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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'

January 30, 1994|HILARY de VRIES | Hilary de Vries is a frequent contributor to Calendar. and

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.

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