OKAY, IT'S THE '90S. GLITZ IS OUT; natural's in: springwater, bedposts of impeded twigs, jeans of previously abused denim. The movement has been growing in Hollywood for a number of years. Going for the grand gesture in their search for the simple life, a whole herd of celebrities has been stampeding to Montana.

The stars can't get enough of the Big Sky State, where they can stretch their legs (only live people per square mile) and rest their egos. Ted Turner and Jane Fonda frolic with the buffalo on his 127,000-acre spread near Bozeman; Paradise Valley residents Dennis Quaid and his bride, Meg Ryan, cheered the pig wrestlers at the Park County Fair last summer; Glenn Close rides around on a mule at her modest farmhouse outside Bozeman; and Michael Keaton fly-fishes on the Boulder River, a blue-ribbon trout stream just a few steps from his door.

Says Jeff Bridges's wife, Sue, 38, who has spent summers with her husband at their Livingston spread since 1979: "I wish I could live here year-round. We keep busy hiking, swimming and boating on the Yellowstone River. The farthest I've been all summer is to Bozeman [25 miles away]."

Montana is avant-garde because it is so blessedly behind the times in so many ways. What makes it different from most celeb hangouts is low-key living. Says longtime resident Becky Fonda, wife of actor Peter (and former mate of Big Sky novelist Tom McGuane): "In Aspen, there are 100-odd restaurants. We have about three four-star restaurants, and they're miles apart. There's no social scene, no designer boutiques."

Still, Montanans seem to react like folks everywhere to celebrities: Some are curious, some overwhelmed and a few don't know who the stars are. In Hollywood fashion, when Robert Redford (on location for his film A River Runs Through It) went out to a Bozeman restaurant last summer, he took along his bodyguard. But no one bothered him, so he sent the guard home.

Big Skyers over in Whitefish seem considerably hipper. When young gun Emilio Estevez moseyed into the Palace Bar (where nightly mouse races are a big draw) last August for a few beers, he had to jump behind the bar to distance himself from autograph hunters. "He just joined right in like one of the crew," says bartender Teri Wolf. "It was great for business, but I must have gone through 5,000 pens."

Of course, not everything works out for the best—even in Montana. Last spring, Kiefer Sutherland was preparing a painting studio for then-fiancée Julia Roberts in a small cabin on his recently purchased 300-acre ranch near Whitefish. But since the couple's June breakup, he has abandoned the project and sold oil his early wedding present from Julia: a $23,000 blue-and-white speedboat that he kept on Whitefish Lake.

In happier days, says Kiefer's friend Cindy LaChance, wife of a local builder, the star couple "loved to ride horses, and Julia sat doing needlepoint, making things for Kiefer, initials and little pillows. We thought they were madly in love."

There is a different kind of trouble brewing in eastern Montana, where Ted Turner is believed to be the largest single landholder in the state. On Flying D Ranch, Ted employs a full-time fishing guide to help the boss and his guests deplete the stock of 4,000 trout in his 14-acre, man-made lake. The ranch is dominated by a spacious log ranch house (complete with workout room for Jane and four guest bedrooms, each with its own bathroom and patio).

Environmentally correct Ted sold off the 11,000 head of cattle that came with the place and stocked his land with some 2,000 buffalo. According to the Bozeman Dally Chronicle, Ted wants to replace beef with bison meat in U.S. markets. "I want to show that you can do something in balance with nature and still make money doing it," he told the paper.

Such views rile the neighbors, who can't afford to turn their land into theme parks. Cattlemen fear that the buffalo may spread diseases to their own livestock, and disagreements with Jane Fonda, still known in some circles as Hanoi Jane, are scrawled on the men's-room wall of Stacey's Old Faithful bar, just a pickup drive down the road. Rancher Malcolm Story, 89, who claims his grandfather brought the first Texas longhorns to Montana, speaks for many local residents when he says, "For Turner to tell us how to ranch? I find that entertaining."

Other natives worry about the fickleness of the stars and the developers who are moving in behind them, eager to buy, subdivide and turn the Big Sky into the Big Suburb. Says postal worker Judith Rue, who hands out mail to the likes of Brooke Shields and Michael Keaton: "The celebrities conic and go at will. They don't have to make a living off the land. It's a way of life people up here aren't used to. I wonder if the stars will get tired of it after five years and sell their places or just keep them for investments."

LOUISE LAGUE
LORENZO BENET in Montana

  • Contributors:
  • Lorenzo Benet.