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Meryl Acts Up : Streep Plays Her Latest Role for Laughs. But Off Screen, She’s Asking Hollywood Some Rude Questions.

<i> Hilary de Vries is a Boston-based free-lance writer specializing in the arts. </i>

WAIT A minute, say that again.

A woman of a certain age? Not you Meryl, Hollywood’s Young Dame, with the face that launched more than a dozen films and all those Oscar nominations--how many of them were there? Can it be that the country’s most acclaimed actress, a woman in consummate control of her career, is heading into middle age complaining?

“Well, I am 40 and in this business, and that’s a cautionary tale,” says Streep, rendering a mild knuckle-rapping in her Upper East Side New York hotel suite.

Keep in mind that Streep has spent months playing a character immersed in the indignities Hollywood heaps on her in the about-to-open “Postcards From the Edge.” Based on Carrie Fisher’s quasi-autobiographical novel about women working in movie-industry hell plus or minus a drug habit, the film stars Streep as a post-ingenue, post-Percodan-plying actress with an asp-like (and Fisher-like) sense of outrage. To wit: “Actors are not treated well, and actresses are treated . . .” well, like a common four-letter word.

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“It is horrible to admit, but I loved trotting out all those insecurities about being a woman in the movies,” says Streep with a wicked smile. “And I loved being able to say them.”

Streep brought a similar wit and outrage to her keynote speech at the Screen Actors Guild’s first women’s conference held last month in Los Angeles. One of the highest-paid actresses in the business, she took Hollywood to task over its dirty little sexist secret. “We all know what the problem is,” Streep declared. “There’s very little work for women. And when we do work, we get paid much less than our male counterparts. . . . And what work there is lately is odd.” This year’s movies? From them one might assume, added Streep, that “the chief occupation of women on Earth was hooking. And I don’t mean rugs.”

You mean “Pretty Woman”?

“Right!” she says, still passionate weeks later. “And I am upset that 15-year-old girls want to go see that four and five times. I know it’s the Cinderella thing, but it disturbs me. There are a lot of women screenwriters and a lot of women in development, but I guess because those women want to make it past the glass ceiling, maybe they think they have to say, ‘Do “Die Hard II.” Now let me be vice president.’ ”

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Streep has been fortunate enough, and now is powerful enough, to fashion a film career far outside the “Die Hard"/"Pretty Woman” mold, and her resume has a breadth and sweep of unusual dimension. Her many heroines, while not strictly feminists, compose an extraordinary gallery of strong-minded women who are difficult, independent, ambitious--morally ambiguous women out of step with, yet defined by, their times: the discontented wife in “Kramer vs. Kramer,” a political idealist in “Plenty,” a literary adventurer in “Out of Africa,” the femme fatale in “The French Lieutenant’s Woman,” a Holocaust survivor in “Sophie’s Choice,” a betrayed wife in “Heartburn,” a whistle-blower in “Silkwood,” a derelict in “Ironweed,” a murder suspect in “A Cry in the Dark,” among others. All of them were captured by Streep with chameleon-like accuracy.

Now comes “Postcards.” There is an expectant buzz about the film. It is Fisher’s first screenplay, a part-fact, part-fiction Hollywood insider story that some say is director Mike Nichols’ best work since “Carnal Knowledge.” And for Streep, “Postcards,” like that SAG speech, is something of a personal breakthrough. After 15 years and 17 films, in which she’s mastered the art of playing the wild-eyed tragic heroine--most often from another country or century--the reclusive, honeyed actress with the icy image and all those Oscars is letting her hair down to play a modern woman who is, as she says, “closest to me, the way I really look, the way I really sound.”

As she heads into her fourth decade, Meryl Streep is acquiring newly assertive roles on screen and off. In her films, she has stepped away from playing starchy, period heroines to star in a series of contemporary comedies. And in her private life, the actress, who has been active in environmental issues--even testifying before Congress--is stirring up discord in her own workplace.

“My passion in the whole question--well, obviously I am very well compensated for what I do--but where I felt starved was as a member of an audience, as someone with daughters and a son. Where are their role models like the ones I had when I grew up?” asks Streep in her hotel suite. “Carole Lombard, Katharine Hepburn, Greta Garbo, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Lucille Ball--those big, formidable presences who were important people in their films. The women in recent movies increasingly occupy less important places.

