For 'Alien' star, confidence came late

January 29, 1995|By Frank Bruni | Frank Bruni,Knight-Ridder News Service

It should have happened in 1984, when she received a Tony nomination for her Broadway stage performance in "Hurlyburly."

It should have happened in 1986, when her work in "Aliens" netted her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, or in 1988, when she racked up two Oscar nominations -- for Best Actress ("Gorillas in the Mist") and Best Supporting Actress ("Working Girl").

But it was only last year, when she found herself acting the coveted role at the center of "Death and the Maiden," that Sigourney Weaver began to regard herself as one of the front-rank American actresses.

"I always felt a little bit illegitimate," confesses Ms. Weaver, 45. "I did these action pictures. I did 'Ghostbusters.' Whenever they talked about serious actresses, I always felt that I had one foot in the land of Arnold Schwarzenegger, one foot in the land of Ivan Reitman and maybe a toe in the land of Meryl Streep and Glenn Close.

"I had the same agent as Meryl Streep, and I used to go into Sam [Cohn] and stand there crying, saying, 'But, Sam, I want an 'Out of Africa.' I want a 'Sophie's Choice.' I used to say this, but I never did anything about it. I never had the confidence to go after those roles. Roman had to come after me."

By Roman she means Polanski, the director of "Death and the Maiden," which opened Friday.

The movie is an adaptation of Ariel Dorfman's acclaimed play, which was mounted on Broadway with Ms. Close playing Paulina, a woman with hideous physical and emotional scars from her torture as a political prisoner in an unspecified Latin American country.

The story covers a single tempestuous night when Paulina and her husband receive an unexpected visitor. Paulina becomes convinced that the stranger is actually her former tormentor. As her husband protests that she's both wrong and insane, she binds and gags the man, demanding that he repent his sins.

It's an unusual role for Ms. Weaver not only because it's such a ready showcase for tour-de-force acting but also because Paulina is a diminished, somewhat addled character. Ms. Weaver is associated with strong, even arrogant ones.

"She had never played a neurotic in a movie before," Mr. Polanski says. "She did a lot of work, and managed it admirably." Ms. Weaver says that projecting Paulina's fear, pain and powerlessness made the part perhaps the most challenging she has ever tackled.

Her movie debut came in "Annie Hall," as a date on Woody Allen's arm when he runs into Diane Keaton after their breakup. A much bigger opportunity came a few years later in "Alien," which cast her in the distinctly untraditional female role of a dragon-battling warrior in space.

Ms. Weaver's commanding beauty -- chiseled features, a regal bearing accentuated by her height of nearly 6 feet -- guaranteed she'd find her way into a few romantic leads, such as the one she played opposite Mel Gibson in "The Year of Living Dangerously."

But her resume from the 1980s includes a larger number of quirky choices: the "Ghostbusters" movies, in which she competed against Bill Murray and green slime for attention; "One Woman or Two," in which her co-stars were no less unlikely a duo than Gerard Depardieu and Dr. Ruth Westheimer; the "Alien" sequel, "Aliens," which put her in mannish tank tops and hairstyles.

When director Michael Apted approached her to do a more conventional, coveted female lead as doomed primatologist Dian Fossey in "Gorillas in the Mist," Ms. Weaver was convinced he had made a mistake.

"I suffered this terrible inferiority complex, and Fossey was a very hard part," Ms. Weaver says. "I sat there telling [Michael Apted] whom he should interview. I mentioned Diane Keaton, Vanessa Redgrave, Judy Davis. I'm a good caster. I can always come up with someone better than myself."

The one-two punch in 1988 of "Gorillas in the Mist" and "Working Girl" should have enshrined Ms. Weaver as one of Hollywood's most dependable leading ladies and earned her first dibs on any project she desired. Just then, however, Ms. Weaver took a different, private turn, becoming pregnant and having a daughter, Charlotte, with her husband, theater director James Simpson. Her screen appearances dwindled.

Ms. Weaver, in contrast to many stars, seems happy to talk about her domestic life. Although her cultured enunciations, exquisitely tailored Richard Tyler suit and Hermes shoes befit a formal or haughty demeanor, her conversation is casual and her manner is humble and open.

Her candor embraces both personal revelations -- she's still in therapy for her insecurity and has been trying in vain for a second child -- and professional ones. She admits to disappointment with the way Mr. Polanski shot and edited "Death and the Maiden."

Mr. Polanski strives to keep the viewer guessing whether Paulina is right or wrong in her accusations, and one way he does so is by diminishing her presence and occasionally taking the camera off her even as she is speaking.

The result: Some of Ms. Weaver's best acting isn't visible.

"When I first saw the film this summer, I was heartbroken, frankly," Ms. Weaver says. "I think it's wonderful, but a lot of the big stuff I did was cut."

The producers knew they needed a female star with established box office appeal to launch "Death and the Maiden," but playwright Dorfman, who co-wrote the movie, says Ms. Weaver was chosen as much for her talent as for her name.

For her part, Ms. Weaver had hesitations similar to those that bedeviled her before "Gorillas in the Mist."

"There was an area -- a cavity -- somewhere inside that was still filled with this feeling of not being good enough," she says. "Then I thought: What am I doing? As an actor, I owe it to myself to jump off that cliff."

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