MOVIES : A Star? Forget It : No entourage, no name-dropping, no special treatment--but Joanne Woodward's artful performances have a certain glow

Times staff writer Nikki Finke is currently on leave writing a book.

She doesn't belong here. Not in this restaurant that's too garishly pink. Not among these diners who are too self-consciously trendy. Not on this terrace that's too dazzlingly bright. But then, Joanne Woodward is the first to recognize that she doesn't belong in Hollywood.

Because, she says almost proudly, "I'm not a Hollywood star.

"I don't think of myself as having been a star, particularly," she explains. "I've spent so much of the time of my career in the East where it's not the same thing as being a star here. It's easier to be a star back there. The atmosphere is different, so it doesn't become a factor in what I do now."

Actually, it's been at least seven, or maybe even eight years--no one can remember exactly--since the 60-year-old Oscar winner last made the cross-country trek from her homes in Connecticut and Manhattan courtesy of Amtrak. (She rarely flies, after a nasty fright in a plane years ago.)

The result is that no one at Baci, not even the waitress, is giving star treatment to this woman with the creamily smooth complexion that barely shows signs of aging and the thick, long blond hair worn straight back like a schoolgirl. Or maybe that's because Woodward isn't demanding it--at least as defined by too many of the box office names spoiled by moviemaking machinations nowadays.

For instance, there's no entourage to call attention to her every move. There's no squabbling with the media about what she will and will not talk about. There's no peppering her speech with insider references to Jack or Arnold. In fact, it's unclear whether Woodward even knows them, because she readily admits that she doesn't see a lot of current movies starring today's roster of what's-their-names.

"Oh, but we do show movies on occasion in our barn where we have, joy of joys, a little screening room. Usually I show something dark and tragic, like 'The Music Teacher,' which is not what you'd call light entertainment. But one weekend last fall, my daughter suggested we see 'When Harry Met Sally . . . ,' starring, uh, starring I forget who . . . ."

She tries desperately to remember the actors' names. You help her out.

"Oh yes, Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan, neither of whom I'd ever heard of," she continues. "So I said OK. Well, there were six of us--Paul and me and two other couples--and we laughed and we laughed. I haven't laughed that hard at a movie in I don't know when. And I'm sure it's not a brilliant film, but it was just delightful. And I am so enamored of Billy Crystal from now on. And Meg Ryan is such a good actress that I told Paul, 'Next time you direct a film, have her in it.' And, uh, who directed that film?"

She tries to remember. You tell her.

"Oh, yes, Rob Reiner. It was really, really nice. For you see, I am of the period where my idea of heaven was Frank Capra movies. I loved Carole Lombard movies. And Cary Grant movies. And Irene Dunne movies. And there came a time when I was just hard put to find a movie that I wanted to see because there was nothing I was interested in."

She ponders a moment.

"Well, we did see something recently. But, with all due respect to Marty Scorsese, I had a very hard time sitting through 'GoodFellas.' I think it's a brilliant film, as only Marty can do. But," she continues, recalling the on-screen violence with a visible shudder, "I don't want to be seeing this. It was chicken of me, I'm sure."

She shudders again.

"Let me think what else was a good movie I saw. They're always films nobody ever saw. But one other film that I loved was called 'The Competition,' which was beautifully acted."

That ancient relic starring Amy Irving and Richard Dreyfuss? She nods vigorously.

"It was a very romantic film. I love that. That's my kind of movie. But I haven't seen my kind of movie a lot. I just don't think Hollywood is making them anymore," she says, emitting a long sigh.

So it stands to reason that Woodward, the un-Hollywood star, is now starring in an un-Hollywood movie. For that's the most apt description of "Mr. and Mrs. Bridge," the new Merchant Ivory/Robert Halmi adaptation of the two Evan S. Connell novels of the same name, that star Woodward and husband Paul Newman in a pre- and post-World War II portrait of a quintessential American marriage among the upper-middle classes of Kansas City.