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“I have this theory that in the ‘30s it was titillating and fun to imagine Hepburn as Woman of the Year with a male secretary. But now, when 43% of business-school graduates and 46% of law-school graduates are women, it’s not a fantasy anymore.”

And what about money?

“No, I’m not like Jack (Nicholson) with $11 million up front,” says Streep, who is said to command less than half that sum. “I don’t feel greedy, but when Rick Moranis makes what Michelle Pfeiffer makes, when he’s as big a draw, supposedly--who knows what anybody makes because nobody talks about it, but it is all the way down the line until you hit scale--women make 40 to 60 cents on the male dollar.”

Streep pauses. “Now, really, that’s all I have to say. I’m not a spokesman. Now I want my brothers in the union to speak up on my behalf. As well as my sisters. I want to hear somebody support us.”

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The sound you hear, however, is largely that of voices behind closed doors. SAG staffers say that they’ve had “a lot of positive reaction from the industry” since Streep’s speech and that “a number of memos from producers have been written reactivating projects that had (major) roles for women in them.” What that means is that not much is changing. Yet. Says one powerful Hollywood agent who insisted on anonymity: “Bottom line, until there is a huge box-office hit with a huge female star as the lead--and there are only (a few) actresses in the country that currently have that kind of clout--nothing will change.”

Streep is on that short list of actresses carrying a measure of box-office power--along with Sigourney Weaver, Cher, Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler and Michelle Pfeiffer. Which explains why she’s sitting still for the press to talk about “Postcards"--a story about a sexist business told from a woman’s point of view.

“I love this movie,” says Streep, on the rebound after a salary dispute with Carolco torpedoed her longtime ambition to play Eva Peron in the on-again, off-again film version of “Evita.” “I want people who don’t go to movies to come out and see this. Before I made my speech, I made an informal survey--people in broadcasting, publishing. You’d be shocked at the number of people in the film industry who don’t go to movies. They don’t go. What I tried to emphasize was that there is an ignored audience and that by going after the 16- to 25-year-old males, maybe they’ve contributed to the shrinking of the general audience. ‘Postcards’ was not conceived as a blockbuster. It wasn’t pre-sold to the Southeast Asian market. But I think it has some real smart talk in it, and if it does well, it will be great for everybody.”

Everybody presumably includes women--be they actresses, screenwriters or audience members. Not that Fisher’s novel was a feminist tract, but the movie, starring Streep and Shirley MacLaine, adapted by Fisher from her book, is one of the first adult films released this fall after a summer dominated by Dick Tracy-Total Recall-Die Harder-RoboCop II fare. Fisher: “It’s a story about powerful women and no powerful men.” Nichols: “Do I think it is a feminist film? I think it has feminist elements in it. One of the themes is women as meat.” Oh, yeah, says Streep, “it has this other thing--the relationship between mothers and daughters and how that affects who you are and what you become.”

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BUT LET’S BACK up. It’s mid-August in New York, one of those hazy, end-of-summer days when the avenues are empty, “sale” signs plaster the boutique windows in the East 60s, and everyone with any sense and a decent portfolio is in the Hamptons. But Streep, who lives in the far northwest corner of Connecticut with her husband, sculptor Donald Gummer, and their three young children, is on L.A. time. She’s just back from the SAG conference, the film’s in manic post-production, and next week is the press junket to Las Vegas.

She opens the door to her hotel suite herself, and there is that famous face, milky pale with those translucent blue eyes that are at once far away and really, unexpectedly, intense. Not that it’s a hostile or even aggressive look. It’s more like the gaze of an unself-conscious child who is transfixed by the sudden stranger in the room.

She offers coffee from a silver pot on the table next to a porcelain bowl full of dried rose petals. “Or can I get you something else?” she asks, pouring, the perfect hostess. She is wearing a salmon-colored silk blazer, a white silk-and-lace blouse, navy blue culottes, navy stockings and Italian leather flats. Armani schoolgirl with a touch of Ralph Lauren. Her hair, too, is tailored, cut short, streaked blonde and sort of shooting straight up off that high, creamy forehead. With the coffeepot in hand she looks like a nice, rich lady from Connecticut in town to see friends.

