Isaac the anxious

The documentary Unzipped introduces a new kind of screen idol

Fretful, chain-smoking fashion wunderkind Isaac Mizrahi--the subject of Douglas Keeve's wildly kinetic, hysterically funny documentary Unzipped--is a slightly more butch Yiddish version of Alicia Silverstone, and sort of like Harvey Fierstein without the mileage. During this documentary, which details the New York fashion designer preparing for his fall 1994 show, he commands your attention with his breathless chattering and eyes that'll pop out with ecstasy at a glimpse of a favorite old movie, or a swatch of lovely wallpaper, or a fake-fur collar.

The most impressive part of his theatrical effeminacy is that he never stoops to bitchiness, an amazing feat when you consider how many delicious targets surround him every day. Unzipped doesn't defame the two-faced editorial power-brokers from magazines like Vogue and Elle or the tempera- mental supermodels who scurry through meetings and photo shoots like lab rats testing a new amphetamine derivative. But director Keeve does stop here and there to tweak their pretensions--mostly through Mizrahi, who does a mean vocal impression of both friends and adversaries.

He is a man who's lived most of his life enamored of female pop icons, who's transferred a childhood eye for feminine fashion frills into a hugely influential career that must be, for Mizrahi, something like being a god--or at least a guru. After all, his seasonal looks invite ruthless speculation from the international fashion pundits even as they alternately delight and amuse women who love his flashy color schemes and kitschy material combinations, but don't necessarily want to wear them to the office.

If, as has been observed to death in the national press, supermodels have replaced movie stars in American culture as the last vestige of undiluted glamor, then Isaac Mizrahi is the George Cukor of the fashion world--a gay man who revels in shaping the images of iconic women.

Witness Keeve's brilliant intercut of a color interview between the tongue-tied Mizrahi and an exhibitionistic Eartha Kitt with black-and-white footage of him bragging to his assistants afterward. Kitt wants the man to design her a series of gowns, and he can barely control his awe even as he accepts.

Obviously enjoying his worship, she leaps to her feet and begins to shimmy and growl, demonstrating exactly what kind of stress his threads must be able to endure. Keeve flashes between Mizrahi the impersonator and Kitt the pagan idol, and you're hard-pressed to decide who's more passionate about the performance.

Which leads us to the self-consciousness this designer exhibits as the subject of a feature film. With barely a nudge, he'll be photographed singing the theme from "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" or lavishly imitating Bette Davis in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? Because of these choreographed moments of spontaneity, viewers become suspicious when they watch Mizrahi begin to crack as his big fall show approaches. He seems to relish pining and fretting over minute details for the camera, culminating in a wholly unconvincing confrontation with Keeve, who asks him on the eve of the show why he's so stressed out.

"I hate it when people say I'm stressing out," Mizrahi barks. "I'm doing fine." He punctuates this testimony with a lingering, crazy-eyed gaze that Gloria Swanson would've rejected as too obvious.

But Unzipped is fascinating despite the excessive enthusiasm of its subject, mostly because there's so much Mizrahi doesn't address that Keeve alludes to with his camera. We see home movies of an overweight, curly haired preadolescent Isaac running through the yard, yet never learn anything about his childhood--except that his bouffanted, bespectacled mother Sarah continues to dote on him and influence his creative decisions.

And then there's Mizrahi's sexuality, which seems obvious enough yet turns into the poltergeist that constantly disrupts the film but never takes form. When Cindy Crawford describes with rapturous enthusiasm the tall, well-defined masculine bodies she witnessed at a New York Knicks game, all Mizrahi has to say is a stone-faced, "Cool." He also makes a rather convoluted reference to his orientation when someone mentions that the word "Eskimo," which means "fish-eater," is a racial slur.

How is it that a man so deliriously eager to vamp in front of a documentarian's lens can pause and deflect whenever the subject of sex is raised? Is it his ubiquitous mother, who gushes about Isaac's talent every chance she gets but doesn't hesitate to scold him as the cameras roll?

Unzipped provides frothy escapist entertainment with what it reveals, and intriguing conversational fodder with what it doesn't. You get the feeling Isaac Mizrahi has waited a long time for his close-up, but he's still not comfortable baring it all.

Unzipped. Miramax. Isaac Mizrahi, Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford. Directed by Douglas Keeve. Now showing at the Inwood.

 
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