Dern Dynamics : FRESH OUT OF THE OSCAR GATE, ACTRESS PICKS TRUE STORY FOR HBO PROJECT

TIMES STAFF WRITER

After completing "Rambling Rose," the film for which she received a best actress Oscar nomination this year, Laura Dern decided to be picky about her next project.

"I had some choices after 'Rambling Rose,' which were big box-office, fun, wild movies, which were like nothing to me," said the 25-year-old daughter of actors Diane Ladd and Bruce Dern. "They are just like paper and air. If I have the opportunity and the choice, I don't want to do anything which doesn't have integrity to me, which doesn't tell the truth."

So she turned down all feature offers in order to do HBO's "Afterburn," which premieres Saturday. "Afterburn" is based on the true story of Janet Harduvel, an Air Force wife and mother, whose flyer husband, Ted, was killed after his F-16 plane crashed a decade ago.

The Air Force said it was pilot error. But Harduvel was unwilling to accept the Air Force's findings and she sued General Dynamics, the manufacturer of the F-16, and cleared her husband's name (see box.)

What fascinated and inspired Dern about Harduvel's story was, she said, that "we have all seen people deal with death. That is hard enough, but to fight and win a struggle like this and make a statement: You don't have to be destroyed by the conglomerate. Janet proves that. But she proves it as a young, independent woman with sexuality and with feistiness and with a child. She has taught herself anything you would ever want to know about the government and justice."

Harduvel, Dern said, is a completely different kind of woman from the characters Dern has played in such films as "Rambling Rose," "Wild at Heart" and "Smooth Talk."

"With the other characters I have played they are completely absorbed in their emotions or sensuality or whatever it is," Dern said. "I never really played someone who dealt with their intellect or who was forced to."

Harduvel, who first came to national attention when she was profiled on "60 Minutes" in 1987, said she doesn't believe she did anything heroic.

"I graduated from high school in 1969," said Harduvel, who is an astrologist and coaches her daughter's softball team.

"I was part of that generation that protested. We were going to make a difference. I long had this feeling that if you weren't going to do something to change the situation then keep your mouth shut because you can't have it both ways. I just kept going forward. I spent the whole time not trying to prove the F-16 was defective; I was just trying to prove that Ted didn't get stupid and forgot to look at his instruments."

Harduvel, who also has a cameo in the movie as an officer's wife, was afraid that participating in "Afterburn" would be tough going for her. It turned out not to be.

"I found where it would be traumatic and painful, it was very cathartic for me," she said. "The only hard thing was the first time I ran into Vincent Spano (who plays Ted) at the lunch wagon. He was standing there with his flight suit and sunglasses. It said 'Ted Harduvel' on his name tag. I stopped dead in my tracks. I did a double take."

Before production began late last summer, Harduvel flew to Los Angeles and had several dinners with Dern. Then Dern spent five days in Florida with Harduvel and her daughter.

"That was 24 hours a day, sleeping with her at her place, and her daughter spending the night with me, and going to the base where the story actually took place," Dern said.

"Laura was really committed to doing a dedicated job," Harduvel said.

Harduvel said Dern quickly immersed herself into the role, especially the day Harduvel took the actress to the local Air Force base.

"We were walking past the hangar and she wanted to take a look in," Harduvel said, laughing. "It was in the middle of the summer and we were both wearing shorts. There were three crew chiefs working on the airplane (an F-16) and they were looking at Laura and drooling. She looks at me and says, 'Come on. Let's go in and take a look.' I said, 'Laura, we will get busted.' 'She said, 'Come on, Jan. We are good-looking gals. We are wearing our shorts.' She rolls her eyes at these guys and says, 'Can we come look at your airplane?' We were in the hangar for eight or nine minutes before they finally found an officer and rousted us (out). I was hesitant to go in. She got right into the role."

Robert Loggia, who plays Harduvel's attorney in the movie, said that Dern "is so gifted. She has an inner life and a wonderful physical and mental freedom. There is a chameleon aspect to the real actor which Meryl Streep has. Laura has that quality."

Dern compared making movies to getting a college education. "I meet new people, I travel to unbelievable places in the world and I learn new subject matters each time as I do research. More importantly, I have been so lucky that every time I walk away from something I learn something about the person that I play because they have something to give."

And what has she learned from Janet Harduvel?

"I have adopted certain things in her nature that I respect and feel natural to me, that are more awakened inside of me," Dern said. "That is cool. That is like growing up."

"Afterburn" airs Saturday at 8 p.m. on HBO.

The Case History

In U.S. District Court in Florida in April, 1987, a jury found that General Dynamics was liable for defective design of the F-16 aircraft, defective manufacture and failure to warn the Air Force.

The jury also found Janet Harduvel's husband had not been negligent in the crash of his F-16 and awarded Harduvel $3.1 million in damages. The judge reversed the jury on the issue of failure to warn, stating it was the plantiff's weakest claim.

In July, 1989, the U.S. Court of Appeals concluded that although there had been substantial evidence at the trial relating to a manufacturing defect in the F-16, General Dynamics could not be held liable for negligence.

The court determined that, because General Dynamics followed the specfications approved by the Air Force and made the Air Force aware of potential problems in the equipment, the company was, under law, protected as a government contractor. The appellate court reversed the trial court and threw out the $3.1 million damage award.

Although her husband's name has been cleared, Harduvel has said she will continue to pursue General Dynamics.

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