Except she has that face, that famous face, as faceted as a gem you want to turn in your hands, letting the light catch the planes, all questions of its beauty superfluous. “Too many bones, I think,” says Streep with a slightly self-conscious laugh. She is on the sofa now, letting her initial concentration on her guest grow into something like a passion for interaction. Her eyes are still intense, but the atmosphere is warmer, more engaged now.

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She is renowned for being an entertaining, if infrequent, interview subject--jumping in and out of accents, rolling her eyes, making jokes. And her voice--now loud, even boisterous, now a hushed flutter--is used to exceptional effect. No wonder cinematographers love to photograph her; she never looks or sounds the same way twice.

She has talked about performing--as opposed to simply acting--as being “the final gloss, what attracts the audience to your character.” In a conversation, she subtly demonstrates that connection by spinning a web of complicity; over the course of two hours, she leans forward, her back seldom touching the sofa cushions. She makes you feel that you have become part of the performance, that she is reacting to you. “It’s like one shimmering step beyond behavior,” says Streep. “It’s that extra thing that makes it glitter a little bit.” “Look, 53% of the population is women,” says Streep, reiterating her SAG conference theme. “There are that many stories, that many lives to be explored. (But) there are three prestige pictures a year, which means that three actresses get big parts. That’s it. People look at the roles as a retrospective of you, like you choose the canvas, but that’s simply not true,” she says impatiently. “It has more to do with what people felt was financeable, the accident of what roles are around in a given year.”

Which is how the country’s preeminent tragic actress came to play a drugged-out smart mouth in a comedy. By all accounts, it was Nichols’ idea to cast Streep as Susan Vale, a woman “who gets in her own way,” as the director wryly puts it. Certainly Streep’s work as the coquette in Susan Seidelman’s campy “She-Devil” was amusingly different, if not exactly thigh-slapping. But even in Streep’s more serious roles, Nichols, who directed “Heartburn” and “Silkwood,” looked at her and saw her comic side. “She was very funny in ‘Sophie’s Choice,’ but people didn’t necessarily see it because it was a tragedy,” Nichols says. “But when Meryl decides to be funny, no one is funnier.”

So, he sent her “Postcards.” “It was the winter and in the middle of some snowy, horrible, endless night, and I was reading this script and I was laughing so hard and I was so excited that they wanted me to play it. I never really get offered parts like that. I was happy. I was really happy,” says Streep with a really happy smile.

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“I was always a clown,” she adds. “I didn’t play a serious role until I got to drama school.” In fact, “this is my favorite sound in the whole world”: She screws up her face to make an enormous snickering noise. “That sound coming from behind the cameras. I love to make the crew laugh,” she says, launching into the first of her many imitations, this one of a reprimanding assistant director, “I’m sorry, we can’t use that take. . . .”

Filming “Postcards” provided unusual outlets for Streep’s comic skills. For one thing, the movie is more overtly funny--and more overtly dramatized--than Fisher’s novel, in which most of the narrative was a sardonic internal monologue voiced in a drug-rehab clinic. As Fisher has said, “there was no plot” to her book. In fact, she initially sent the book to Nichols with the intention of turning it into a performance piece rather than a screenplay. But Nichols insisted there was a movie in there somewhere. So Fisher wrote a draft, Nichols made suggestions, and before long there was a story about an alcoholic Hollywood mother (MacLaine) and her drug-addicted actress daughter (Streep).

“When I read the book, I thought: Here is somebody who has endless resources to survive,” says the actress. “She is relentless about her demons but is equally relentless about her humor. She serves her jokes like dessert for her own amusement, and it makes everybody else feel good, too.”

Fisher says she is concerned that the film’s autobiographical aspect “will be perceived as my life with my mother (actress Debbie Reynolds)--and some of it is--but really it is a hearty mix of truth and invention.” Nichols, however, maintains that the subject is “perfect for comedy, particularly one that goes after this problem of women in Hollywood.” It is also, essentially, a story about a mother and daughter in which all the male roles--husbands, boyfriends, agents, producers--are secondary.

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And for Streep, this is the first time she’s portraying a daughter on screen. “That was a great exercise for me,” she says with deliberate understatement. Actually, Nichols says, playing a character so close to her self was “a new risk, because Meryl always looks inside herself for her characters. She rearranges her soul for them. The best actors are always a little dangerous, and Meryl has a lot of secrets. In this film, her secret weapon is that she sings.”

