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Less is really more

Actress Hope Davis prefers to make her mark in low-budget enterprises like 'The Secret Lives of Dentists' and 'American Splendor.'

August 10, 2003|Robert Abele | Special to The Times

Though Hope Davis isn't the type of actress to carefully plot her career in movies -- the way a more status-hungry pro might think "effects-heavy blockbuster, then romantic comedy, followed by prestigious year-end release" -- she nevertheless clings to a goal:

"I never want to have to make a comeback," she says. "And if that means flying low under the radar, that's fine with me. I never want to have to be figuring out how to bust back in."

Davis may not bear the stamp of boffo box office, even if last year's critical smash "About Schmidt" playing Jack Nicholson's pent-up daughter was her biggest hit. But the swanlike blond's name in a cast usually has the power to soothe the minds of moviegoers who require a standard of intelligence, sophistication and adventurousness. It's the notion of integrity that fuels her.

"That was the dream, to be working with people who are artists, you know?" the 39-year-old New Yorker says over dinner recently during a brief trip to Los Angeles. "If I can keep doing what I'm doing now, that's great."

This mutual attraction between discerning audiences and a discerning Davis began with the 1996 indie comedy "The Daytrippers," in which her heartbreaking silence stood out amid the otherwise eccentric cast (Anne Meara, Parker Posey among them) of nonstop talkers. This month it's likely to grow stronger, with her sharply different turns as a possibly unfaithful spouse in Alan Rudolph's domestic saga "The Secret Lives of Dentists" and as real-life comic book writer Harvey Pekar's unsentimental, analytical wife Joyce Brabner in "American Splendor," which opens Friday. Both are small-budgeted, quickly shot films.

There have been occasional studio movies -- "Arlington Road" and "Hearts in Atlantis," for example -- but Davis prefers the kind of set where money constraints energize the filming process. "You get so much done because you're moving so quickly through the day," Davis says. "You never do something 20 times, because they can't afford it. When something happens 12, 14 times, I'm sleeping. It's so boring."

The idiosyncratic nature of "American Splendor" spoke to Davis: from the first-time feature filmmakers (documentarians Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman) to the style, which shifts from acted segments to bits of the real Harvey and Joyce, to the source material of Pekar's bitterly funny odes to mundane Cleveland life. "It's the same as the acting in 'About Schmidt,' " Davis says about how she approached "Splendor's" street-level satire. "It's about believing in the person, not winking at the camera. You're not trying to show them how crazy these people are."

A key for Davis was addressing Brabner's beef that her husband's full-on pessimism in the comic book unfairly paints her as little more than an inky scowl or a garden-variety bespectacled East Coast neurotic.

"Hope had a totally different take on Joyce," co-director Pulcini says. "She saw Joyce as all business. Harvey is a project, and she's taking that project on, and Hope has that great steely determination, naturally, which she tapped into."

The relentlessly curious Brabner made for an uneasy Davis when filming began. Unlike the uninterested Pekar's frequent on-set napping, Brabner wanted to observe -- from beside the camera. "I became so self-conscious, I felt like an utter fraud," Davis recalls. "She's very interesting and smart and fun to talk to, but she can be very imposing. I had to ask her not to watch me, and she was really bummed about that."

When asked about her polite banishment, Brabner jokes that the only awkwardness was at lunch breaks. "She would say, 'Joyce, come, sit over here,' and I'd be like, 'Should I sneak in behind a leaf of lettuce?' " Brabner says. Nevertheless, she says Davis captured the "inner" her, with "a much better-looking face and figure, even when they put her in a fright wig."

Melancholy mien

Davis is often referred to as a thinking man's sex symbol, probably because in many of her movies she communicates a ravishing melancholia. When first encountering the blue-sweatered, blue-jeaned Davis, sipping silently on a club soda and gazing around nonchalantly, one is instantly reminded of her role in "Next Stop Wonderland." In that 1998 paean to romantic loneliness, the actress was often perched on a barstool, either half-heartedly querying personal ad respondents or musing on fate with co-workers, but always looking sleepy-sexy.

It's as if the internal dialogue between her lovelorn character's yearning and standoff-ish selves were a new kind of screen charisma: chemistry with oneself. "She's never a blank slate," says her longtime friend and "Dentists" co-star Campbell Scott. "In fact, when she's quiet, Hope seems severely full."

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