MOVIES : The Trip to Bankable : After a series of supporting roles, Madeleine Stowe has finally achieved name-above-the-title star status. And all it took was 15 years of paying dues and speaking her mind--and one big hit in 'Last of the Mohicans'

For somebody who's played a lot of damsels in distress--remember "Revenge," anyone?--Madeleine Stowe looks pretty well defended. Armored in a bulky gray sweater that falls below her knees and her long dark hair swimming about her shoulders mermaid-style, the actress seems just the kind of woman who would fly in from Texas, where she's buying a new ranch, hurry to a meeting at a swank Beverly Hills hotel in her boots, order up a double helping of finger sandwiches and turn a discussion about her career--some rolling of the eyes here--into a polite but pointed dissing of Hollywood and its treatment of women.

Not that demure has ever been Stowe's duende. Anyone who knows the 35-year-old actress will tell you she's no diplomat.

"Once Madeleine told me I had to kiss her ass if I wanted her to do something on a shoot," recalls Jonathan Kaplan, who directed the actress in the 1992 thriller "Unlawful Entry" and the upcoming "Bad Girls." "She has no trouble speaking her mind no matter what's at stake."

What's at stake happens to be quite a lot. Ever since Stowe was teamed with Daniel Day-Lewis in the 1992 hit "The Last of the Mohicans," her career has gone from supporting player to potential star-in-the-making. She was singled out by reviewers for her performance as the feisty general's daughter, no easy accomplishment given her co-star's high profile. When the film adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper's classic grossed more than $75 million at the box office, Stowe was suddenly offered bigger, better films.

"I don't know what it was, but that movie changed things," she says with a shrug. "Some people even said, 'We'll finance this movie if you say yes.' "

Heady stuff for an actress more used to playing the love interest--brunet version--in such films as "Stakeout" and "The Two Jakes" as well as "Unlawful Entry," yet hardly a fluke. This month, Stowe was named best supporting actress by the National Film Critics Assn. for her performance as the spunky, cuckolded wife in Robert Altman's "Short Cuts." If the award was somewhat unexpected given the film's sprawling ensemble nature, it still seems a precursor to a possible Oscar nomination next month.

Meanwhile, Stowe will be seen in three new films this spring: "Blink," director Michael Apted's thriller, which opened Wednesday; "China Moon," a film noir for Orion from Kevin Costner's TIG Productions, shot three years ago and finally set for release in March; and "Bad Girls," Kaplan's female-themed Western, scheduled for April.

In two of the films, Stowe gets her first starring roles. In "Blink," she plays a partially blind murder witness a la Audrey Hepburn in "Wait Until Dark"; in "Bad Girls," she plays the violent, sullen leader of a quartet of prostitutes-turned-outlaws, the Clint Eastwood of the demimonde.

"This is a crucial time for Madeleine," Apted observes. "These are the first movies she will actually carry, and (if they're successful) she could become a major star."

If Stowe puts any store in this will-she-or-won't-she speculation, she doesn't show it. Unlike her fragile screen persona, Stowe in person is armed with a fairly robust demeanor, a personality that Altman describes as "not push-around-able, a kind of cultural looseness which is either an attitude or lack of attitude."

Standing a good 5-feet-7, she wears little makeup and no jewelry, and her square hands with the snub-nosed nails are muscular, capable. She clearly relishes her independence and finds acting ideally suited to her real passion for her rancher's life.

"I love the life of an actor," she says, "because you spend brief amounts of time with other people and then you just leave. I need to be alone a lot, and I need to be outdoors."

Indeed, she is wary of discussing her career, preferring to talk instead about her upcoming move from Los Angeles to Texas--"I like to be where the light is interesting and there is weather"--her four horses, and her desire to start a family (she has been married to actor Brian Benben, the star of HBO's "Dream On," for more than eight years). Besides, any talk of Hollywood tends to send her into another fit of pique about the industry's more blatantly sexist aspects.

"I've always talked about it a lot, so I hesitate now because it's incredibly boring," she says, checking herself for a nanosecond before launching into a decidedly sardonic take on her upcoming films.

"I hate the title 'Bad Girls,' " she snorts. "It's totally politically incorrect, but it's a marketeers dream, don't you think? Can't you see the poster: 'Bad Girls' and below that all of us lined up with guns?"