It’s not quite in the league with “Garbo Talks,” but Streep singing--a raucous scene with a country band that brings down the house at the end of the film--is something out of the ordinary for the actress who can cry in 15 foreign accents.

“Nothing was hard. There was no hard part of the movie.” Streep pauses and looks straight up at the ceiling. “Am I lying? Let me think. There was one hard part when we shot the end song. We did it once and they didn’t like the shimmering curtain at the back. Now, I don’t have the highest confidence in my performing skills in that area, and I thought I had aced this and gotten away with murder, and I said, ‘Well, can you use the track so I can lip synch to that? I’ll never be able to sing again.’ And they took the shimmering curtain away, we reshot it and I did it,” Streep pauses, ". . . a little bit better. And we drank a lot of champagne, and I did a little impromptu concert for the extras, and the word came back from the lab that we had to shoot it again.”

“Mike Nichols is lucky he is alive,” she adds with a laugh, “but it gave me a lot of confidence, especially when the whole thing with ‘Evita’ fell out from under me. That was a big disappointment. So I was glad I got to sing in this. That’s the apotheosis of the movie for me.”

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So was this film, in which Streep plays a daughter who sings in front of her songstress mother, more difficult than, say, “Sophie’s Choice,” where she played a mother in a concentration camp? The actress lowers her head a moment. “That,” she says slowly raising her eyes, “ventures into the realm of none of your business. That’s where some of it comes from dealing with my own mother.”

WE DON’T know much about her mother. What we do know is that Streep is the oldest child--and only daughter--of Harry and Mary Streep, then of Summit, N. J., now residing near Mystic, Conn. As a child, Mary Louise Streep (the name Meryl was her mother’s concoction) was not considered pretty. A somewhat bossy older sister to younger brothers Harry and Dana Streep was a brown-haired little girl with glasses and a tendency to direct her siblings in home movies. It was during high school that Streep first demonstrated an unusual ability to physically transform herself. She threw away her glasses, had her braces removed and became blond. As a result, she swiftly added to her resume cheerleader, swimming champion and homecoming queen. Meryl Streep, at the age of 15, had decided to become beautiful.

“For about 20 minutes I did (feel beautiful),” says Streep with a cautious laugh. Beauty, whether she likes it or not, is a perennial subject with the actress, who once described her looks as similar to those of the English poet, Edith Sitwell. The question continuously raised in reviews and other articles is whether her looks should be considered classically beautiful or arrestingly plain. In the past, she has dismissed such talk with ironic one-liners--"I have a serious face; that’s why I went into film.”

Today, this mother of three (Henry, 12; Mary Willa, 7, and Grace, 4),who still regularly works out in a pool, is exasperated. “Thank God I feel loved,” she says. “Because the things that people write about you. . . . It’s one of the reasons I liked ‘She-Devil.’ I wanted to do something to send up this preposterous sexual posturing.”

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“And I think about this with my girls,” she adds, referring to her two daughters. “They’re so pretty and sweet looking, and that’s the first thing that people say to them--'They’re so beautiful!’ And I don’t want them to think about that. What’s that Yeat’s poem, ‘A Prayer for My Daughter,’ ‘being made beautiful overmuch.’ A lot of people who thought of themselves that way have to prove themselves on some other level. And in the movies, there is no substitute for beauty; there just isn’t. For men and women. People will never stop talking about Paul Newman’s eyes. It’s revelatory.”

Does she think she is beautiful in film? There is something of a sigh. “I always think I look better in the movies than I do in real life because they spend so much time lighting actors. But then people say to me, the ones that are brave enough to come up to me on the street, ‘Oh, you’re so much prettier than in your movies.’ And then I feel dreadful for two days because I think, God, that’s the best I can look.”

But dig a little deeper, and beauty is revealed to be more than skin deep. “My mother was the pretty one in her family,” says Streep after some prodding. “I wasn’t.” This confession is followed by a brief digression on the Streep family lineage--"Spanish Jews who emigrated to Holland in the 15th Century and instead of signing their Jewish name, they simply drew a line. That’s what ‘Streep’ means in Dutch, ‘line.’ My mother’s family is Swiss and English--Quakers. I look like my grandmother and was raised a Presbyterian.”

