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LOCKE EXERCISES CONTROL OVER ‘RATBOY,’ HER CAREER

When Sondra Locke was announced to direct “Ratboy,” a film produced by Clint Eastwood’s Malpaso Co. for Warner Bros., the assumption at the very least was that Eastwood was mentoring her. When women have tried so long to be directors, how else did first-timer Locke get such a break?

She confronts the issue head-on in a pleasant but firm way: “People say, ‘Look who she knows!’ I hate to say this, but what exactly has it done? It got me the position--maybe, probably--to go in to Warner Bros. I’m not going to deny that knowing someone in high places can sometimes get the job done. That’s the name of the game. A son or daughter of someone famous will get a break. But once they’re in there, they’re on their own.”

Locke has been associated with Eastwood on screen and off since they starred together 10 years ago in “The Outlaw Josey Wales.” Sitting now in her Burbank Studios office, which is decorated with posters from the six Eastwood-Locke films, she says her move to directing was strictly her idea. “Clint personally had nothing to do with the production, and he was around very little during filming.” However, she did use his crew.

“Ratboy,” which she describes as “a comic fable,” is a script she found and took to Warner Bros. “As it happened,” she explains, “Warner Bros. had bought the project years ago but had forgotten about it. They really encouraged my idea of directing. I’ve been associated with Warner Bros. for a long time. They knew me before I knew Clint.”

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Naysayers will be quick to point out that the studio has a reputation for wanting to keep its superstars happy. “Warner Bros. aren’t fools,” Locke counters. And neither is Eastwood. “Clint is one of those rare people who doesn’t mix personal with business. He’s too conscientious.

“Warner Bros. aren’t going to do something crazy and just throw away millions of dollars because someone has a contact. It certainly helps you get to them, and it helps them listen to you. But it doesn’t convince them. They’re not obliged to go for it.”

Locke describes her long-term relationship with one of the world’s biggest box-office attractions as “a double-edged sword.” She points out that “my starring in films with Clint didn’t make me toast of the town. I became his appendage. Everything I did was in his shadow. People want to know, ‘What is she capable of?’ ”

With “Ratboy,” she intends to show them. “I got in there and put myself on the line,” she says with some pride. “Let my critics direct a movie if they think it’s so easy!”

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And star in it, too. Initially, Locke had dismissed the script as a vehicle for herself, deciding the role of the window dresser who tries to exploit a ratlike boy wasn’t challenging enough. “But I couldn’t stop thinking about the story,” she says. “It haunted me. Then somehow it seemed natural that I should do everything.”

“Ratboy” bears some similarities to “The Elephant Man.” But Locke insists that “I’ve given it a satirical point of view rather than making it a deadly serious morality play. It’s like a little medicine with your sugar.”

It was her idea to use Eastwood’s crew. “I thought I would have enough problems with acting and directing,” she says. “Clint and I talked about my using his crew, and he said, ‘Fine.’ He had just finished a project and didn’t have something he wanted to do immediately. It’s all my fault he ran for mayor!” she chuckles. (Eastwood was elected mayor of Carmel in April.)

With a familiar crew, she found the transition between acting and directing easy, even though she had no formal directing training. “As an actress on sets, I’d always studied everyone else’s job,” she explains. “I was terrified to direct, but at the same time it seemed natural because in my mind I had directed so many times.

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“My biggest problem, which surprised the crew, was that I was so emphatic about things and so eager to make every decision. I went so far in the other direction that I didn’t even want to discuss anything with Clint. The crew told me that first-time directors tend to have problems making decisions.”

The biggest decision now--when to release the picture--is out of her hands. “ ‘Ratboy’ is an offbeat film with a lot of comments to make about human values,” Locke says. “But, because it’s offbeat, it doesn’t have an obvious market. So I’ve saddled myself with yet another challenge.” She whoops with laughter. “I must be a masochist.”

She has a healthy sense of humor about her peculiar situation. Yet she realizes that her new responsibilities have changed her outlook. “Directing allowed me to ‘rack focus’ on myself,” she explains, using a camera term meaning going from out of focus into focus. “I found an outlet to express a lot of my own persona. I’m kicking myself that I waited so long to direct.”

Locke, 36, came to Hollywood at 18 to star opposite Alan Arkin in “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.” She got an Oscar nomination and almost immediately disappeared from view. “I got swallowed up by the business,” she says. “I paid a lot of dues in the middle section of my career.

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“I’ve been a disgruntled actress for a number of years. I understand what it’s like to be overlooked, stereotyped, taken for granted and labeled as something I’m not. Yet I found it easy to sit back and not try to control my career. But, from a director’s point of view, I now understand how necessary it is to take the bull by the horns.

“Often we don’t start finding ourselves until we see others finding themselves. I started seeing other women directing. Then I found some material that inspired me to want to direct.

“Had the world been different when I was a teen-ager, I might have pursued directing instead of acting. But the only women I could relate to then were on the screen. I’ve always loved films, not acting per se. Most actors prefer the stage. It never dawned on me why I disagreed with them until I began directing,” she said.

“There’s a big, bad world out there. . . . I know I’m very lucky.”

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