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A wealth of proposals for a good Wife

March 15, 2005|Lisa Rosen | Special to The Times

Take the Wife, please.

It's the predominant role for actresses, often after graduating from the Girlfriend. Whether dutiful, long-suffering, repressed, untrue or wretched, the woman behind the lead is often a role of few dimensions. Joan Allen has long transcended that thankless job, infusing her gallery of wives -- in movies as diverse as "Nixon" (1995) and "The Ice Storm" (1997) -- with such honesty and subtlety as to make everyone grateful.

Now, at 48, a time when many actresses start losing out even the Wife parts to younger women, Allen's roles are getting bigger, the marital status becoming pretty much incidental. Two of those characters were revealed this weekend in New Line's "The Upside of Anger" and Manhattan Pictures' "Off the Map." Allen's talents are so highly admired by her peers that her roles in "Upside" and the film "The Contender" (2000) were written specifically for her.

"I did it for a very self-serving reason," Mike Binder, writer-director of "Upside," said of centering the movie on Allen. "I knew I would get great actors." As his friend, "Contender" writer-director Rod Lurie told him, " 'Once I had Joan, I got anybody else I wanted,' " Binder said. "I just stole a page out of his playbook."

Binder rhapsodized that Allen is the kind of actress who makes everyone else in a scene shine, which is why everyone wants to work with her.

It's a quality she has exhibited from the start. As a drama student at Eastern Illinois University, she caught the eye of fellow student John Malkovich, who invited her to join the just-founded Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago.

"I was in heaven, I was so happy," Allen said over tea at a Beverly Hills hotel cafe, recalling those years spent working on plays with such talents as Malkovich, Gary Sinise, Terry Kinney, Laurie Metcalf and Glenne Headly.

In her late 20s, she traveled with one of their productions, "And the Nightingale Sang," to New York, where her performance won her notice and an agent. She stayed in the city, going on to win a Tony for her debut Broadway role in "Burn This" and following that run with the acclaimed "The Heidi Chronicles," in addition to a few roles in film and television.

Switching from the theater world, where the words are sacred, to film, where they are decidedly not, Allen found herself on sets thinking, "What are people talking about, changing the lines, are they out of their minds?" And the technical requirements of film "just made me wild," Allen continued. "I used to be terrified on film sets, because I didn't know how you did the technical part and got the emotional part to come together at the same time. People are yanking at you and putting on lipstick -- how do you focus? I think it really took me five years before I understood how it all worked."

The role she considers a breakthrough in her film career was Pat Nixon in Oliver Stone's "Nixon." Critics agreed, and she received an Oscar nomination for the work. The next year she was nominated again, for her part as Goody Proctor in "The Crucible." (She earned a third nomination for "The Contender.") On a roll of wifely roles, she made strong impressions in "The Ice Storm" as a struggling suburban wife opposite an unfaithful Kevin Kline and in "Pleasantville" as the television-perfect wife who begins to see the world in more than black and white.

Surprisingly, she almost turned that part down, seeing it as yet another Wife. But writer-director Gary Ross convinced her that this wife gets to break through and find herself, unlike the ones before.

She's very glad she ended up taking the role, but she readily admits, "I'm pretty Wifed out at this point. And I think I've gotten to do the best ones. These characters were not ciphers, and I was surrounded by amazing actors and directors, all of them. But now I'm a little played out. I don't know what I would really bring to it because I feel like I've done it."

For that reason, she initially turned down the role that director Campbell Scott offered her in "Off the Map," that of a wife of a seriously depressed man, living with their daughter in the New Mexico wilderness.

"I thought this is the Wife role, and I want to be the one who's having the depression, not the one taking care of the person," Allen said. But thanks to the amount of time it takes to get an independent film going, by the time Scott asked her again a couple of years later, she said yes.

Her character is nobody's shadow, an earth mother unlike Allen's previous incarnations.

In the case of "Upside," Binder was the one who said yes to Allen. They were working together on "The Contender," and Allen said when she found out he was also a writer and director, "I screwed up my courage and said, 'Mike, keep me in mind; I'd love to do a comedy sometime.' "

"I took the invitation and ran with it," Binder said.

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