MOVIES : Rebecca (Not) of Sunnybrook Farm : Rebecca De Mornay took off in “Risky Business.” But 10 years passed before she rocked the “Cradle.” Moral: Bad is good.

<i> Hilary de Vries is a frequent contributor to Calendar</i>

It’s hard to know whether to believe her or not. Swinging her blond hair off her shoulder in one of those stiff-necked moves that cheerleaders used to make in high school, Rebecca De Mornay shoves out her hand, insisting, “It is so nice to meet you after all these years.”

Say what?

“Of course,” she says, swinging her naughty hair again. “I don’t watch TV, but I do read .”

Her face is imperturbable--”a saucer of cream” somebody once said--but she cuts the serenity with a startlingly intense gaze like the one she used to snooker poor Annabella Sciorra in “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle.” A good girl, bad girl. Or is it the other way around?

“You know it’s funny how life unfolds in such strange ways,” says De Mornay, dropping onto the hotel room sofa and picking up the issue of Playboy that just happens to be there. “Who would have thought one of the best interviews with me would be in Playboy?”


She thumbs through the pages. “See, it’s a really good picture of me,” she says holding up what is, yes, a really striking photograph. “The whole interview is terrific. I’m really pleased.”

She smiles for a moment and then tosses the magazine to the sofa.

“I hope I won’t hate yours. I won’t, will I?”

No wonder Sciorra didn’t stand a chance in “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle.” Or Tom Cruise, for that matter, in “Risky Business,” when De Mornay transfixed the pubescent high schooler with her call-girl cool and introduced him to the finer points of Chicago’s mass transit system.

It was her first film, made when De Mornay was just 19, and while most recall the 1983 comedy as Cruise’s rocket-launcher, it also propelled the unknown actress on her own, albeit less-meteoric, career playing elegant, sultry ciphers, women who almost always get their man.

“I had only been auditioning for six months--which is nothing--when I got the female lead in a feature film that went on to become a monster hit,” De Mornay says. “I got a nine-year ride on one film.”

With her Veronica Lake-in-Wonderland looks--the blond bangs, porcelain doll features and storybook blue eyes--De Mornay parlayed her “Risky Business” renown into a decade’s worth of visually arresting if wildly varying women. She was the sweetly prim bride in “The Trip to Bountiful”; the lusty inmate in “And God Created Woman”; the ambitious singer in “The Slugger’s Wife,” and the sorrowful ex-wife in “Backdraft.”


But with the exception of “Backdraft,” not one of those films was commercially successful. And in the case of Hal Ashby’s heavily hyped “The Slugger’s Wife,” a most memorable bomb. Not until De Mornay popped up last year playing a vengeful nanny in Disney’s sleeper thriller “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle,” directed by Curtis Hanson, did the actress add a much-needed hit to her resume.

“Through bad luck or bad choices, Rebecca had become undervalued as an actress after ‘Risky Business,’ ” says Hanson. “She’d get good reviews for films like ‘The Trip to Bountiful,’ but the failures she was in just got so much more attention that it had hurt her.”

Critics howled that “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle” was yuppie pap--the evil nanny preying on the perfect upper-middle-class family who lived in Seattle, no less. But De Mornay, whose icy calm only added to the thrills, was credited with much of the film’s box-office success. “I thought when I was making it that everyone would hate me,” she says. “But when the film came out, everyone loved my character.”

She played Peyton Flanders like a maternal version of Glenn Close’s scorned woman in “Fatal Attraction.” There were no boiled rabbits, but the actress scored what must surely be a cinematic first--breast-feeding as tactical weaponry. “She’s a psycho, but De Mornay doesn’t play her for camp shrewishness,” wrote David Ansen in his review in Newsweek. “This nanny’s sadism is psychological.”

Now, in “Guilty as Sin,” a courtroom drama directed by Sidney Lumet and her first film since “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle,” De Mornay is back on more familiar terrain, playing another object of desire: a defense attorney forced to represent a predatory playboy accused of murdering his wife.

“It’s not like I sat at home and said, ‘I need to find this vehicle,’ ” says De Mornay, who is paired with Don Johnson in the film. “But it intrigued me to be in a thriller and be the one who is terrorized after having been the terrorizer.”

If De Mornay is feeling any pressure to replicate the success of “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle” with her performance in “Guilty as Sin” (both films were made for Disney), she belies that with a studied insouciance.

“No, nothing has really changed with my career, except my salary,” she says flopping back on the sofa. “It’s not like I got more talented. In retrospect, I had a good education in Hollywood ups and downs very quickly. I was in a big hit and then several lows. But it all helped me in my quest to detach. And there have been some very happy accidents that happened to me and my career that never happened to anyone else.”

In command of the kind of breezy confidence that often comes from years of being considered the best-looking girl in school, De Mornay in person is almost alarmingly self-possessed. In Los Angeles for a brief visit home between promoting “Guilty as Sin” (which opens Friday) and shooting her latest film, “The Three Musketeers,” in Austria, DeMornay has sandwiched in time with the media. “You’re my last interview,” she says airily. “That is something to celebrate.”