Her observations of "China Moon"--something of a "Body Heat" manque , her second collaboration with Costner after the disastrously received "Revenge" in 1990--she prefers to keep off the record, "but you'll laugh your ass off," she says, sending a few peals of her own around the hotel cafe.

As for "Blink," which despite its small, $11-million budget represents Stowe's first real solo starring role, she is already braced for flak.

"I kid you not," she says taking a swig of tea. "A male reporter, younger than me, says, 'In this film you play a really abrasive character.'

"So I say, 'Oh, do you think so?' And he kind of wrinkles his nose and nods. 'You play a lot of really strong characters, don't you?' he says. 'How do you explain that there are so many strong women roles now?' "

Stowe puts her cup down with a clatter.

"I got so angry with him. I said, 'Haven't you been reading all the articles on women in Hollywood these days and how there are no decent roles?' But then what flashed through my mind is that any (non-traditional) image of women was threatening to him and that this was the taste of Middle America, exactly the audience the studios are going after."

What emerges during a nearly two-hour conversation with Stowe is a portrait of an actress whose film persona is far removed from her real self, a self-possessed woman whose striking, Pre-Raphaelite beauty serves as a formidable mask to a decidedly restless soul. Although she insists she's been lucky in her career, a self-taught actress who has never taken a day job since she was first spotted by an agent as a freshman at USC. But Stowe has clearly logged the numerous slights and inequities she's experienced throughout her career that began more than 15 years ago with guest appearances on such TV shows as "Baretta" and "The Gangster Chronicles." Despite her rising profile, she remains someone for whom the glass is still half-empty.

"Madeleine is quite unlike most of the characters she has played," Apted says. "She projects this fragile beauty, but she is really assertive and sure of herself."

Says Kaplan: "Madeleine is so delicate and graceful, but she has a strong, iron will. It's unusual to have someone with her kind of fragile body language in a woman who is really tough and so utterly fearless when it comes to authority."

As if to bolster Kaplan's assessment, Stowe takes a bite of sandwich, swallows hard and rushes on.

"What I'm really interested in is erratic behavior," she says, leaning forward as if she were passing along an insider-trading tip. "The world is so crazy that lately I've been observing the inconsistencies in people. You know, that's one of the things that is so lacking in women's roles--that you're not allowed to be inconsistent."

It is one of the main reasons Stowe chose to do "Blink" as her first major role after "The Last of the Mohicans." Although she had doubts about the viability of the genre after less-than-happy experiences filming "Unlawful Entry" and "China Moon"--"I don't think thrillers work anymore, because they've become too formulaic"--Stowe recognized in the character of Emma Brody not only the engine of the film, but also an unusually well-defined female protagonist: a blind fiddler in an Irish band who receives her sight after an eye transplant.

"After I made 'Unlawful Entry'--which was a very successful film but where the woman was a bit of a Barbie doll--I made a promise to myself that I would not allow the same thing to happen again," she says. "But with 'Blink' there was this strong female character, someone I had not played before."

Although ostensibly a typical thriller--Emma is the only witness to a murder--"Blink" differs from such films as "Wait Until Dark" and 1992's "Jennifer Eight" in its focus on the character's medically documented condition, retroactive hallucination phenomenon, as well as its non-victimized protagonist. Stowe's Brody is an acerbic, demanding woman who hounds the local police department while instigating a romance with the chief detective, played by Aidan Quinn.

"That's one of the things I appreciated about the film, that Emma got to be inconsistent, to the point that some people consider her abrasive," says Stowe, who also made alterations to screenwriter Dana Stevens' script, changing her character from a poet to a musician--"It was inherently more cinematic"--and expanding the role of Quinn, with whom Stowe had first worked on "Stakeout."

"I don't care if it's a man or a woman, I don't think it's right to have someone just function as the love interest," Stowe says.

"All of us dreaded the idea of the poor girl in peril," says Apted, the British documentarian who has also directed such feature films as "Coal Miner's Daughter" and "Gorillas in the Mist." "I thought she might embrace the character's more fragile aspects. But Madeleine really came at it with strong single-mindedness that this woman is not a victim. She's created a woman who is much closer to her own personality than anything she's played before."