There are no car chases in the film, no gangsters, not even an after-life experience to speak of. Just gentle vignettes of wealthy WASPS at home and at work, and Oscar-caliber acting by Woodward and Newman, and an eerie verisimilitude that's more at home in today's documentaries than movies.

In other words, exactly Woodward's kind of movie.

A fan of the novel "Mrs. Bridge" since it was published in 1959, as well as of its sequel "Mr. Bridge," Woodward wanted to turn the books into made-for-television fare. She teamed up with "Lonesome Dove" producer Robert Halmi, who optioned the novels and got the project on its way.

"Then, one day I was having dinner with Paul and Joanne," recalls director James Ivory, "when suddenly she said to me, 'I am so interested in this book. I don't suppose you know about it, it seems to be a cult thing, but you ought to read it.' And I said, 'Oh, no. I know those books. They're really great.' And the conversation went on until I just sort of jumped in and said, 'Why not put the books together and make a feature film out of them?'

"And then Paul said, 'Well, if I like the script, I'll be Mr. Bridge.' "

The role of India Bridge, a conventional wife and mother who is emotionally dependent on her self-contained husband but yearns to have him demonstrate his love more openly, was both comfortable and complex for Woodward to perform. Comfortable, in the sense that India reminded Woodward of women from her childhood. Growing up first in Thomasville, Ga., and then in Greenville, S.C., Woodward explains that the Bridges' "social pattern is very much like the life we lived in the South. India isn't anything like my mother, though. But I have aunts and friends of my mother who had that same frozen-in-time attitude that India had," the actress says.

And complex in the sense that Woodward can't really articulate the process she uses to actually create a character. "I'm never very good at that because I don't think of it in terms of figuring it out," she apologizes. "I sort of daydream, or at least that's what an acting teacher used to say my technique was. The character somehow dwindles down into me. I don't make very many decisions, at least not conscious ones. The most conscious decisions I make are what she's wearing and how she walks."

Ivory maintains that he didn't interfere with Woodward's interpretation of the character because "I've always felt that if you hire very good actors who are not necessarily stars, and you've always liked what they do and you just have a good feeling about their work, then you have to leave them alone to pull up out of themselves whatever it is they want to develop. And then they show that to you in rehearsals. And that's just a gift that they give you. So I'm not one of these people who believe in twisting the thing all out of shape because of some pre-conceived idea about it."

And yet it's a quintessential Woodward performance: delicate and strong, vulnerable and confident, spontaneous and structured. In other words, complicated. And it's a quintessential Woodward role: as plain in appearance as meat and potatoes, as dressed up in content as a gourmet feast. In other words, "with something interesting to say and something as far from me as possible," as she explains it.

For while some actresses carved out a career relying on their glamour to mask their lack of ability, Woodward--once a contender for campus queen at Louisiana State University--never needed to. In fact, during her years as a contract player at 20th Century Fox, she wouldn't let the studio transform her into yet another femme fatale of the '50s ("Forget it!" she reportedly hissed at executives back then).

So this Broadway veteran of New York's Neighborhood Playhouse and Actors' Studio was cast in movie roles that required trained skills more than tight skirts--first as a teen-aged orphan, complete with boy-like baggy pants and haircut, in the Civil War drama "Count Three and Pray." And eventually as the split-personality patient in "The Three Faces of Eve," for which she accepted the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1957 in a homemade dress that caused a minor uproar among the fashion-conscious Hollywood set.

More than any other actress of her day, Woodward belonged to a new breed driven by artistic, not commercial, aspirations. That also helped her maintain her own stardom and identity before a public already curious about the wife of one of Hollywood's premier sex symbols.

By the time Newman directed her in "Rachel, Rachel" (for which she received another Oscar nomination in 1968), Woodward's portrayal of the spinster schoolteacher helped usher in a new generation of films in which women's interior lives became more interesting than their exterior selves.

