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Independent spirit

Parker Posey, who has made a specialty of playing women on the edge, remains on the outside looking in at mainstream success.

June 22, 2003|Bob Baker | Times Staff Writer

Parker Posey hears two voices. One tells her she's an established film presence. The other tells her she's still swimming upstream.

The voice of optimism reminds her that in her 10-year career she's played all manner of provocatively unhinged women in more than three dozen films, most notably a seductive Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis fanatic ("The House of Yes"), a sadistic cheerleader ("Dazed and Confused"), a manic show-dog owner ("Best in Show"), an aimless Dairy Queen attendant ("Waiting for Guffman"), an unfaithful Manhattan book editor ("Personal Velocity") and a fish-out-of-water librarian ("Party Girl").

The voice of reproach reminds her that most of these parts were in movies most people never saw -- some classy indie flicks, certainly, but small change by Hollywood standards.

The voice of optimism reminds her that a cult of hip directors, critics and fans routinely swoons over her range, her comedic timing, and the way her characters seem to lack a censoring device so that earnest, often delightfully inappropriate language erupts from them like hard beads of lava. "The wonderful thing about Parker is, she is able to play two or even sometimes three contradictory emotions at the same time," says "Personal Velocity" writer-director Rebecca Miller, who needed Posey to be torn between elation and anxiety. "She has an exquisite 'engine' as an actor. If she were a car, she would be a Jaguar."

The voice of reproach reminds Posey that if all that were true, Something Big -- a meaty mainstream role -- should have happened to her by now.

It's not that she loses a lot of sleep over this. She's confident of her skills. "I get myself more than I ever have," she says. It's that, in her journey from acting school to a TV soap to low-budget-film icon, she has almost always chosen art over fame. And she's at an age, 34, where you involuntarily evaluate your choices.

Dipping into Hollywood

On a recent visit from Manhattan to perform with fellow cast members of the folk-music satire "A Mighty Wind," Posey was waiting to order lunch at an outdoor table at the Chateau Marmont when a woman a couple of tables away walked over and handed her a paperback book she hoped to turn into a movie. "It's my fantasy that you'd be in this," the woman said. "I saw you and thought, 'She's my dream person.' " She apologized for interrupting, and Posey, a Southern-bred, mannerly woman, thanked her sweetly. Yet a nerve had been pricked.

"When I think somebody comes over here and gives me a book they want me to play," she said a couple of minutes later, "I think, there's no way I could get approval to play the part. I might come close, they might talk about me, but it's so slippery who gets cast."

What she should have volunteered was the good news: She'd just gotten that ever-elusive meaty part in a mainstream movie. Yet only when a reporter asked half an hour later what roles were in her future did she sigh, "Thank God, praise the Lord!" and disclose that she had been cast in "Laws of Attraction," a comedy starring Julianne Moore and Pierce Brosnan as rival divorce lawyers. She'll play a high-strung fashion designer divorcing a rock-star husband, a part she views as rich with histrionic potential. ("I'll be approaching it like a drama. Hopefully you'll laugh.")

Posey has lost out on Hollywood parts before, her vaunted edginess working against her, and she had to lobby for this one, arguing that she could play a character significantly younger than the 41-year-old Moore. ("I shouldn't have to fight ... but there's a way to stand up for yourself without being combative.") She'll head for Dublin next week to start filming.

Perhaps at last her talent for playing larger-than-life characters with no trace of irony will be "discovered" by millions of less adventurous moviegoers more partial to Brosnan's James Bond fare. These are people whose films do not usually include moments like the one in the black comedy "The House of Yes," when Posey's mentally ill, manipulative, witty character explains mile-a-minute to her twin brother's new fiancee, "I spend most of my days with my head in the toilet bowl throwing up pills. I can't really think when I take the pills and a person needs to think."

Director Mark Waters said he cast Posey in the 1997 adaptation of a play "because she was the only one who seemed to be able to deliver stylized dialogue without putting quotation marks on it." Posey makes her character, Jackie O -- who seduces her brother and torments everyone in the household with deadly results -- implausibly sympathetic. "She was able to be this ferocious force of nature that sucked everything into her whirlwind but had this fragility, this emotional quality that made you root for her," Waters said.

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