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CRITIC AT LARGE

Maturing Grace Of Hershey

March 07, 1987|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

Frank and Eleanor Perry's sultry 1968 drama, "Last Summer," about some bored and lethal teen-agers was Barbara Hershey's third film, although she had just turned 20 when it was made.

She had already done "With Six You Get Egg Roll" and "Heaven With a Gun." At 17, she had been recommended to an agent by her drama teacher at Hollywood High School and become a regular on the television series "The Monroes."

But it was "Last Summer" that made clear she was a dramatic actress with a future, and nothing so simple as a very pretty ingenue who might well fade like a summer tan.

In fact she has not only negotiated that passage, always difficult and often impossible for actresses, from girl to mature woman, she has grown more daring, subtle and assured along the way.

She was outstanding as one of Mia Farrow's sisters in the ensemble Woody Allen created for "Hannah and Her Sisters." Now Hershey is opening to reviews that are not just good but rapturous, in Barry Levinson's "Tin Men," a second slice (after "Diner") of life in Baltimore in 1963.

She plays Danny DeVito's unhappy wife, living downmarket as well as down the coast from Allen's Manhattan turf, but she is again warm, vulnerable and enormously appealing. Her silent tears are more eloquent than sobs.

Reminiscing for a college audience the other evening, she remembered that for her first episode of "The Monroes," she had to cry on cue. Having assured the director the day before that of course she could cry on cue, she realized she hadn't an idea how to go about it. She solved the problem by bringing an onion to the set, concealing pieces of it in her hands and, putting them over her eyes, achieving some quite satisfactory tears.

"I told myself I was an actress, and I didn't want glycerin tears. But I realized that for future reference I'd better get some technique."

How she manages tears now she did not choose to say, lest the procedures lose their magic. But sense-memory, as actors call it, is part of the technique and so, it seems clear, is the more general passion she brings to her work.

She has just finished shooting "Shy People" for director Andrei Konchalovsky, playing a Louisiana swamp woman with grown sons. The company worked on Louisiana bayou locations where the mosquitoes had the wing span of hummingbirds. "We gave each other two points if you got one in flight," she says.

It was an arduous assignment, not least because the director tends to command rather than suggest. But it was the third choice role in succession (the fourth, if you count "Hoosiers," although that performance was sharply trimmed and seven scenes ended up on the cutting-room floor).

The longer succession includes "The Natural," in which she plugged Robert Redford, "The Right Stuff," in which she played Sam Shepard's wife, and Richard Rush's "The Stunt Man," which she still hears more about than any other of her films.

"One exhibitor told me he still plays it eight times a year. It was amazing to see it with audiences. One night it was a comedy, one night a tragedy, one night a fantasy. Different each night. It's amazing how subjective we are as audiences."

It's been a nice run of work, but she says, "I've been doing it too long to celebrate, or to be complacent. Still I'm too grateful not to recognize the bounty when I see it. I never feel, 'This is it.' There's always another mountain in front of you."

A couple of years ago, feeling the need of a change, she moved east, taking her son, Tom, who is now 14, and her dog, and bought a 300-year-old millhouse, complete with stream, in Connecticut. "I wanted not to be frightened of New York," she says.

Woody Allen had requested a meeting and, it turned out, had pretty much decided on her for "Hannah," having seen and admired her earlier work. "We chatted for five minutes and he gave me the script, and that was that. I could have goofed at the meeting, I guess. But he'd pretty much made up his mind. It was a nice relief after all those years of auditioning."

She keeps the Connecticut house as a getaway place on holidays and whenever she can get there. But her working base is Santa Monica.

Her conspicuous, or controversial, years, in the early '70s, when she was married to David Carradine and changed her name to Barbara Seagull as a gesture of oneness with the world, now seem a very long time ago to her, and she is as happy not to have to talk about them anymore. It sometimes seems to her as if all that happened had happened to someone else, and yet not quite so.

"An actor has technique and talent, but it's also who you are that makes the actor worth something. The best teacher, always, is life. You make mistakes, you do foolish things, but that's what living is about, and that's finally how you come to be yourself. If you try to conceal who you really are, and you do it too well, you may get away with it for a while, but sooner or later I think the camera says, 'How frivolous, how shallow, how false!'

"What I know about acting has mostly come from on-the-job training. But I push myself hard, and I want to keep taking chances. The thing that gives me strength is simply loving acting as I do." There was a scene in "Tin Men," a sensitive confrontation with Richard Dreyfuss she so enjoyed doing, she told the college audience the other night, that she had had to keep an opened safety pin in her hand and jab herself now and again, just to keep from laughing aloud in sheer delight at the pleasure of saying Barry Levinson's fine lines to a fine actor.

After more than 20 years in front of the camera, there is still joy in the doing of it.

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