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Kissing the 19th Century Goodby : With "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein' behind her, Helena Bonham Carter vows to get away from period movies. But she's done so well as the prim and proper English lady. (Except for the stripping thing.)

November 06, 1994|Sean Mitchell | Sean Mitchell is an occasional contributor to Calendar

Helena Bonham Carter, whose face one might think could save the British film industry if there were a British film industry, is sitting on a bench somewhere inside the secret gardens of the Hotel Bel-Air, yes, having tea.

But as you get closer, the picture of her is not exactly right--or exactly Edwardian at least. The late-afternoon light rests softly on her rising cheekbones; she is wearing a muted floral print dress that reaches down to her black socks and white canvas sneakers; the beguiling pair of dark eyes and eyebrows are acutely familiar from her roles on screen as E.M. Forster heroines. But, but . . . two of her fingers are down inside that cup, poking into the hot water, pinching the tea bag to squeeze the essence of Twinings more to her liking. It is a practical method, but one nonetheless that would never go with cucumber sandwiches.

"The English know how to make tea, but I'm not a great tea drinker," she says. "We don't have regular tea in the afternoon at home."

Helena Bonham Carter would like to point out, in fact, that she is not nearly so English or proper as some people assume after seeing her in "A Room With a View," "Howards End" and "Where Angels Fear to Tread," not to mention in Franco Zeffirelli's "Hamlet," playing Ophelia to Mel Gibson's brooding prince.

She has certainly done some other un-Edwardian things, such as play the wife of Lee Harvey Oswald in an American television movie, take off her clothes as a working-class stripper in a British TV movie last year and, most recently, be cast as the wife of a New York sportswriter in Woody Allen's new film, which has started shooting in New York. Can this be true?

"My brother got married at the beginning of the month," she says, retracing her recent jet-lagged itinerary. "I did the wedding, got totally drunk, then got on a plane the next morning and then started filming on the Woody Allen (movie) on Monday, which was stupid." She says it was a nice wedding. "Very nice wedding. Very nice. Very romantic. You need to relax sometimes."

But relaxation is over and now she has taken leave of the Allen set and flown into Los Angeles for the premiere of "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein," director Kenneth Branagh's foray into big-budget cinema for TriStar. She is the film's leading lady, Victor Frankenstein's adopted sister, Elizabeth, and the love of his life. Branagh himself plays Frankenstein and Robert De Niro the monster he creates in an attempt to cheat death.

A story this morning in the Wall Street Journal handicapping the fall movies has described her as an actress "known only to the art-house crowd," a description she says suits her fine even though it was used against her in predicting the box-office potential for the picture. "I'm happy being an art-house person. I'd much rather that than the reverse. I'm not that famous, and frankly, I'd like to keep the fame in a sort of limited amount."

Such words always sound eerie, as if sure to be followed by a crack of thunder and a lightning bolt when uttered within cruising range of Morton's, and, as it happens, tend to carry an accent other than American.

"Do you mind if I smoke a cigarette?" she asks her interviewer. "I wonder if it's illegal?"

*

Regular tea drinker or not, Bonham Carter, who attended the exclusive Westminster school in London, then passed up a university education to become an actress, comes from a prominent British political family. Her great-grandfather Herbert Henry Asquith was the last Liberal Party prime minister, the political leader of Great Britain at the outbreak of World War I.

"We're not that posh, though," she says. "There's a misconception here that I'm very aristocratic, which I'm not. We have no country house, we're not very blue-blooded. Another misconception about me is that I'm terribly English. But my mother is French-Spanish, and, in fact, my looks take after her, and yet (the British press) have resolutely called me 'English rose,' although I don't have the blue eyes and the blond hair. I'm only 50% Anglo-Saxon, but they've been blinded by my name I guess. It sounds so English."

She seemed the prime specimen of Edwardian nubility in the Merchant Ivory adaptations of Forster's "A Room With a View," in which she played the repressed young lady awakened to sex while on a holiday in Italy, and "Howards End," in which she was Helen, the passionate sister driven to distraction by her concern for the unfortunate clerk put out of work by the imperious Anthony Hopkins.

But even these roles, she says, have been too quickly relegated in the movie press to limited status as period-piece decoration. "Helen was absolutely bonkers," she says of her "Howards End" role. "I loved her. She's off the wall and very up front and expressive, and yet people are determined to talk about me as being in period costume drama playing repressed characters. Well, I don't think that's totally accurate."

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