Curtis Goes Fishing in New Waters

The setting was a British pub, so the men playing darts didn't even bother to look up when they heard the young lady speaking in a chalk-scratching Cockney accent.

If they'd glanced over, they would have seen Jamie Lee Curtis, posing as a raucous Cockney in the Santa Monica tavern.

The 29-year-old actress's new film, "A Fish Called Wanda," is a distinctly British farce, but she hasn't turned into a raving East Ender. In the movie she plays a fast-talking American jewel thief bent on seducing a London barrister as part of a scheme to retrieve a fortune in stolen loot.

Still, for Curtis, all this gorblimey jive has a certain symbolic importance. It's a sign of her budding self-confidence as a comedian, a role she adores but rarely has the opportunity to play. And in "Wanda," she goes up against formidable comic forces--ex-Monty Python wizard John Cleese (who wrote the film), Michael Palin (another old Python hand) and Kevin Kline, a two-time Tony Award winner.

"I have no formal training in anything, least of all comedy, so I've never had the confidence in my technical skills to really try to be funny," said Curtis, who has managed to survive the twin perils of Hollywood childhood and youthful celebrity with a low-octane ego and a deft sense of humor.

"But working with John Cleese was a great experience. He really encouraged me to let myself go. I'd always fool around in private, but now I have the confidence to let it out. When we were shooting, I'd go around the set and play that annoying old Cockney woman character so much that I think I drove everyone crazy."

As if to prove her point, Curtis let loose a volley of piercing Cockney gibberish.

"Now I do it all the time, especially with my little girl," she said, smoothing down her baby-blue summer dress. "She's either going to think I'm a cranky Cockney cleaning lady or wonder if some crazy Belizean woman has come to live with her--forever!"

You get the feeling John Cleese knows Curtis' Cockney accent by heart. ("It's quite good, but a little loud," he admits.) Still, he's not tired of singing the actress's praises.

"I'm definitely a member of her fan club," he said on a recent publicity stop here. "The whole reason I cast her in the film was that I'd seen her act and she could be three things--funny, wicked and sexy. Actually, make that four things--she's very likable too.

"I checked her out with several directors I knew who all said how much they'd enjoyed working with her. Everyone told me that she was very punctual, professional and better still, on her day off, she'd bring the crew pizza."

Showing off her baby's latest pictures as she roamed around Santa Monica the other day, Curtis was also unfailingly candid, self-analytical to a fault, eloquent and surprisingly emotional. She's also so opinionated that when Michael Palin handed out customized T-shirts on the last day of the "Wanda" shoot, Curtis' gift bore the slogan: " 'Wait. I Have an Idea!' "

Call her a woman of many moods. Romping with her 18-month-old daughter, Annie, she's giddily buoyant, hitching up her skirt and demonstrating the art of the somersault. Upset that some men find her screen image too hard-edged, she says sadly, "It just breaks my heart to hear that--if they only knew how far I am from being tough."

You even get straight talk about her tumultuous relationship with her dad, Tony Curtis: "He's a great actor and a wonderful painter, but our relationship is really a wash-out."

There's an odd contrast everywhere you look with Curtis, starting with her physique. In repose she displays the languid curves of a sex symbol, but she walks with the purposeful, tomboyish strides of a little girl leading the neighborhood kids off to a touch football game.

She directs the same resolute energy toward a frank appraisal of an up-and-down career, which is again on the upswing--she's gotten good notices for "Wanda"--but has failed to rocket into the stratosphere. In fact, what makes her so fascinating is her willingness to probe the pitfalls she's suffered--and narrowly avoided--along the way.

"I love playing comedy, but people never offer me comedienne parts," she said, munching on fish and chips at the pub. "There's this whole mystique about what actors go through. You always hear actors talk about the stack of scripts they've been offered. Yeah, right!"

Curtis volunteered a choice obscenity. "The truth of the matter is that I've never been at a point in my career where I've been deluged with anything. I'm a blue-collar actress who's never had the luxury of picking and choosing."

Curtis waved a chip in the air. "The only choice I've ever had is to say 'No!' "

But what about all those actors who boast about career strategies? "Hah! There's no strategy involved! You can't plan out parts, not at my level. Each job came up and the strategy was: Want to work? Take it!"

What if Curtis has to choose between taking a mediocre part or waiting for a great one?

