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MOVIES : A Star? Forget It : No entourage, no name-dropping, no special treatment--but Joanne Woodward's artful performances have a certain glow

November 18, 1990|NIKKI FINKE | Times staff writer Nikki Finke is currently on leave writing a book.

She doesn't belong here. Not in this restaurant that's too garishly pink. Not among these diners who are too self-consciously trendy. Not on this terrace that's too dazzlingly bright. But then, Joanne Woodward is the first to recognize that she doesn't belong in Hollywood.

Because, she says almost proudly, "I'm not a Hollywood star.

"I don't think of myself as having been a star, particularly," she explains. "I've spent so much of the time of my career in the East where it's not the same thing as being a star here. It's easier to be a star back there. The atmosphere is different, so it doesn't become a factor in what I do now."

Actually, it's been at least seven, or maybe even eight years--no one can remember exactly--since the 60-year-old Oscar winner last made the cross-country trek from her homes in Connecticut and Manhattan courtesy of Amtrak. (She rarely flies, after a nasty fright in a plane years ago.)

The result is that no one at Baci, not even the waitress, is giving star treatment to this woman with the creamily smooth complexion that barely shows signs of aging and the thick, long blond hair worn straight back like a schoolgirl. Or maybe that's because Woodward isn't demanding it--at least as defined by too many of the box office names spoiled by moviemaking machinations nowadays.

For instance, there's no entourage to call attention to her every move. There's no squabbling with the media about what she will and will not talk about. There's no peppering her speech with insider references to Jack or Arnold. In fact, it's unclear whether Woodward even knows them, because she readily admits that she doesn't see a lot of current movies starring today's roster of what's-their-names.

"Oh, but we do show movies on occasion in our barn where we have, joy of joys, a little screening room. Usually I show something dark and tragic, like 'The Music Teacher,' which is not what you'd call light entertainment. But one weekend last fall, my daughter suggested we see 'When Harry Met Sally . . . ,' starring, uh, starring I forget who . . . ."

She tries desperately to remember the actors' names. You help her out.

"Oh yes, Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan, neither of whom I'd ever heard of," she continues. "So I said OK. Well, there were six of us--Paul and me and two other couples--and we laughed and we laughed. I haven't laughed that hard at a movie in I don't know when. And I'm sure it's not a brilliant film, but it was just delightful. And I am so enamored of Billy Crystal from now on. And Meg Ryan is such a good actress that I told Paul, 'Next time you direct a film, have her in it.' And, uh, who directed that film?"

She tries to remember. You tell her.

"Oh, yes, Rob Reiner. It was really, really nice. For you see, I am of the period where my idea of heaven was Frank Capra movies. I loved Carole Lombard movies. And Cary Grant movies. And Irene Dunne movies. And there came a time when I was just hard put to find a movie that I wanted to see because there was nothing I was interested in."

She ponders a moment.

"Well, we did see something recently. But, with all due respect to Marty Scorsese, I had a very hard time sitting through 'GoodFellas.' I think it's a brilliant film, as only Marty can do. But," she continues, recalling the on-screen violence with a visible shudder, "I don't want to be seeing this. It was chicken of me, I'm sure."

She shudders again.

"Let me think what else was a good movie I saw. They're always films nobody ever saw. But one other film that I loved was called 'The Competition,' which was beautifully acted."

That ancient relic starring Amy Irving and Richard Dreyfuss? She nods vigorously.

"It was a very romantic film. I love that. That's my kind of movie. But I haven't seen my kind of movie a lot. I just don't think Hollywood is making them anymore," she says, emitting a long sigh.

So it stands to reason that Woodward, the un-Hollywood star, is now starring in an un-Hollywood movie. For that's the most apt description of "Mr. and Mrs. Bridge," the new Merchant Ivory/Robert Halmi adaptation of the two Evan S. Connell novels of the same name, that star Woodward and husband Paul Newman in a pre- and post-World War II portrait of a quintessential American marriage among the upper-middle classes of Kansas City.

There are no car chases in the film, no gangsters, not even an after-life experience to speak of. Just gentle vignettes of wealthy WASPS at home and at work, and Oscar-caliber acting by Woodward and Newman, and an eerie verisimilitude that's more at home in today's documentaries than movies.

In other words, exactly Woodward's kind of movie.

A fan of the novel "Mrs. Bridge" since it was published in 1959, as well as of its sequel "Mr. Bridge," Woodward wanted to turn the books into made-for-television fare. She teamed up with "Lonesome Dove" producer Robert Halmi, who optioned the novels and got the project on its way.

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