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Hollywood Beckons and N.Y.'s Judith Ivey Hears Call

RODERICK MANN

January 30, 1988|RODERICK MANN

Anyone wondering why it is that Judith Ivey lives in New York rather than out here should spend 10 minutes reading her theater notices.

They are the kind guaranteed to make even the most spoiled actress dash off thank-you notes and send baskets of flowers. They're so glowing and adulatory that you suspect the reviewers must all be near relatives.

This two-time Tony Award winner (for "Steaming" and "Hurly Burly") is held in such high regard on Broadway that, asked to recall an unfavorable review, she has to think a while. And that's unusual, since most actresses can only recall the unflattering ones.

But with the New York Times calling her "dazzling" and Newsweek calling her "sensational" and the acerbic John Simon calling her "an unmitigated joy" for almost everything she's done on stage, perhaps it's no surprise that she can't easily recall ever having been panned.

The only danger in all this, Ivey thinks, is that she tends to be regarded solely as a New York actress--despite the fact she's been in 10 movies.

"It's true I'm a stage animal," she said on a visit to Los Angeles the other day. "Being a star on Broadway was always my dream. And I'm lucky--I'm one of maybe a couple of dozen actresses who makes a living just as a stage actress. But I don't want to be labeled; I enjoy doing movies and want to do a lot more."

One she has great hopes for--although she found it hard going--is "Sister, Sister," which opens Friday. Directed by Bill Condon, who is making his feature debut, the film concerns two sisters who share a grim secret in their decaying house in the Louisiana swampland. (Eric Stoltz and Jennifer Jason Leigh also star.)

Her role, says Ivey, was "rough."

"The character I play is such an unhappy woman that it was like being mentally ill for two months. The character completely took me over. I found fault with everybody.

"Usually on the set, I sit around and joke with people. Not on this one. I found myself going around apologizing to people for being rude. Maybe I wasn't actively disliked but I certainly wasn't any fun. And by the time the movie was over, I really felt I was unpopular with the other people. When I finally finished it, it was like a veil being lifted."

She awaits her reviews with more than usual interest. For after getting her movie start in Paul Newman's "Harry and Son"--followed quickly by "The Lonely Guy" with Steve Martin and "The Lady in Red" with Gene Wilder--none of her performances made a great impression.

Not until Frank Perry's "Compromising Positions" with Susan Sarandon did her work really register. "She steals the show," wrote one critic. "The movie belongs to Judith Ivey," wrote another.

"When I first saw myself on the screen in 'Harry and Son,' it was a jolt," she said. "All I saw was my total lack of knowledge of the camera; how much I had to learn. So those early films were really on-the-job training."

She got the role in "Harry and Son" through her role in "Steaming" which ran on Broadway for just two months. Her performance as Josie, a cheeky Cockney working girl who strolled around a London steam bath wearing nothing but a smile, earned her both a Tony and a Drama Desk award in 1983.

(When Playboy asked her to pose for them, she was quite upset. "I was offended," she said. "I thought: They don't understand what I'm doing here. I am \o7 acting\f7 ; I am not \o7 exhibiting \f7 myself.")

Joanne Woodward, a friend with whom she had once appeared in "Hay Fever" in Ohio, came to the first night of "Steaming" and, at the party afterwards, roundly abused her late-arriving husband Paul Newman for having missed "the performance of the year."

"She berated him for missing me," said Ivey with a chuckle. "So next night he came to see me. And I got the role in his film." (She played a sexually aggressive secretary who seduces both Newman and his son, played by Robbie Benson.)

Two years ago Ivey was back on Broadway again in David Rabe's "Hurly Burly," playing a go-go-dancing Valley girl, strutting around in a string bra and panties.

"Can't you get a part where you keep your clothes on?" Newman joked after seeing the play.

Once again there was a barrage of great notices for her work, followed by her second Tony and Drama Desk award. Mike Nichols, who directed the piece, called her one of the two most remarkable actresses he had ever directed. (The other? Meryl Streep.)

Born in El Paso, Tex., Ivey went to Illinois State University, married a junior college professor (they divorced three years later) and then spent five years acting in Chicago before moving to New York in 1978.

She got work there, but not much, and by the time 1981 came along and she turned 30, she decided her career was going nowhere. An Off Off Broadway production she was in had paid her $340 for eight weeks' work. "I seriously considered opening a pet store," she says.

Then came "Steaming," and everything changed. So effective was her Cockney accent in it that, at the Tony award ceremony, one of the organizers actually thanked her for flying in from London.

At the moment, Ivey is single.

"I've invested a lot in my theatrical career," she said. "And, yes, I've sacrificed some things. I'd like to be a mother and I'm not. I'd like to have a companion and I don't right now. That's my own doing. My focus has been on work and avoiding distractions. I'm where I am today because I've avoided those distractions. But I don't feel my life has been any less of an adventure because I haven't had a child."

She got up to go.

"Oh yes," she said. "I do remember one bad notice. When I was in 'Oh Coward' in Chicago, one critic wrote that 'Judith Ivey singing "Mad About the Boy" was the nadir of the evening. . . .' " She laughed aloud.

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