Despite this breezy delineation, Streep’s relationship to her mother appears to be pivotal--in both her career choice and in her research for her current film.

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Says Fisher: “I would have rather avoided the subject in the film because the mother-daughter thing is always big and I do come from a powerful matriarchy, which is unusual, and Meryl has a powerful mother, too. If you are a woman who is intelligent, as Meryl is, then it is very easy to notice the discrepancy between yourself and your mother. This movie is about that--powerful women and no powerful men and how that ends up, the way a lot of women do, by competing with each other.”

Indeed, one of the film’s more moving scenes involves a discussion between Streep and MacLaine that concludes with the line, “Mother, I couldn’t compete with you, because somebody might win.” It is a theme that Streep seems to have wrestled with in her own life. “My mother is amazing, really amazing,” says the actress slowly. “She’s one of the funniest people I know. She’s witty, and she’s not the kind of woman who thinks up things later. She comes up with the remark right at the moment,” Streep adds. “She had that kind of quick wit. And I’m not, I’m not. . . . I’m shyer. And I always wanted to be like her. I’m sure it’s one of the reasons I wanted to be a performer.”

That drive for performance first began to show up in elementary and high school, where Streep says she “got good marks, but I wasn’t the smartest one. Mostly I was known for making trouble, making jokes, making animal noises and terrorizing the teachers.”

She attended Vassar, the all-women’s college where her talent for acting--and not just acting up--began to surface. She took a first-year theater class. By her sophomore year, she had won the title role in Strindberg’s “Miss Julie.” “I became an actress because I was in a play at Vassar and I did really, really good, and my friends all swooned and said ‘My God, how did you know how to do that?’ And I didn’t know how I did that, I just knew that I wanted it. I loved it,” says Streep, rattling off what seems to be her stock answer to the why-she-became-an-actress question.

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Then came Yale drama school, where Streep caught the attention of The New York Times with her portrayal of Constance Garnett, a wheelchair-bound octogenarian in “The Idiot’s Karamazov,” a musical parody of Russian literature by fellow Yale colleagues Albert Innaurate and Christopher Durang. Other acclaimed performances--as Helena in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” as the daughter in Strindberg’s “The Father"--soon followed. These Yale years were a somewhat stressful period for the precocious actress, who was repeatedly pulled out of class to perform at Yale’s Repertory Theater--in 40 roles for a dozen different directors. She developed an ulcer, and one of her acting teachers put her on probation because he thought she was holding back out of fear of overshadowing her fellow students.

“When I was in drama school, I was scared,” she says. “It was the first time I realized this isn’t something that is fun, that it had a dark side. Before that,” she adds, “I just thought it was so much fun. I was playing ridiculous creatures, not human beings.” Drama school, she adds, “was like boot camp, shaving your head. It made you humble. A lot of it was breaking your spirit, and out of your survival instinct you start gathering what’s important.”

The first year after graduation, she performed in seven off-Broadway plays, after which she never attended an open audition or did television voice-overs or suffered any of the other indignities common to most budding actors. She spent a year or two playing in several Shakespearean productions at the New York Shakespeare Festival. Then she moved swiftly into film--first a small part in “Julia,” then “The Deer Hunter” and then “Kramer vs. Kramer,” in which she co-starred with Dustin Hoffman, winning her first Academy Award at age 29.

Since then, Streep’s acclaimed film performances, with their almost requisite Oscar nominations (out of eight nominations, she has won two, for “Kramer” and “Sophie’s Choice”), have become almost routine. If critics have occasionally caviled that Streep is too perfect, too remote, an overly technical actor who can master the accents but never quite yields up the soul, few deny that she is that rare performer who has turned character acting into the stuff of leading lady.

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“Meryl brings to her film roles the kind of detail and delineation of character that we used to think was reserved for the stage,” says Joseph Papp, producer of the New York Shakespeare Festival, who met her when she showed up for an audition just out of college. He’s directed her TK times in plays such as “Measure for Measure” and the 1981 musical “Alice in Concert,” for which she won an Obie award. Streep, he says, “has a tremendous capacity for being absorbed in a character, and she learned very fast how to play to the camera, taking her film acting beyond just being photographed.”

