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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

As for "Blink," which despite its small, $11-million budget represents Stowe's first real solo starring role, she is already braced for flak.

"I kid you not," she says taking a swig of tea. "A male reporter, younger than me, says, 'In this film you play a really abrasive character.'

"So I say, 'Oh, do you think so?' And he kind of wrinkles his nose and nods. 'You play a lot of really strong characters, don't you?' he says. 'How do you explain that there are so many strong women roles now?' "

Stowe puts her cup down with a clatter.

"I got so angry with him. I said, 'Haven't you been reading all the articles on women in Hollywood these days and how there are no decent roles?' But then what flashed through my mind is that any (non-traditional) image of women was threatening to him and that this was the taste of Middle America, exactly the audience the studios are going after."

What emerges during a nearly two-hour conversation with Stowe is a portrait of an actress whose film persona is far removed from her real self, a self-possessed woman whose striking, Pre-Raphaelite beauty serves as a formidable mask to a decidedly restless soul. Although she insists she's been lucky in her career, a self-taught actress who has never taken a day job since she was first spotted by an agent as a freshman at USC. But Stowe has clearly logged the numerous slights and inequities she's experienced throughout her career that began more than 15 years ago with guest appearances on such TV shows as "Baretta" and "The Gangster Chronicles." Despite her rising profile, she remains someone for whom the glass is still half-empty.

"Madeleine is quite unlike most of the characters she has played," Apted says. "She projects this fragile beauty, but she is really assertive and sure of herself."

Says Kaplan: "Madeleine is so delicate and graceful, but she has a strong, iron will. It's unusual to have someone with her kind of fragile body language in a woman who is really tough and so utterly fearless when it comes to authority."

As if to bolster Kaplan's assessment, Stowe takes a bite of sandwich, swallows hard and rushes on.

"What I'm really interested in is erratic behavior," she says, leaning forward as if she were passing along an insider-trading tip. "The world is so crazy that lately I've been observing the inconsistencies in people. You know, that's one of the things that is so lacking in women's roles--that you're not allowed to be inconsistent."

It is one of the main reasons Stowe chose to do "Blink" as her first major role after "The Last of the Mohicans." Although she had doubts about the viability of the genre after less-than-happy experiences filming "Unlawful Entry" and "China Moon"--"I don't think thrillers work anymore, because they've become too formulaic"--Stowe recognized in the character of Emma Brody not only the engine of the film, but also an unusually well-defined female protagonist: a blind fiddler in an Irish band who receives her sight after an eye transplant.

"After I made 'Unlawful Entry'--which was a very successful film but where the woman was a bit of a Barbie doll--I made a promise to myself that I would not allow the same thing to happen again," she says. "But with 'Blink' there was this strong female character, someone I had not played before."

Although ostensibly a typical thriller--Emma is the only witness to a murder--"Blink" differs from such films as "Wait Until Dark" and 1992's "Jennifer Eight" in its focus on the character's medically documented condition, retroactive hallucination phenomenon, as well as its non-victimized protagonist. Stowe's Brody is an acerbic, demanding woman who hounds the local police department while instigating a romance with the chief detective, played by Aidan Quinn.

"That's one of the things I appreciated about the film, that Emma got to be inconsistent, to the point that some people consider her abrasive," says Stowe, who also made alterations to screenwriter Dana Stevens' script, changing her character from a poet to a musician--"It was inherently more cinematic"--and expanding the role of Quinn, with whom Stowe had first worked on "Stakeout."

"I don't care if it's a man or a woman, I don't think it's right to have someone just function as the love interest," Stowe says.

"All of us dreaded the idea of the poor girl in peril," says Apted, the British documentarian who has also directed such feature films as "Coal Miner's Daughter" and "Gorillas in the Mist." "I thought she might embrace the character's more fragile aspects. But Madeleine really came at it with strong single-mindedness that this woman is not a victim. She's created a woman who is much closer to her own personality than anything she's played before."

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