Amy Madigan: A Voice for Tough Choices

The first thing you notice about Amy Madigan is her voice. It precedes her as she walks into the room, twangy, raspy, squeaky, sexy, excitable, jovial, sweet--an entire personality wrapped up in a voice that swiftly lassos your attention with its multicolored charm.

But rather than harping on and on about her latest film, "Uncle Buck," in which she plays John Candy's independent but sweet girlfriend, Madigan seems happier using that voice to tout Tricia Hunter, the pro-choice Republican state Assembly candidate from conservative San Diego County who triumphed over five anti-abortion rivals in a special election last week.

"I'm 38 and I remember when abortion was illegal," said Madigan. "I had friends who went through that and I've always been vehement about this issue." Earlier this month, she was nominated for an Emmy for her portrayal of attorney Sarah Weddington in the TV movie "Roe vs. Wade," which chronicled the events leading up to the 1973 Supreme Court decision that made abortion legal in this country.

"And because of the movie, the abortion-rights groups have asked me if I would be more visible on this issue, and I said yes because of this Assembly seat going up for election. It's war, and I'll do everything I can to help win it."

Spunky, feisty, iron-willed in person as well as on screen, Madigan is known for playing what she calls "all these strong gals" in movie after movie. As proud as she is of her Academy Award nomination three years ago for her performance as the angry daughter in "Twice in a Lifetime," Madigan says she probably received the honor because of one highly charged scene in a bar in which her character cusses out her father, played by Gene Hackman.

Even in "Field of Dreams," where she played the obsessively compassionate wife to Kevin Costner's irrational baseball dreamer, Madigan is almost exclusively remembered for her fire-and-brimstone "you Nazi cow" tirade against book censorship at the small-town PTA meeting.

"The suits in this town don't know what to do with me," Madigan said. "They see a part that says 'tough girl with a gun' and they say, 'Oh, let's get Amy Madigan.' "

She has been typecast as the feisty woman in blue jeans and leather boots for most of her career, but Walter Hill's 1984 "Streets of Fire" probably made it worse. Looking especially unglamorous, Madigan played an ex-Army munitions specialist who helped rescue a female rock star kidnaped by a gang of female bikers.

"After 'Streets of Fire,' you would not believe how many people thought I was a weapons expert. It's frustrating sometimes because I can really look great in a dress. I would like to play someone glamorous for a change."

For the last few years, Madigan has been caught in the netherworld of the Hollywood power structure--stuck somewhere between an actress that everyone has heard of but can't quite place and a big-name star.

She gets work, but is usually left to play second fiddle to the male lead in a business where scores of accomplished, mature actresses compete for the tiny handful of star roles that are usually snatched up by Meryl Streep, Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton and Glenn Close.

So, Madigan says, she looks for actors and directors, like Costner in "Field of Dreams" or director Louis Malle in "Alamo Bay," that she finds intriguing, and if she is lucky she steals a scene or two with some furious flashes of acting.

"Playing the wife or the girlfriend is frustrating," Madigan said. "Some days I do get the blues and think if I was a bigger name and had some more power, maybe they'd let me do that part. But there is always going to be somebody else's name on somebody's list in somebody's office."

Raised in Chicago with a journalist for a father and a mother who works for the Teamsters, Madigan sees the question of what it would take to get Hollywood to make more movies about women in serious sociopolitical terms. She believes that the ascension of a token woman here and there to the studios' executive offices is not going to be enough.

"What it would take is dynamiting the patriarchy," she says. "The movie business is a male-dominated business, and it will always reflect the politics of the day. Think of it. In 1989 women are still fighting the abortion issue. What can we expect from the movie business?"

But directors who have worked with Madigan this year insist that her talent and energy will propel her to bigger billing.

"She's like a friendly tornado," said Gregory Hoblitt, director of "Roe vs. Wade." "She just sizzles with an electricity that I found wonderful to try to contain and make quiet for this role as a thoughtful yet tremendously forceful woman. She gave Sarah Weddington a real edge and unpredictability. People in this town should soon start to realize that she is capable of being more than just the solid supporting player."

"She has a range that no one has fully explored," said Phil Alden Robinson, director and screenwriter of "Field of Dreams," who had Madigan audition five times before giving her the part. "She's great fun, very bright, very sensitive, very strong, and in 'Field of Dreams' she did something extraordinary. She played someone so supportive and loving that she let him do this crazy thing, yet you knew by watching her that she had the strength to stop him whenever she wanted him to stop. She's earned the right to move up to the ranks of lead actresses."

Then why did it take five separate auditions before Robinson cast her in this supporting role? Each time Madigan read for the part, he said, she was just too good to dismiss, even though with Costner, a major Hollywood sex symbol, set as the star, the natural choice was to find some glamour queen to play alongside him.

Then Robinson remembered that when he wrote the script, his original thought for the wife was "spunky." "And I said, 'Amy is spunky, let's cast Amy,' and as soon as I said it, I couldn't understand what took me so long."

Though a certain amount of hype and celebrity helps fuel an actor's box-office appeal and the ability to land choice movie roles, Madigan has mostly shunned it.

"We could probably be more recognizable if we would do some publicity together and go to certain parties," Madigan said of herself and husband Ed Harris (star of "The Abyss" and her co-star in "Alamo Bay"). "That's not what it's about for me."

What it's about, now, is waiting--waiting for a role she wants, waiting for the deal to come through on a small independent film she's putting together with her husband. And waiting for the Emmys on Sept. 17. Though Madigan mostly avoids television because the fast pace of production necessitates "running roughshod over the work," she says working on "Roe vs. Wade" and getting nominated for an Emmy proved "wonderfully satisfying" because it afforded her the opportunity to speak out on abortion, an issue that concerns her deeply.

Still, Madigan says that she has ambivalent feelings about being a spokeswoman on any issue.

"It's weird that actors are looked to as authorities on certain issues," she concluded, her voice growing thoughtful and for a second a bit shy. "It's a sad indictment on where people get their information and their news these days. But celebrities do pull some attention to it. So why not take advantage of that? This is a fight."

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