"You work--you can't just wait and wait. Some of my choices haven't been so hot. But the reality is that the best jobs aren't going to come to me right now. So I try to play a diverse bunch of characters and hope I get lucky."

Does it ever get any easier handling the rejection of losing a promising part? "No way," she said, flashing a crooked grin. "This month has been incredibly hard. I lost two great movie parts and a TV pilot I shot didn't get picked up. I was even told that I had a part and they gave it to someone else. It can be heartbreaking.

"I'm lucky that I have so many good things--a supportive husband (writer-actor Christopher Guest), my friends and my baby. So I try not to feel bad. I usually cry for a couple of hours and then say 'Screw 'em. What do they know? I'll get another job!' "

Not that Curtis hasn't had quite a career already. She emerged in a burst of media hype, thanks to her show-biz blood lines (actress Janet Leigh and Curtis) and her success as a teen scream queen in such horror hits as "Halloween" and "Terror Train."

Since then, she's battled to carve her niche, both in her career and personal life. "The problem with being what you'd call a 'famous child' is that I got all this attention for being nothing," she said, "but I had no idea why. I was always very shy and insecure. I'd been celebrated simply because I was a celebrity child."

After abandoning horror films, she won praise, both in low-budget roles ("Love Letters") and mainstream hits ("Trading Places"). But her shot at a big commercial breakthrough--1985's "Perfect"--was a flop. Instead of graduating to better roles, Curtis took parts in smaller but more adventuresome fare like "A Man in Love" and "Dominick and Eugene."

True stardom--the kind that puts you on the cover of magazines--has eluded her. But after growing up in a Hollywood family where "between my parents and stepparents there've been so many marriages that I've lost count," Curtis has an intriguing perspective on the nature of stardom.

"I grew up with all these crazy myths--that you made love 15 times a day in each room of the house, that actresses stayed home waiting for scripts. I can't tell you how many years I spent looking at beauty magazines, thinking 'I'll never look like that. ' I mean, to this day, I look at those Dewar's ads and wonder why the woman's husband has such a great beard!

"I'm really very lucky. I could have never been an actress in the '50s. There was so much denial, so much fake stuff behind the image. I would've gone crazy or become an alcoholic."

Curtis is still bothered by one key image, that she's often typed as being tough and unapproachable. "I hear people say that and it breaks my heart and I'll probably start crying as I explain this," she said, trying to stay calm. "For some reason, some people can be flakes and (messed) up and somehow it's glamorous.

"But when I was growing up, I had to be tough. I wasn't allowed to be a basket case. I wasn't allowed to be vulnerable or frail. Other kids were really funny or could sing like a lark. But my talent was always fairly indiscernible. So I had to be very good all the time."

Curtis dabbed at her eyes. "But I'm so far from being tough. I'm like lots of people--I'm scared, I'm vulnerable, I'm fragile. But people judge you from the parts you play, so they think I'm tough. I fight it all the time, but I think it says a lot that those women's parts are always written by men, who are usually the same ones who say I'm too tough."

Judging from the warm critical reaction to her screwball escapades in "Wanda," Curtis may get past that male stereotype. "I think Jamie has a real knack for comedy," said Cleese. "The talent was there, but I suspect it hasn't always been encouraged. I don't think John Carpenter was going for laughs in 'Halloween,' now was he?

"In our early rehearsals I noticed that she appeared quite shocked that I was asking her for input and dialogue. On the first day of shooting, I remember my assistant director suggesting a line and I simply erased my line and inserted his, because he's a brilliant assistant director and it was a better line. But I saw Jamie's jaw drop in surprise."

Cleese puzzled over that for a moment. "I think being treated as an equal really freed up a lot of latent creativity inside her, because she really blossomed as an actress. At the end of the movie, (director) Charlie Crichton told me, 'She may be half your age, but she knows a damn sight more about the camera than any of you blokes'--and Charlie knows what he's talking about because he's been making films since Hitler was still active in his field."

So is Curtis really so tough--or is that just an illusory screen image, easily shed if she's lucky enough to find a couple of scripts that could propel her in a different direction? Apparently the same question was on her mind leaving the pub that afternoon. As she bade farewell to the manager, she asked: "Honestly--do you think I'm tough and unapproachable?"

He looked surprised. "Not at all," he said. "Actually, I think you're sweet."

"Thank you," said a beaming Curtis, who showed her appreciation for this wise critical judgment by giving the manager a huge hug before striding purposefully out to the street.

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