A new Judd is on the brink of celebrity, and this one doesn't sing

MOVIES

November 19, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

"I better be good," she says with a laugh. "The whole movie is me and two shots of a palm tree."

Unusual candor for a publicity tour, but the author of these words is an unusual presence: Ashley Judd, 25, actress and daughter and sister.

The daughter and sister part is inescapable, which may be why she tries so hard to escape it. Mother: Naomi Judd. Sister: Wynonna Judd.

The Judds as in: Big hair. Eye shadow like rocket exhaust. C-W. Banjos, guitars, shiny black Tony Llamas with those little silver toe caps, spangles, bangles, rhinestones and glitter, and adenoidal-magnificent anthems of bad men, broken hearts, whiskey bottles and love turned to road kill by the souped-up Cadillac of fate.

Yet to look upon this Judd is to see none of that, nor ever to even conceive it. Sitting in a Baltimore hotel lobby for a press interview, she's a serenely composed young woman in nondescript clothes -- slacks and a T-shirt -- and eyes the size of the English muffins she claims are her favorite food, if cooked right.

Not a lick of makeup adorns her pellucid face, but not a lick is needed. The hair is not big and hasn't a trace of those stiffening agents that turn her mother and her sister's into gravity-defying sculptures; but again, none is needed. Has she got eyes! Those eyes could hypnotize the cats out of the trees. In fact she looks a bit like a big cat, calm and satiny, sitting coiled, shoes off, nearly lost in a huge sofa, the eyes just watching, watching, watching.

But when she opens her mouth, thoughts of cats vanish and the Southern connection proclaims itself: The voice is the mahogany of Nashville tempered by a long stay at the University of Kentucky, which in turn leads to another interesting discovery. This daughter of the most raucously vulgar entertainment genre in American culture is a secret intellectual who can -- and would prefer to -- discuss Edith Wharton and Joseph Conrad as easily as Ashley Judd and certainly Wynonna and Naomi Judd. She knows what "reified" means (I don't).

Ask her, for example, what book she'd most like to make a movie from and her eyes light up with joy:

"Oh, 'House of Mirth.' No, no, maybe 'Anna Karenina.' "

A reporter who has read neither of them fakes his way through a smile as if, oh ho ho, what a good choice they would be and isn't it great that we know of such refined pleasures. When she lets it slip that she has memorized seven pages of "House of Mirth," however, his jaunty con man's smile fades and he knows he'd better bail out before it becomes evident he's not even sure who wrote "House of Mirth."

Grimly, he guides the conversation back to "Ruby in Paradise," Judd's astonishing new movie. She plays Ruby Lee Gissing, a young Tennessee woman fleeing some sort of vague oppression -- the better left unspecified, one supposes, to increase the symbolic width of possibility -- who comes to a chilly beach town on the Florida panhandle out of season and manages to build a new life for herself. But it's not a movie of big moments or thundering drama; rather, with Judd as a gyroscope of steady self-awareness, it steers without condescension or insincerity toward the heroine's command of her own life.

"Victor [Nunez, the director-writer] says it's about a lot of things without being about very much. It's hard for me to precisely extrapolate what it was about the script that I responded to so intensely, but I was dumbstruck. I was blown away. I never knew someone could write the unwritable. It was as if he'd tapped into my private landscape. Sometime I think Victor's really a woman."

She realizes how this could be interpreted and quickly adds, "Of course on the inside, we all have both male and female characteristics."

She says of Ruby, "She was interested in what she was interested in."

That's also true of Judd, the unmusical member of a famous musical family.

"I vacillate between my mom's idea of celebrityhood and the possibility of what can be, versus my own obsessive need for privacy. I'm trying to find some sort of balance.

"Acting," she says, "is just an irrepressible part of my being. It started very early, in the third grade, when we were poor, and I would walk across the fields as if I was the character in a book. I did that from the first, really."

She's already got what's said to be a dynamite part in Oliver Stone's upcoming film "Natural Born Killers" but her goals remain modest.

"I just want to try to be a good person and work hard. I honestly don't hear myself going beyond that. If I don't like a part, I pass. If I'm excited, I work butt off."

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