Mariel Hemingway was, to be blunt about it, flat-chested. She had most other marks of American beauty: legs as long as telephone poles, a complexion purer than Ivory Snow and not one bit of fat or flab. With her tiny voice and her innocent "goshes" and "gollies," she was coltish and cute. Curvaceous, she was not.

But Mariel, 22 next week, wanted to star in Bob Fosse's Star 80, playing Dorothy Stratten, the bosomy Playboy centerfold who was murdered by her estranged husband three years ago. She did have a lot of what Fosse was looking for—a farm-fresh face and "that innocence," he says. But for this part it was what's up front that counts, and Mariel just didn't have it. "The old boob question," Fosse says. "You can't cast a girl unless she has them."

Thanks to plastic surgery, Hemingway now does—of moderate size, somewhere between Brooke Shields' and Dolly Parton's. (In the movie Mariel as Dorothy says she's 36-24-36, and she looks it.) Hemingway is one of many stars who have taken to changing their bodies these days—some by just going on diets or binges, others, like Mariel, by going under the knife. Whether because of a new realism in film or because actors and actresses are taking off their clothes more and need more than makeup to look good, an increasing number of stars are remaking their bodies to fit their roles.

Mariel insists she did not get the breast implants to get the part. "I hope people won't think this movie is about my breasts," she says. "I did have the implants. I had them for myself. I didn't do it for the role. It was for me, truly." As she explained recently: "I thought about it very carefully before I did it...I decided I didn't want to go through life being looked on as just an athletic tomboy." She does not like to talk about it, though. "I mean," she says, "it's really unimportant. It's not to worry about."

It's clear, though, that without her rebuilt bosom, Hemingway could not have played Stratten. While Fosse acknowledges that, he adds, "There was no bargain between us. It was her idea. She said she's always wanted to do it." He's not fond of discussing the subject, either. "Everybody talks about her boobs," he says. "I don't know why. People wear toupees. They get their noses fixed. I know many leading men whose eyes are tucked. But for some reason, breast implants on women have become a bad thing."

Mariel's mother, Byra "Puck" Hemingway, 60, is nonchalant about the surgery. "She spoke to me before she had it done," Puck says. "I didn't give her any advice. I guess she did it for the part, because she wasn't uncomfortable about her size when she was growing up." Her mom, of course, likes the new Mariel just as much as the old one. "I don't feel strange about it," she says, "because there's not that big a change. It didn't make her look like Carol Doda"—the woman who made silicone famous, a San Francisco stripper of immense proportions. Though Puck has not seen Star 80, there are two things that bother her about it. One: "I don't like nudity. No mother would. Would you?" And two: "I don't like this big to-do about her breasts."

Mariel as Dorothy has to shed her threads and show her new breasts a lot in the movie. "I don't feel that the nudity's in there to sell another ticket," Mariel says. "I was doing what she was doing. I don't think we put in any more nudity than had to be there." With all its flesh and its graphic violence, she argues, the movie does not exploit her or Stratten. "I knew I'd be working with Bob Fosse," Mariel says. "If I felt this was some grade-B-type thing, I wouldn't be doing it. It's got to be told the right way. And I knew, when I decided to do it, it would be done tastefully."

Feminists decry Playboy and its ilk for measuring a woman's worth by her measurements, and Star 80 makes the same point, that Playboy and Stratten's husband turned Dorothy into little more than a piece of meat. In the movie Mariel becomes a walking, talking centerfold, as clean-cut and passionless and about as deep as the paper on which her pictures are printed. Nonetheless, it's in next month's Playboy that Mariel will show off her new self in a 10-page spread on the movie. If it was Playboy she wanted, Mariel didn't need new breasts. In April 1982 Playboy ran pictures of her in Personal Best with her old chest, fully bared.

To get her new look, Mariel had to undergo surgery in New York. The operation she had has advanced considerably since the late '60s, when silicone was injected into breasts like jelly into a doughnut. "The breasts would turn hard and the women would be in great pain," says Dr. Richard Factor, a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon. "A very large percentage of women had to have the silicone removed. It was awful."

Now silicone is encased in sacs and surgically implanted, with incisions under the breasts, around the nipples or under the armpits. The operation, which usually costs $2,000-$3,500, takes one to two hours, and women can leave the doctor's office that day. "The results are much better," Factor says. "The breasts don't get rock hard like they used to, although the area around the implant does get harder from scar tissue. In some women it makes the breasts feel firmer. When the results are very good, it is virtually impossible for someone to be able to tell by looking at them or even feeling them."

Factor says the operation—which an estimated one million American women have had—is as safe as any, and "there has never been any evidence to show a direct correlation between the implants and cancer."

Hemingway had changed her looks before for professional reasons—most notably for her part as an Olympic pentathlete in Personal Best. For almost a year she trained four hours a day, swimming, bicycling and weight lifting to add 14 pounds of muscle to her 5'10½" frame and cut her body fat in half. She has since given up weight lifting. "I don't want to be that big," she said last year. "That was an uncomfortable body for me."

For today's new method actor comfort is no longer a priority. "Actors, absolutely, are more willing today to change their physical appearance," says Jane Feinberg, a casting director with Hollywood's Fenton-Feinberg agency. "Once they sign to do a role, they become that person in the best way they know how. Actresses have had breast jobs for nude scenes. I have heard of them having lower ribs removed to make their waists smaller."

God help the actor who decides to play a realistic Elephant Man.

  • Contributors:
  • John Stark,
  • Gail Buchalter,
  • Malcolm Boyes,
  • David Hutchings.