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On the Upswing

It's been a long and tumultuous road for Ally Sheedy from Brat Pack's 'St. Elmo's Fire' to a more mature role in 'High Art.'

June 10, 1998|RICHARD NATALE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

But the strong-willed daughter was already laying the groundwork for her acting career. After being accepted to USC (which she used largely as a pretext to get her to Los Angeles), Sheedy almost immediately landed an agent. A year later she was cast opposite Sean Penn in "Bad Boys" and immediately thereafter with Matthew Broderick in "War Games."

"I never expected it to happen as quickly as it did. But I paid a price for it," she admits.

By the time she was 21, she was famous and part of a new generation of promising young talents including Penn, Emilio Estevez, Tom Cruise, Andrew McCarthy, Judd Nelson and Molly Ringwald, who were haphazardly thrown together in various combinations in a number of youth-oriented films, most notably "The Breakfast Club."

"It was actually enjoyable there for a while," she recalls. "I felt like I had this network of friends, all doing the same thing, all very young, all of whom had managed to realize their dream. It was the first time in my life I really felt I belonged somewhere."

But after New York magazine defined them as the Brat Pack, this loose circle began to feel constricting and its members chafed. "It all suddenly became a negative. The entire group splintered. And I experienced it as a loss."

Cast in a succession of "cheerleader girl-next-door roles" ("Short Circuit," "Maid to Order"), Sheedy says she felt pressured to build herself into a movie star, which "boiled down to making myself into some kind of sex object: Pile on the makeup, wear tight, short dresses, go to parties, do provocative photo spreads in magazines, have my teeth straightened, my breasts enlarged, change my weight--either up or down, depending on who I was talking to."

Not good advice for someone who was already battling bulimia. Even if she had been able to conform, it would not have taken her in the direction she wanted--which was to follow in the footsteps of her idols, such as Helen Mirren, Alfre Woodard, Frances McDormand and Judy Davis. She tried. She took on several quirky character roles in little-seen films like "Heart of Dixie."

"And suddenly I wasn't commercially viable anymore. When you've fallen, that really brings out the animus in people. That's when you really find out what everybody's made of. I remember telling a really highly powered female agent that I was having a problem because I didn't want to take off my clothes in a movie. And she said, 'If a high-powered director in a big studio movie decides for whatever reason you have to take your clothes off, just shut up and take off your shirt.' "

Sheedy howls with laughter now. Ten years ago however, "it completely freaked me out."

The depiction of drugs in "High Art" is harrowing. Lucy Berliner's female lover is a heroin addict and Lucy finds herself sucked into a vortex. And this bears comparison to another defining moment in Sheedy's young life.

Though it lasted less than a year, her affair with Bon Jovi guitarist Richie Sambora ended with Sheedy in drug rehabilitation for a dependency on Halcion, Xanax and antidepressants.

"Things change when you fall in love with someone. For all his problems. And I was in love with that guy. It was a key relationship in my life--not his. It destroyed me. I ended up in a lot of trouble."

Sheedy was woefully unprepared for the subculture of the rock world. "As smart as you can be, there are a lot of things you can only learn through painful experience. I started taking drugs to be with him [Sambora] on his level and in his world. It not only relieved the anxiety of being with him but also helped me to deal with someone who's behaving horribly toward me."

The irony that she was the one who wound up in rehab is not lost on her. As she sat in the Hazelden clinic in Minnesota, "I thought to myself, how did it end up that I'm the one who's here and he's running around . . . treating people badly--and functioning?"

Sambora recently denied all of Sheedy's assertions in an interview with Us magazine. "These allegations are ludicrous and false. I think, over time, Ally has embellished her memories of the brief time we spent together."

Sheedy has been glimpsed over the past decade in a TV movie here, a play there, sometimes working just to work, sometimes to pay the bills. Slowly, with the support of her manager Neil Koenigsberg and husband actor David Lansbury, she has begun Act 3. In 1991 she even returned to seriously writing, publishing a volume of poetry, "Yesterday I Saw the Sun."

Despite the glowing notices for "High Art" (she has three other independent features in the can) she says the scripts are not exactly jamming the mailbox yet. But she's not 18 anymore and no longer in such a rush.

"There were times over the past 10 years when I thought maybe it shouldn't have happened this way," she says. "But I got to see what it's like to be that successful that young. And I realized I didn't want to be a big movie star. Fortunately, it all happened early enough for me to change my life."

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