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Evolution of the Other Elaine: Krakowski Takes Off on 'Ally'

April 19, 1999|JUDITH MICHAELSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There is a telling scene in tonight's "Ally McBeal" that points to the arc of Jane Krakowski's Elaine--she of the cascading curly blond hair, exaggerated bow-tie lips and sultry voice. In nearly two seasons on the Fox hit, this flirty busybody secretary at the farcical law firm--the one who invented the face bra to prevent wrinkles and the pregnancy dress to hide weight and get perks--has gone from being tart-tongued and a bit bitchy to vulnerable and even likable.

At Manhattan Beach Studios, where writer-executive producer David E. Kelley's television series (also ABC's "The Practice") are filmed, the firm's seven lawyers sit around a large table in the well-appointed conference room. And there is Elaine, standing near the door at the edge of the action, yearning to be front and center.

These days, Krakowski is rarely hovering around the edges. In "Ally's" sea of indelible characters, the 30-year-old actress was the only one to have drawn a best-supporting acting nomination at this year's Golden Globes. Currently Krakowski can be seen in Doug Liman's edgy comic feature film, "Go," as Irene, a Las Vegas deputy sheriff.

And just last week, she began rehearsals as Betty Rubble on "The Flintstones"--a prequel to the 1994 feature, based on the original 1960s TV parody of suburbia--directed by Brian Levant and executive-produced by Steven Spielberg. For the role, which Rosie O'Donnell did last time, Krakowski will don a short black wig.

"The coolest thing happened the night of the Golden Globes," Krakowski recalled on a recent morning at home. Amid a forest of high-rises, she lives in a funky bungalow complex; her main residence is in Manhattan. " 'Ally' had won for best [musical or comedy] series, and Steven Spielberg had just won for 'Saving Private Ryan.' He was coming out of the press room, and as we passed he was looking at me. And he looks at me for another second and like, stops . . . And he says, 'You're going to be my Betty, aren't you.' "

Fellow actor Peter MacNicol, who plays law firm partner John Cage in "Ally" and has directed Krakowski in two episodes, says: "She has the kind of energy and dizzy charm which place her in an earlier decade, maybe 1935-1945, those Joan Blondell days when Hollywood comedies moved to a quicker rhythm . . . I can easily imagine Jane stepping out of a chorus line and moving from a cameo contract to the status of a studio favorite, all in the space of a few World War II weeks."

The daughter of a chemical engineer father and a mother who became a college theater teacher, she grew up in suburban New Jersey, often accompanying her parents and older brother to community theaters in which they were involved.

At 9, she got her first professional job, performing at industrial fashion shows. In her early teens, she did her first movie, "National Lampoon's Vacation," as Cousin Vicki. She became the troubled T.R. Kendall on NBC's "Search for Tomorrow," drawing two daytime Emmy nominations. Then starting at 18, she began getting character roles in Broadway musicals--"Starlight Express" (1987-89), "Grand Hotel" (1990), "Company" (1995) and "Once Upon a Mattress" (1996-97).

It was during "Mattress" that the call came from Kelley's production company. In what is now "Ally McBeal" legend, Krakowski and Calista Flockhart (Ally), who share the same New York agent, flew to Los Angeles together for their final audition in coach, but after getting the roles, went back first-class. Same agent, very different styles. As Krakowski puts it: "Calista was doing 'Three Sisters.' She's doing Chekhov; I'm doing 'Once Upon a Mattress.' "

All that TV and stage experience paid off when Krakowski turned up on Spielberg's radar. "Jane came in and read for Betty, and just knocked us out," says "Flintstones" director Levant. "She's a character actress with leading-lady looks. She's got those big eyes, and her sweetness and generosity of spirit come through. She's always looking for humor in the corners."

Meanwhile, "Ally," which along with "The Practice" were among the winners of the prestigious George Foster Peabody Awards last month, continues to build audience, particularly with the coveted 18- to 49-year-olds. Through the first Monday of April, the average audience viewership in that demographic was 9.3 million with an 18% share.

When Krakowski joined "Ally," Kelley apparently had done little to define the role of Elaine, letting the character evolve over time. "There were suggestions of character traits. 'Meet Elaine, the most efficient of secretaries, but who is dressed to accentuate the positive,' " Krakowski recalls. "She used the dumb secretary card--smart enough to wear the low-cut things and the Wonderbra as a way to get ahead. She's become much more of a dramatic character as time has gone on."

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