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MOVIES : Put Away That Cloth Coat : Joan Allen has been a quietly successful actress for years. Her turn as Pat Nixon in 'Nixon' may put an end to the quiet.

December 17, 1995|Laurie Werner | Laurie Werner, a writer based in New York, is an occasional contributor to Calendar

Joan Allen is one of those actresses that audiences have seen without realizing they've seen. She doesn't have movie star looks or a marquee name and she disappears into every part so thoroughly that only those in the business know how good she is.

That may all change, however, on Wednesday when Oliver Stone's newest political epic, "Nixon," opens. Anthony Hopkins will undoubtedly command the focus for his tortured portrayal of the late president, but Allen, as Pat Nixon, matches him in their scenes together.

Early word on her fierce, subtly nuanced performance has been unanimous that it could make her a star. But that's a suggestion that fills Allen visibly with alarm.

"I've had good feedback about the film but [those raves] are a little frightening," she says in a very soft voice.

At 39, Allen has the perspective of a self-professed late bloomer, someone who for 12 years has had a nice but understated rhythm going between films (leads in praised non-hits such as "Searching for Bobby Fischer," "Tucker: The Man and His Dream" and "Ethan Frome") and theater, performing with the Steppenwolf troupe and on Broadway, winning a Tony for "'Burn This" and a Tony nomination "The Heidi Chronicles."

It's hard to remain inconspicuous in an Oliver Stone movie, however, so Allen knew what she was getting into. She makes an impact actually the second she appears, looking uncannily like the prim former first lady.

It isn't on view in real life; on this afternoon, Allen looks like the girl next door, if one with rarefied features--pale clear skin, sharp, angular cheekbones. On-screen, though, with brown contact lenses and Mrs. Nixon's blond bubble hair and taut posture, the similarity is startling.

Stone, for one, certainly saw the resemblance.

"I'd seen Joan on the stage and I knew she was a very good actress but physically, she was stunningly similar," he says. "She has the same kind of beauty, model-like. And there was a reticence that I liked, a vulnerability, the qualities that Pat Nixon had. Also a tremendous strength, which we don't know that she had but I suspected she had."

Perceived parallels aside, though, Allen didn't feel much kinship with her character or feelings of any kind starting out; she, like much of the country, says she didn't know a great deal about the former first lady. But she was even more out of touch, she says, given her background.

"I'm very apolitical, I've never followed politics to any degree," she says. "Plus, I'm from a very small town in the Midwest [Rochelle, Ill.], with very apolitical parents. So this really didn't impact my life. Some friends of mine grew up in the city and went to demonstrations.

"I vaguely remember my father commenting about some people who had chained themselves to some trees at Northern Illinois University and he thought it was a scandal. But I had a life that was very sheltered. Maybe that helped in terms of playing her, because I didn't have strong feelings about her until I started working on the character."

Working on the character brought initial frustrations, however, because there wasn't a great deal of information in the public domain; a research stop at the Museum of Television and Radio brought forth only four pieces of tape of Pat Nixon standing beside her husband waving. Fortunately, Stone's office had documentary footage, and while reading Julie Nixon Eisenhower's biography of her mother, "Pat Nixon, The Untold Story," Allen discovered that there was a short 1972 interview with Barbara Walters, which she obtained and watched over and over, to get the mannerisms and the voice.

"She seemed uncomfortable," Allen says. "I could see why she didn't put herself in that position of being interviewed. She seemed lovely but studied, careful about how she phrased things and what she divulged. Very controlled, wanting to say the right things."

That was the external view; she got more of a sense of the person once she was put in contact with Alexander Butterfield, one of the former players in the Watergate scenario (as a White House aide, he was aware of and testified about the existence of the infamous tapes that brought down Nixon's presidency) and a technical advisor on the film. "He was the person who helped me the most," she says. "He wrote me a beautiful note, describing Pat and her mannerisms and how much he really liked her. He knew her quite well--he was the liaison between her and Dick a lot of times, which put him in a very awkward position, it was very strange. But he was tremendously helpful."

Other observers of the time were involved in research that went into the screenplay. Some of the scenes show a version of the first lady that the country could never have imagined, semi-drunk and furious, lashing angrily at her husband and in one case, asking him for a divorce.

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