiorucci's in New York in which Cher "spent the equivalent of the cost of a car."
Cher admitted that, after years of commanding a superstar salary, she has run out of money from time to time. Before her stage score in "Come Back To The 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean", she hit bottom financially. "She was broke, and at one point I had to loan her money to get her through," said record producer David Geffen.
Cherilyn Sarkisian -- half Armenian, half American Indian -- didn't really know what to make of herself when she was growing up in the San Fernando Valley. Her mother, Georgia Holt, a country-blues singer who was married eight times, including three hitches with Cher's father, remembered her daughter as a not-strikingly-beautiful, "feathery voiced" child who exuded a vague sense of "being special". She and her sister, Georganne, sang around the house and in the car at the drive-in- movies. "We Ain't Got A Barrel Of Money" was one of their favourites, said Holt, "because it was true." Cher wore sunglasses in homeroom. "I was always being called into the principal's office about something she was doing," said Holt. "She would never conform, ever."
Even though Cher became pissed off about not being taken seriously enough to get an Academy Award nomination for "Mask", she nevertheless went forth to present an Oscar in a black Bob Mackie monstrosity that was described as suitable for Darth Vadar's funeral. But her fashion statements are not always designed to shock. "I think the reason she wears those gowns is to protect who she really is," said Josh Donen, movie executive and former boyfriend. "She is trying to distract people." Or at least keep them off balance.
Bringing Sonny home to mother was the most shocking stunt of her career. "Everyone was aghast," exclaimed Georganne. The 27-year-old record promoter sported a Prince Valiant do and leather pants at a time when guys in the valley were still wearing greaser haircuts. "What's that?" demanded her mom. "That," Cher replied, "is the man I'm going to marry."
By the time their marriage broke up, in 1975, the couple had scaled the heights -- and Cher had struck enduring friendship with Jimmy Carter, Tip O'Neill and Henry Kissinger, who, she proudly noted, was listed in her little black phone book as "Hen". For advice, she turned to David Geffen. Their romantic relationship lasted about 18 months. "By the time I met her," he explained, "she was.... a woman who was deciding what she wanted to do with her life." Cher was still not confident enough to pursue her original goal of becoming an actress. So with Geffen's help, she developed the Vegas act -- and a kind of elegantly preened on-stage persona. In Las Vegas, she was called "The Cat" because she was all class, craft and confidence. A lot of people still call her that. Remarked Geffen, "She has nine lives."
Almost no one thought Cher could survive as a serious actress. Cher, after all, had virtually no track record ("I was never even in a school play before I went on Broadway.") and except for a few lessons as a teenager, and one session with Lee Strasberg in New York, no formal training. The only trick of the trade she ever picked up is really something peculiar to her: before playing a particularly intense scene, she listens in solitude to a home-made "record album" of songs by Jimmy Webb, Aretha Franklin and others that is designed to lift her emotions higher and higher.
If a role calls for it, she may also do some research, as she did for "Suspect" when she went to Washington for a week or so to get a feel for the kind of deeply committed woman attorney she'd be playing. In that case, her efforts may have backfired, because she came away from the experience with "a feeling that I was very distant, in terms of education and background, from the woman I was supposed to be in the film."
The reactions of those who've worked with Cher are decidedly mixed. Robert Altman called her "a professional who knows exactly what she's doing", while an insider from "Silkwood" said she made problems, complained about lines and changed them without permission. The director of "Suspect", Peter Yates, commented: "Cher is the most schizophrenic person I've ever met."
During the making of "Silkwood", director Mike Nichols had to keep sending her back to the trailer until she finally came out wearing the drab, lesbian-look clothes that the wardrobe designer wanted. "You have to understand," she told Nichols shortly before breaking into tears, "it's going to be very hard for me to not look good."
As much as Cher loves to play with our perceptions by putting on and taking off her many faces, there is one thing she wants the world to get straight. There is a strong puritanical streak in her. "I am monogamous; I have relationships, not lovers," Cher confessed. "I am not an easy lay." Director Norman Jewison was amazed when she insisted on wearing a body suit during a relatively modest love scene in "Moonstruck". But then he'd already been surprised when, during their first meeting, Cher looked him in the eyes and said, "You know, I can be tough."
Despite those who would label her and those who would write her off completely, Cher is a force to reckon with in her chosen field. She has the power. She has the control.