NEW YORK — Sarah Jessica Parker arrives at an Upper East Side mansion for a scene in "The First Wives Club," starring Bette Midler, Goldie Hawn and Diane Keaton, wearing a straightened blond wig, bright red geisha-style mini-dress and lips to match.
In a gilt-edged rotunda complete with Viennese detail and dripping crystal chandeliers, she sits opposite Maggie Smith's ever-proper, diamond-crusted society matron. As the knockout husband-stealer, Shelly, Parker gesticulates with her salad fork and gabs through mouthfuls of lettuce. At one point, she refers to Midler's character as a "dumpster woman."
Despite the impression she gave as the brilliantly bouncy and carefree airhead in her breakthrough role as "L.A. Story's" SanDeE* five years ago, Sarah Jessica Parker is cursed with exactly the opposite problem.
"I'm deeply neurotic," deadpans the actress, who is best known on movie sets for carrying around the New York Times and who would rather shop for kitchen tiles over clothing any day.
"I can't stand being so mean all the time," Parker says of playing Shelly. "Especially with Maggie Smith--she's the arbiter of class, talent and subtlety. How does she know I'm not like that? She doesn't know me. What if she thinks that's how I dress?"
When Parker arrives at a neighborhood Greenwich Village bistro on a Saturday afternoon in her New York camouflage--gray leggings, an oversized blue sweater and dirty-blond ringlets hanging in her face--she wears no makeup on her angelic face, except for a hint of pale lipstick.
At 30, she has finally been recognized as an exotic on-screen beauty. Though without Hollywood's magic, her nose and jaw seem stronger, her face narrower and it becomes clear why it took such a long time for her to break out of the quirky characters she was offered after her teen stint on the television series "Square Pegs."
From SanDeE* to Ed Wood's starlet paramour, Dolores Fuller, to the floppy lab-and-poodle mix she played last year in "Sylvia" at the Manhattan Theater Club, Parker not only looks different in every role she takes, she has avoided Hollywood typecasting.
But while her choices have kept her performances fresh, they have also kept her from the A-list recognition so many of her directors and co-stars believe she deserves. Perhaps it's because she's such an avid New Yorker, because she wants to do theater "all the time" or because her life outside of work is too important to her. Nonetheless, she has worked consistently for more than two decades and appeared in a dozen feature films, including "Footloose" and "Honeymoon in Vegas."
"What makes a real movie star is when you give the audience exactly what they want. Like with Woody Allen. We expect something from him, we enjoy it and want more of it," says Parker, who has recently finished a television remake of "The Sunshine Boys" with Allen and Peter Falk that will air this fall on CBS. "And I will never achieve that because that's my great fear--being the same."
But with eight new projects this year, including a starring role opposite Hugh Grant in "Extreme Measures," a thriller due out late this year, and a Broadway run in "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" scheduled to begin this month opposite her boyfriend of four years, Matthew Broderick, it will be hard for Hollywood to ignore Parker much longer.
In TriStar's "If Lucy Fell," which opens Friday, Parker's witty performance proves that the attention she got in last year's Disney comedy "Miami Rhapsody" as the marriage-wary Gwyn, was well-earned. While reviewer Peter Rainer, writing in The Los Angeles Times, didn't care much for the film, he described Parker as "such a spirited performer that she elevates the sitcom . . . material into something fluffier and funnier than it has any right to be."
Because of the departure of several key executives on "Miami," including Disney studio chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg, the movie never made it to many cities and earned only $5.2 million at the box office. "It was a terrific disappointment," Parker says of the project she had hoped might give her pull with studios. "I had never played a role like that before--it was a role traditionally reserved for men. I know what the money people said--it could have easily been our 'Four Weddings and a Funeral' if they had just handled it right.' "
In Eric Schaeffer's "Lucy," Parker has another chance. She plays a neurotic New Yorker who agrees to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge with a friend if they don't find true love by 30.
Schaeffer, whose indie film "My Life Is in Turnaround" won him critical recognition last year, first met Parker eight years ago when he picked her up in his taxicab. When he met her again at a birthday party last year, he asked her to read his script.
"She has grace and a wonderful sense of physical humor," Schaeffer says. "Smart New York-y humor--in a great package."