Yet today, after years of creating memorable screen characters in such films as "The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds," or "The Glass Menagerie"--both directed by Newman--Woodward confesses that she finds it easier to put together projects for television. The result has been starring parts in the TV films "The Shadow Box," "Sybil" and her haunting performance as an Alzheimer's victim in "Do You Remember Love?"

And somewhere in between she sandwiches her role as activist actor alongside her husband, from concern for such causes as abortion rights, Planned Parenthood and AIDS to creating the Hole-in-the-Wall Camp for terminally ill children and the Scott Newman Center to prevent drug abuse through education.

As always, however, Woodward's first allegiance is to the stage, where she both acts and directs. But, unlike most Hollywood stars--including her husband--Woodward professes no deep desire to get behind a camera. "I only directed a little film, and I didn't much like it. Too technical," she says. "I like to direct on stage where I can work with the actors more."

When pressed, she erupts with laughter at the memory of her first film directing assignment: a Thanksgiving episode of the TV series "Family" starring Henry Fonda (whom, to the amazement of the producers, she cast just by picking up the phone and asking him. He said yes within an hour).

"It was the last year of the series, so consequently they were giving directing jobs to everybody," she recalls. "I was terrified because I didn't know anything. I don't know how I could have spent all those years in front of the camera and have no idea what went on behind it, but I just wasn't the least bit interested."

Luckily, the executive producer was "a very nice kid" named Ed Zwick of "thirtysomething" and "Glory" fame. Recalls Woodward: "He said, 'Not to worry. I'll tell you how to do it.' So he showed me all about camera angles and picking shots. He was incredible. So he got me through it."

"Oh, gosh, this is very, very kind of her," says Zwick, thoroughly embarrassed, but also somewhat bemused.

What Zwick remembers most from that experience was how "fresh and innocent about the process" Woodward and Fonda were. "It wasn't about, 'I'll be in my trailer.' It wasn't about, 'Where's the Perrier?' It was about, 'This is what I do, and I want to do everything I can to make it better.'

"Seeing that kind of attitude after that many years, of not being jaundiced by the process but rather willing to be forever a student of it, was a great moment for me. The temptation is to say that it's generational. But I'm not sure that's true. I think it's often a factor of the particular personality. And my guess is there may have been those people throughout generations who were equally egotistical and difficult as there are now."

On the set of "Mr. and Mrs. Bridge," Ivory also saw something unusual, at least for Hollywood actors: how much Woodward and Newman wanted to enhance the other's roles, even if it came at the expense of their parts. "That's the sort of generosity that comes out of two people who love each other and who've been together for years and want the best for each other," Ivory explains.

Though the two actors haven't appeared together on screen since the badly received "Harry and Son" (1984), "we love working together. It's fun," Woodward says. "But we don't bring it home. We never did."

But they do bring something from home to the screen, Ivory believes. "There's an obvious plus. In a practical sense, it means that they are rehearsing all the time. They see each constantly, so at breakfast and when they go to bed, they can do scenes and run lines for months."

Ask Woodward what she thinks of the finished product, and she looks at you stricken. Unlike Hollywood stars who toss around the statement, "It's the best work I've ever done," with the same frequency that they appear in action-adventure sequels, Woodward puts her hands to her eyes, slumps in her chair and whispers, "I haven't really seen it.

"Um, I've seen it twice, but I haven't really seen it. Because I look at it like this," she says, covering her eyes now and grimacing. "I can't."

What she does see, suddenly, is her husband, who almost sneaks up on her in order to spear a forkful of her lunch.

"Hello, darling. How are you?," Woodward asks him as they embrace.

"Good," he mutters between mouthfuls of lettuce.

"It's a very, very good salad," she tells him. "But it needs your salad dressing."

He smiles. "Of course, it does!"

Knowing a good exit line when he delivers one, Newman leaves as silently as he arrived. But his brief appearance has caused a stir, and suddenly the people in the restaurant discover Woodward's presence and begin to stare.

Because this is the treatment they give to an actress of Woodward's caliber. For they know she is a Hollywood star, even if she doesn't.

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