Dressed a la Steve Nicks in a diaphanous, albeit form-revealing dress layered over a pair of black leggings, De Mornay looks very much like how Martin Ransohoff, executive producer of “Guilty as Sin,” describes her: “She’s got a toughness and a vulnerability.”

Or as Hanson adds, “Rebecca is someone who takes her work very, very seriously. There is an intensity to her and she isn’t afraid to challenge you every step of the way.”

In conversation, the actress seems to regard her life--an unconventional one--with mystical awe, turning suspicious when others don’t agree. A discussion of her brief stage career, playing Billie Dawn in a production of “Born Yesterday” at the Pasadena Playhouse and Charlotte Corday in “Marat/Sade” at the Williamstown Theater Festival, brings the self-assessment: “I basically started on stage playing the great female masterpieces and I thought to myself, ‘Rebecca, you’ve really got balls,’ but . . . I got brilliant reviews.”

When talk about her newest film--a “Young Guns” version of Alexander Dumas’ classic co-starring Kiefer Sutherland, Charlie Sheen and Chris O’Donnell and directed by Stephen Herek (“Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure”)--isn’t sufficiently ardent, she retorts, “Don’t sound so excited.”

Now divorced after a 10-month marriage to novelist and screenwriter Bruce Wagner (“Force Majeure” and TV’s “Wild Palms”) that ended two years ago, De Mornay is currently keeping company with Leonard Cohen, the Canadian poet and songwriter--”the elder statesman of the bedroom,” according to one recent profile--who at 58 is nearly twice De Mornay’s age. “Although I consider him a great artist, it’s not his art that connects us but the human being,” she says. “Did you know I co-produced some songs on his new album (“The Future”)? He dedicated the whole album to me and drew me in as co-producer.”

Yet for all her little-girl toughness, De Mornay can turn kittenish, even sentimental. “I loved working with Geraldine (Page) in ‘The Trip to Bountiful,’ ” she says dropping her voice into the very rhythms she used to portray the sweetly devoted Callie May. “I learned so much from her . . . I realized there is going to be a rhythm to your career and if you take it too seriously you’re going to be wrecked. I’ve been around for 10 years in this town and I’m not crazy, I’m not dead, I haven’t been in rehab. Ten years? It’s hard to realize. But they haven’t been able to get rid of me and that’s saying a lot.”

Given the box-office prowess of “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle”--$87 million--one might assume that “Guilty as Sin” is the result of an arduous search by Disney to find another vehicle for De Mornay. But Ransohoff, who had produced the earlier thriller “Jagged Edge,” had developed Larry Cohen’s script with an eye to financing the $15-million courtroom drama independently. “I had no intention of shopping it to Disney,” says Ransohoff, who found himself in negotiations with the studio after De Mornay suggested Lumet as the film’s director. “Rebecca was one of the first people we talked to about the film and she wanted Sidney,” says Ransohoff, adding “and Sidney has an ongoing deal with Disney.”

“Rebecca got me the job,” says Lumet, the director of such acclaimed films as “Serpico,” “Network” and “The Verdict,” who also filmed last year’s box-office embarrassment “A Stranger Among Us” for Disney. “Although I had never worked with her, I had seen her work and I thought Rebecca was tremendously talented, an actress who worked on a lot of levels. I also love thrillers and I thought this was one of the best plots I’d ever read.”

Originally titled “Beyond Innocence,” the film takes an arcane but potentially problematic legal point as its dramatic premise--that an attorney can be forced to continue defending a client even against the attorney’s wishes. “It totally hooked me as a concept,” says Ransohoff. “I checked it out with two judges and a couple of prosecutors and it’s true.”

And “Guilty as Sin,” shot last fall in Toronto (which doubles for Chicago) in a 33-day shooting schedule, doesn’t hesitate to exploit the situation’s inherent dramatic possibilities. Jennifer Haines (De Mornay) is a shapely defense attorney used to winning at all costs--the film’s opening sequence establishes her as something of a local legend at acquittals--forced to defend David Greenhill (Johnson), a compulsive womanizer accused of murder. Before the film is over, Greenhill, who justifies his behavior with such lines as “I never really dated much in high school” and “I’ve lived off women my whole life, it’s my talent,” is shown to be increasingly psychotic: first in what Ransohoff laughingly refers to as “our mad mayo(nnaise) scene,” in which an ever-more agitated Johnson wields an oversized butcher’s knife while making a turkey sandwich, and in a scene in which De Mornay, pursued by her now untenable client, dangles off the roof of a high-rise.

“It’s about mental combat,” says Lumet, who dismisses any similarities between the film and “Jagged Edge,” a thriller that also used as its premise a female attorney defending a psychotic client. “There’s this attraction between the two of them--Don is gorgeous--but then there are all these other levels going on and Rebecca is very good at playing on a lot of different levels.”

“I don’t know how to explain it, but Don and I have this odd chemistry (in the film),” says De Mornay, whose co-star was cast at Lumet’s suggestion. “Our relationship is a very rough sexual tango. Don really threw himself into the part like how I tried to do in ‘Hand That Rocks the Cradle,’ where you don’t keep yourself sympathetic for the audience. And then because it’s Sidney, who is a genius and who has such a knowledge of courtrooms, I just trusted it would be OK.”

