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Curtis Goes Fishing in New Waters

July 18, 1988|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

The setting was a British pub, so the men playing darts didn't even bother to look up when they heard the young lady speaking in a chalk-scratching Cockney accent.

If they'd glanced over, they would have seen Jamie Lee Curtis, posing as a raucous Cockney in the Santa Monica tavern.

The 29-year-old actress's new film, "A Fish Called Wanda," is a distinctly British farce, but she hasn't turned into a raving East Ender. In the movie she plays a fast-talking American jewel thief bent on seducing a London barrister as part of a scheme to retrieve a fortune in stolen loot.

Still, for Curtis, all this gorblimey jive has a certain symbolic importance. It's a sign of her budding self-confidence as a comedian, a role she adores but rarely has the opportunity to play. And in "Wanda," she goes up against formidable comic forces--ex-Monty Python wizard John Cleese (who wrote the film), Michael Palin (another old Python hand) and Kevin Kline, a two-time Tony Award winner.

"I have no formal training in anything, least of all comedy, so I've never had the confidence in my technical skills to really try to be funny," said Curtis, who has managed to survive the twin perils of Hollywood childhood and youthful celebrity with a low-octane ego and a deft sense of humor.

"But working with John Cleese was a great experience. He really encouraged me to let myself go. I'd always fool around in private, but now I have the confidence to let it out. When we were shooting, I'd go around the set and play that annoying old Cockney woman character so much that I think I drove everyone crazy."

As if to prove her point, Curtis let loose a volley of piercing Cockney gibberish.

"Now I do it all the time, especially with my little girl," she said, smoothing down her baby-blue summer dress. "She's either going to think I'm a cranky Cockney cleaning lady or wonder if some crazy Belizean woman has come to live with her--forever!"

You get the feeling John Cleese knows Curtis' Cockney accent by heart. ("It's quite good, but a little loud," he admits.) Still, he's not tired of singing the actress's praises.

"I'm definitely a member of her fan club," he said on a recent publicity stop here. "The whole reason I cast her in the film was that I'd seen her act and she could be three things--funny, wicked and sexy. Actually, make that four things--she's very likable too.

"I checked her out with several directors I knew who all said how much they'd enjoyed working with her. Everyone told me that she was very punctual, professional and better still, on her day off, she'd bring the crew pizza."

Showing off her baby's latest pictures as she roamed around Santa Monica the other day, Curtis was also unfailingly candid, self-analytical to a fault, eloquent and surprisingly emotional. She's also so opinionated that when Michael Palin handed out customized T-shirts on the last day of the "Wanda" shoot, Curtis' gift bore the slogan: " 'Wait. I Have an Idea!' "

Call her a woman of many moods. Romping with her 18-month-old daughter, Annie, she's giddily buoyant, hitching up her skirt and demonstrating the art of the somersault. Upset that some men find her screen image too hard-edged, she says sadly, "It just breaks my heart to hear that--if they only knew how far I am from being tough."

You even get straight talk about her tumultuous relationship with her dad, Tony Curtis: "He's a great actor and a wonderful painter, but our relationship is really a wash-out."

There's an odd contrast everywhere you look with Curtis, starting with her physique. In repose she displays the languid curves of a sex symbol, but she walks with the purposeful, tomboyish strides of a little girl leading the neighborhood kids off to a touch football game.

She directs the same resolute energy toward a frank appraisal of an up-and-down career, which is again on the upswing--she's gotten good notices for "Wanda"--but has failed to rocket into the stratosphere. In fact, what makes her so fascinating is her willingness to probe the pitfalls she's suffered--and narrowly avoided--along the way.

"I love playing comedy, but people never offer me comedienne parts," she said, munching on fish and chips at the pub. "There's this whole mystique about what actors go through. You always hear actors talk about the stack of scripts they've been offered. Yeah, right!"

Curtis volunteered a choice obscenity. "The truth of the matter is that I've never been at a point in my career where I've been deluged with anything. I'm a blue-collar actress who's never had the luxury of picking and choosing."

Curtis waved a chip in the air. "The only choice I've ever had is to say 'No!' "

But what about all those actors who boast about career strategies? "Hah! There's no strategy involved! You can't plan out parts, not at my level. Each job came up and the strategy was: Want to work? Take it!"

What if Curtis has to choose between taking a mediocre part or waiting for a great one?

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