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Complex Character and Another Corset

In 'The Golden Bowl,' actress Uma Thurman, a veteran of period costume dramas, laces up again, this time as a conflicted heroine. 'This girl was more crazy,' she says.

April 28, 2001|SCARLET CHENG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEW YORK — "Having done a number of period films," remarks actress Uma Thurman, "I've had this interesting experience of dressing as women throughout history and watching costuming evolve."

Although her best-known role is probably Mia, the hip-swiveling, coke-snorting mobster girlfriend in Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction" (1994), Thurman has done a fair number of period dramas, including the first films that brought her real attention, both released in 1988: the 18th century France of "Dangerous Liaisons" and the fantasy Europe of "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen."

This year both films she appears in have her in period costume. The recent "Vatel" is set in 17th century France, and "The Golden Bowl," a Merchant Ivory adaptation of the Henry James novel, is set around 1900. The long-delayed, latter film opened Friday in Los Angeles and New York.

"I've been in lots of corsets," Thurman says over a late lunch in a French bistro in New York's West Village. Looking impossibly thin, she's hiding her straight long blond hair under a floppish fedora and gingerly picking through her oversized salad.

In a tone alternately serious and half-joking ("I've been in lots of hot pants, too!" she says), she launches into her discourse. "At the turn of the century, it's interesting that corsets became soft; they were very light and much more flexible. They were moving up to girdles, of the '30s, '40s and '50s, until it was all thrown off in the '60s. If you go to a costume museum and look at women's wear, you'd see this movement toward freedom in clothing, less physical restrictions."

In a sense, both women she plays in this year's films are proto-modern women pushing against the constraints of their time. As Anne de Montausier in Roland Joffe's "Vatel," she plays a young lady-in-waiting in the court of Louis XIV who yearns to be free to love the man who would appeal to her heart and soul--in this case, Francois Vatel, events coordinator extraordinaire as played by Gerard Depardieu--and not forced to bed with those in power and position.

As the spirited Charlotte Stant in "The Golden Bowl," which takes place in Italy and England, she wants the same right. Unfortunately, the object of her passion is dashing Prince Amerigo (Jeremy Northam), and neither of them has enough money to live the way they'd like, which is pretty well. So off he goes to marry her chum, Maggie Verver, who has plenty of money via her multimillionaire dad, American industrialist Adam Verver (Nick Nolte). Heartbroken Charlotte gradually accepts the attentions of Adam, while secretly unable to let go of the great love that was.

Thurman thinks this is one of her best performances, although she nearly turned down the part. Henry James was not a natural for her, nor was director James Ivory's interpretation of the story. Two years ago, when they first met to discuss the project, Thurman told him, "It's so tragic." To which Ivory replied, "No, no, it's happy." This went back and forth several times, and Thurman went home thinking that the collaboration was not meant to be.

"I wasn't sure I had a handle on Charlotte," recalls Thurman, who turns 31 on Sunday. "I wasn't sure I liked her."

Months later, Thurman was having lunch with actress Natasha Richardson, who had heard Thurman had been offered the part. Richardson strongly urged her friend to reconsider. Thurman did, and then she said she had an epiphany. She began to see the character as a conflicted Scarlett O'Hara heroine.

"Scarlett O'Hara was more ruthless, this girl was more crazy," says Thurman, smiling. "That was the click that made me want the part."

Ivory was delighted that she came back to them. "Charlotte had to be a knockout," he says. "In James' mind she was a brilliant figure. She had beauty, charm, intelligence, everything, and then married this multimillionaire. I felt Uma could really bring all that off."

Choosing Film Roles Selectively

Thurman has always been one to choose her roles carefully. "I've kept it very interesting for myself," she says. "My experience as an actress has ever been changing from one world to the next world, between characters and directors and genres. It's been an exploration. I've been acting since I was 16, so my evolution as a person has also flown through my evolving relationship to acting and the choices of different women I've played."

"The Golden Bowl" is a dense novel, considered one of James' more difficult reads, which is saying something. It was up to scriptwriter and longtime Merchant Ivory collaborator Ruth Prawer Jhabvala to try to distill the story in a lucid fashion.

" 'The Golden Bowl' is incredibly internal, and one of the things I like about the way the movie respects that is that there's not a lot of emotional exposition," Thurman says. "The characters are very full, but they're not explaining themselves as they move forward. I like that very anti-contemporary, anti-explain-it-all thing."

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