Surprisingly, only a few of her films, including “Out of Africa,” “Silkwood” and “Sophie’s Choice,” were commercially successful. Some of Streep’s favorites--most notably “A Cry in the Dark,” in which she played the angry, unsentimental Australian Lindy Chamberlain, who was accused of murdering her own child--were box-office failures. “That role took a piece of my soul,” says Streep, who met the real Lindy Chamberlain during the filming in Australia. “Unlike most women, (Lindy) doesn’t hide her fury. It’s right out there. They didn’t really distribute or advertise the movie, and I was extremely proud of it.” “

While appreciating anger in her subjects, Streep doesn’t find it a useful emotion as an actress. “I’ve always rejected that 19th-Century idea that you have to anguish in a garret to create something worthwhile.”

When asked about her own technique, Streep says, “It’s highly associative work, the kind of mining of your emotions. I’ve never been in analysis, and I always feel like a completely blank page when I start, like I never know where I’m going to get (inspiration). I only know that something has called me--like a vocation--from the material. That there is something in there. I don’t question or analyze why, I just know the parts of the script where my heart starts to race and the hair stands up on my arms. I don’t have to do any more work until we shoot that day.”

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Nichols says that “Meryl’s magic starts before we start shooting,” that she “tries out the character off-camera, and then she doesn’t have to do anything when she’s on camera.” When she is on camera, adds Nichols, “it’s all really true, it’s really happening. The guy who plays her lover is in love with her, the guy who plays her enemy is a little afraid of her.” During the shooting of one scene in “Postcards,” co-star Gene Hackman, who plays Streep’s director, “just stopped acting,” Nichols says. “He was so caught up in watching Meryl that he just stopped. He apologized, and we had to shoot the scene again.”

Says Streep: “You have to be interested and mystified in the other person’s feelings and be very, very curious about the person’s heart. Not just the person you are portraying, but the person you’re communicating with and the one that is unseen--the audience. I always think that if I’ve made a connection with my character, and I’ve gotten into her heart, then they can get into yours. I always think about that invisible connection among us all, what we have in common as opposed to what divides us.”

Streep insists that despite her acclaim, she is just like every other actor. “It never stops, you keep thinking if I could just get something lined up for September.” Last year was a particularly busy time. She shot “Postcards,” then Albert Brooks’ new film, “Defending Your Life,” a courtroom comedy to be released this December or early next year that stars Brooks and Streep. They were back-to-back films that required for the first time that Streep and her family move to Los Angeles. “I bought a house in California because I have to work. I’ve made one movie living at home--'Ironweed,’ because they shot it in Albany. They don’t make a lot of movies in Albany. So we’re struggling. We regard Connecticut as home, and we’ll be there as long as we possibly can, but I don’t know. The kids are getting older, they’re in the hockey league, and they don’t want to go to Australia or Africa. I understand that.”

As for any immediate return to the stage, the actress, who once said her career dream would be to form a troupe of roving actors, shakes her head. “I haven’t done it in so long that I’m terrified to go back. But I got very proprietary when I saw Tracy (Ullman) doing my part (Kate in ‘Taming of the Shrew’) in Shakespeare in the Park. But no, I don’t want to bring my kids (to New York). I want to put them to bed at night, which I can do if I make a movie.” She says, almost offhandedly, that her one theatrical goal would be to play “Desdemona to Denzel Washington’s Othello.” But that, she says, is a way off, when the kids are older and she can get back to her Jane Fonda workout tapes. What she--the actress who has so far been in complete control of her career--is most concerned with now is maintaining that control, finding those roles that she, as, well, an actress in her 40s and beyond, can play.

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“Ageless,” she shrieks with laughter when asked to characterize those roles. “Look, I didn’t think of myself as a sexpot when I was 16, and it’s never been the thing that I strutted in my work. I’ve never had a character who was motivated only by sex or lust. There was always some other need or insecurity driving the behavior. I feel that about people, that sex is one component of their being, just like intelligence or curiosity or laziness or anything else. And I’m always interested in bringing out a whole person rather than just one aspect. But the movies usually call for only one aspect in women--because it’s easiest for them to deal with that one aspect--their sexuality. But unfortunately, we were born with brains, and it’s hard to negotiate the present landscape with a brain and a female body. That’s the only interesting thing to me now, men and women and how they relate.”

Styling by Israel Segal; blouse, Romeo Gigli.


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