Indeed, the contrast between Emma Brody and Stowe's earlier film characters is not lost on the actress, who readily concedes that until "Mohicans" and "Short Cuts," "I hadn't really liked anything I had done." Although she had attracted attention with her first feature film appearance, playing the endangered ex-girlfriend in "Stakeout," John Badham's 1987 comic thriller, the actress had earned a reputation for turning up on screen partly or fully nude, playing exploited women.

"There was a certain amount of sniggering about the amount of nudity she engaged in in her films," Apted says, "but Madeleine sees that as part of her ammunition. She's like the great actresses in the '30s and '40s, very beautiful but with nothing cute about her looks, a woman who is not afraid of her own sexuality."

For an actress so outspoken about the stereotyping of women in Hollywood, Stowe has only recently come to a new conclusion about her willingness to shed her clothes: "It was never the kind of situation where anybody said, 'You have to do this or you won't make this film.' No, I was always a very willing participant because it seemed sort of meaningless. But it's become much more personal, and it reminds me how dispensable women are."

That attitude is one reason Stowe is happier with her career since "Mohicans." Not only was she playing an independent woman in that film, but the love scenes between her character and Day-Lewis' were fully clothed, "about emotion, not sex." Her change in attitude also led Stowe to challenge Apted on the love scenes in "Blink," as well as to refuse Altman's first offer to work on "Short Cuts."

"I'd seen her in a couple of really bad movies where she had been quite good," recalls Altman, who had wanted Stowe to play the painter, the controversial role ultimately played by Julianne Moore that called for the actress to play a scene naked from the waist down.

"I know Bob had his reasons for it," Stowe says, "but I couldn't find a justification for it." Stowe wound up playing the part of Moore's character's sister, the wife of Tim Robbins' philandering policeman. Although she had one nude scene in which she posed for her sister's painting, "it was essentially a comic scene, and I didn't feel exposed in the same way."

That sense of exposure is crucial not only to Stowe's work but in her personal life as well. Stowe--the oldest of three children born to Robert Stowe, a civil engineer from Oregon, and Mireya Mora, the daughter of a prominent Costa Rican family--recalls growing up in Glendale as a painfully shy teen-ager in a conservative, troubled home.

Her mother, she says, was "a Latin woman with this infinite patience," while her father "was largely uncommunicative," a man who battled multiple sclerosis for most of Stowe's childhood. (He died in 1983.)

Her childhood memories run to her father's "huge fits of violence" and awkward public scenes of his collapsing in public.

"Neighbors would come running, and here we were these three little kids trying to pretend that nothing was wrong," Stowe says. "I kept wishing that my mother would stand up to him, but she was such a saint. I always felt a little bit evil compared to her."

Although Stowe studied the piano as a child, she never seriously considered a career in the arts. She enrolled at USC with the intention of studying journalism but wound up cutting classes to volunteer at the Solari Theatre (now the Canon) in Beverly Hills.

"I got up twice to do scenes (at the theater) and I was absolutely terrified," she recalls. "I felt the cynicism of the actors: 'This nice little girl, she's too inhibited.' And I was."

It was at the theater that Stowe met her first agent, Meyer Mishkin, who was representing Richard Dreyfuss in the theater's production of "The Tenth Man." After signing with Mishkin, Stowe dropped out of school and entered acting full time. She spent nearly a decade working in television, before a role in the miniseries "Blood and Orchids" led to "Stakeout." "I did a lot of terrible work for a lot of years," she says.

For all of her outspokenness, Stowe still seems to be wrestling with the whole concept of stardom. When asked about her future, she mentions working with director Agnieszka Holland ("Europa Europa") and taking a year off in the same breath.

"This is a very self-indulgent profession," she says, smiling for a moment before launching into another self-lacerating analysis of her career. Male stars are allowed to "evoke a kind of trust" from audiences, Stowe says, "because usually they blast somebody away and we're made to feel good about that." Women, on the other hand, "don't evoke that kind of trust." The most successful actresses, Stowe believes, manage to combine a sense of "being a heroine with a calculated sense of fragility that makes people want to protect them."

Stowe pauses, fiddling with her teaspoon. "I think it's a really sad thing. Because I have fought that softness in myself. Softness bores the hell out of me."

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