All of which seems to beg the question--does De Mornay miss playing a heavy?

“Oh, ask me,” she says. “That’s all people are asking me now, if it’s more fun to play the bad guy. But until now I had nothing to compare it to. It is one kind of pressure to play a psychotic and a different kind of challenge to play the one stalked by the psychotic, but I can now say, ‘Yes, it is more fun to play the bad guy.’ ”

Which seems to beg another question--what kinds of roles are available for women in Hollywood now?

“Yeah, that’s the big question: ‘What’s out there for women and aren’t women being mistreated in film?’ ” says De Mornay, who adds that she began seeing “more of the A-list scripts” after “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle.”

“But the question that’s most urgent is how are women being treated across the world? And women are treated as inferior in every country, like in Yugoslavia. So to look at how Hollywood treats women, why should that be any oasis of honoring the female when the whole world is in some sort of cosmic fit of epilepsy? My personal feeling is that it has to do with the imbalance of the male and female principles--which live in all of us.”

If this kind of theorizing sounds like a mixture of Cohen’s intellectualized love-lorn lyrics, the radical teachings of Summerhill, the progressive English private school that De Mornay attended as a child, and Zen Buddhism (she has also spent time in an ashram), she is loath to agree.

“Do you think you need some kind of school of thought to think about these things?” she asks. “I just have this understanding of this problem that we’re all confronting--I don’t know why--but I would like to use my influence to help illuminate this little corner. It really is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.”

In other words, De Mornay chooses her roles in a way that helps right the imbalance of the male-female principles?

“Definitely, although I don’t exactly know how.” It has, she adds, something to do with finding a new kind of role model for women, “which is not the same way that I’ve heard a lot of women speaking recently, which is--what’s the word?--counterproductive. Like my character in ‘Hand.’ If you don’t like the film or the genre, OK, but to say that women shouldn’t play psychotics because it’s anti-feminist, well, that’s thinking like a minority. It’s very, very important for women to understand that. Yes, there is a responsibility to women, but the answer isn’t for women to only play goody-goody heroines. You want to play all parts in the human drama.”

Such as the Lady DeWinter character in “The Three Musketeers”? “Oh, that’s just my guilty little pleasure,” she says smiling. “I’m just having fun playing her, you know the part that Faye Dunaway played in the ‘70s remake and that Lana Turner played in the ‘50s version.”

Then there is De Mornay’s next project--she declines to be specific except to say “that I am going to be producing it with the gang who made ‘Backdraft’ and it’s based on this female myth that I discovered a few years ago. It isn’t very well known, but I feel it is decisive about male and female relationships.”

If De Mornay is relatively iconoclastic in her social views, her upbringing can be considered at least as unorthodox.

Her stepfather died when she was 5 (De Mornay is estranged from her natural father, Wally George, the talk-show host from whom her mother was divorced when De Mornay was 2), and her mother, an aspiring actress, moved De Mornay and her half-brother from Los Angeles to Europe. “She basically split out of grief--got a van and drove us around--and that’s when our odyssey began,” says De Mornay, who was initially enrolled in Summerhill outside of London and spent her teen-age years in Kitzbuhl, Austria, where she attended high school and learned to speak German “with a flawless Austrian accent. They could never tell I wasn’t Austrian.”

“I had such an odd childhood,” says De Mornay shaking her head. “But it seemed normal. I guess as a child you just have a grim acceptance of what’s going on in your life. Not that my childhood was a grim horror story, but it was an insecure life. We didn’t have roots anywhere and we were living in countries that didn’t speak our language.”

De Mornay pauses and gives a rueful laugh. “Yeah, Julie,” she says. “What a woman. Unfortunately, she died (when De Mornay was 23). I was devastated.”

Indeed, it had been her mother who suggested De Mornay consider acting as a career. After spending several months studying at Lee Strasberg’s legendary Actors Studio in Hollywood, and a brief stint working as an apprentice at Francis Coppola’s Zoetrope Studios, De Mornay landed the role in “Risky Business.”

Today, De Mornay, who has been romantically linked in the past with Harry Dean Stanton and Tom Cruise, owns a house in the Hollywood Hills and spends much of her time between films working with Cohen on his music. As for her marriage to Wagner, she declines to discuss it, except to say that the 10-month stretch “was a long marriage.”

“To tell you the truth, marriage didn’t look that good to me for a long time,” she says. “It’s a beautiful ritual, but you have to really examine what it means. Like what does ‘death do us part’ mean and why are they even bringing death into the equation? Does it mean I will be at the person’s death? And who do I want at my own death?”

De Mornay talks for a minute about her mother’s passing. “Yeah, I can fall into the vat of self-pity over that and many other things, but I prefer not to.”

She falls silent for a minute and then rouses herself with a shake of her hair. “But the good news is that you can overcome that feeling of being an orphan and gain a self-confidence or an awareness that people who still have their parents don’t have. I chose to gravitate toward those ideas that bring the most positive direction for the rest of my life. Does that make any sense?”