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Pieces of stardom

Patricia Clarkson has jetted from no-frills indie films to awards competitions. Then it's on to a high-pressure stage role in 'Streetcar.'

February 22, 2004|Elaine Dutka | Times Staff Writer

Patricia Clarkson is sitting on a balcony overlooking the pool at the Beverly Hills Hotel, reminiscing about -- and recuperating from -- the Oscar nominees' luncheon. For the occasion, she's wearing a black Alberta Ferretti wraparound dress and Stuart Weitzman red patent leather stiletto pumps (the same ones she wore on ABC's "The View" and "Good Morning America"). With the exception of the pearl earrings her sister gave her and her underwear, none of it belongs to her.

"Almost immediately, the designers started courting," recalls the strawberry blond, sultry-voiced actress, who, since making her film debut as Kevin Costner's wife in 1987's "The Untouchables," has become a mainstay of independent film. "But I've been faithful to my favorites: Bill Blass, who came up with the strapless chiffon dress I wore to the Globes, and Ferretti, whose pieces fit me perfectly off the rack. Who would have thought that two little films, costing $200,000 and $500,000, could create a situation like this -- and get me a seat at the Oscars? That's the napkin budget for a mainstream movie."

The former, "Pieces of April," and the latter, "The Station Agent," were released last fall, triggering a host of best supporting actress awards and a Golden Globe nomination. Her portrayals of a hypercritical, terminally ill mother and a lonely artist mourning the death of a child, critics agree, are among the best she's delivered. Tonight, she'll be competing for a Screen Actors Guild statuette and, next week, for an Oscar. Both are "firsts" for Clarkson who, between dress fittings, media requests and a looming stage engagement, is trying to keep it together.

The juggling act dates to the fall, when Clarkson was shooting a horror film in Montreal and flying to New York for press and premieres. Since January, she's made four trips to Los Angeles.

"Honey, I could go anywhere in the world with all the frequent-flier miles I've accumulated," she said. "Chateau Marmont has become my home away from home. I haven't started thinking about what I'd say if I win. But my date, I know, will be 'Pieces of April' director Peter Hedges and his wife, Susan. He's the reason that I'm there."

Clarkson didn't set her alarm to hear the predawn Oscar nominations. Turns out she didn't need to. "My phone rang at 5:47 a.m.," recalls Clarkson, 44. "My publicist started calling after she heard Pa-tri ... before they finished the last syllable. Then I heard from Hedges, my mommy, my friends. Julianne Moore, my costar in 'Far From Heaven,' is throwing a party for me at the Soho House in downtown Manhattan."

"Far From Heaven," in which Clarkson played Moore's bigoted best friend, also generated Oscar buzz -- but no nomination. She was "bummed out" for a day or two, but, she concedes, the disappointment faded fast. The real "seismic shift" occurred earlier, in 1998's "High Art," which earned her an Independent Spirit Award nomination. Portraying Greta, a strung-out German lesbian, helped people see past her "patrician" demeanor and appreciate her range, she maintains.

Blanche in 'Streetcar'

The youngest of five daughters, Clarkson was born and raised in New Orleans -- "a real Southern girl," she has said. Acting in school plays since her early teens, "Patti" -- as she's still known -- won a local competition for performing Emily's monologue in "Our Town." After studying speech pathology at Louisiana State, she transferred to New York City's Fordham University, where she shifted her focus to theater arts. During postgraduate work at the prestigious Yale School of Drama, she played a Cajun mama and an 8-year-old ax murderer, honing her "comic" and "character" muscles.

Her first year out of school, Clarkson appeared off-Broadway before stepping into John Guare's "The House of Blue Leaves" on the Great White Way. Film and TV work (Clarkson won an Emmy in 2002 for guest-starring as Aunt Sarah on HBO's "Six Feet Under") have kept her away from the boards for several years. But she's returning -- with a vengeance. In April, she'll tackle the role of Blanche DuBois opposite newcomer Adam Rothenberg in Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire" at Washington, D.C.'s Kennedy Center.

"I'm going to try and do it and hope that I'm still standing when the curtain rises," she says. "And most of all, when the curtain comes down."

On the big screen, she'll next be seen as a mother of seven in "Dogville," Lars von Trier's period thriller opening March 26, and in "a classic leading-lady role" in Craig Lucas' "Dying Gaul," due for release in the fall. "I wear a white bikini throughout that movie -- and looking glamorous is much harder than acting," she says, flashing a grin. "Still, I've beaten the odds on a number of levels. I'm 700 years old, for starters, and sitting here, talking to you. It's hard to tell if things are improving for older actresses, but look at the year I've had. I was never an ingenue, to begin with. And I've grown into my face, my body, my voice."

Clarkson, who has committed to four more independent films, can be seen in Disney's "Miracle," playing 1980 Olympic hockey coach Herb Brooks' wife. Nothing wrong with mainstream movies, she says.

"Independent films will always be a part of me," Clarkson says. "But I hope that the budgets are higher. Though a trailer isn't a possibility, I'd like a room instead of a seat on the sidewalk. Maybe even one with a toilet. Though my work hasn't brought me fame or fortune, it has brought me great joy. Sometimes, I think that I could be living a married-with-children life working as a speech pathologist. In the end, however, I'm a free spirit, so I'd really go insane."

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