The McQueen of women-in-jeopardy films

Actor Ashley Judd brings a confident physicality to taut suspense movies


March 07, 2004|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,Sun Movie Critic

Ashley Judd has the face that launched a thousand conventional women-in-jeopardy movies -- not just her own, which usually depend on Judd's push and drive for their ratcheting momentum, but the rip-offs on TV, often on the Lifetime Channel.

The genre as we now know it belongs to her; she and her writers and directors propelled it in liberating directions. A Judd suspense film like Double Jeopardy (1999), in which a foul husband sets up his wife for a fake murder, doesn't just reverse the moral and sexual dynamics of hard-shelled Hollywood melodramas about a femme fatale and a male sucker (Double Indemnity is the towering prototype). It also makes the duped character virtuous and tough enough to achieve a healthy payback and emerge without scars.

At age 35, Judd has come a long way from Ruby in Paradise (1993), her breakthrough role as a Tennessee girl gaining self-knowledge through trial and error in a West Florida town. She's transformed herself into a mainstream action heroine and a jack of all performing trades, recently switching off between movies and the Broadway stage, where her presence as Maggie the Cat, despite grudging reviews, turned a revival of Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof into a hit.

In her latest movie, Twisted, which is now playing in theaters but got lost amid the walk-up to the Oscars and the opening of The Passion of the Christ, she plays a San Francisco cop newly elevated to the homicide division. She sports a short-and-spiky-haired 'do -- something she developed with her director, Philip Kaufman, for what he calls that "pop-out-of-bed" look. Even for an actress who's no shrinking violent, she's more aggressive than usual, with a temper that flares up in an instant and wreaks havoc in seconds. And she has an upfront sexuality that topples male expectations, whether those of her guardian and police mentor (Samuel L. Jackson) or her homicide division partner (Andy Garcia).

Before working with Judd on this movie, Kaufman suggested she watch "a lot of Steve McQueen films." After all, the prototype for modern San Francisco movie cops was not Eastwood's Dirty Harry but McQueen's Bullitt. "Even the car she drives," Kaufman says, on the phone from San Francisco, "is either Steve McQueen's car or a duplicate of the Mustang he drives in Bullitt."

More important, "McQueen had an energy and efficiency in his movements -- just in the way he would pick up his frozen dinners and take the paper out of the news rack. And Ashley does, too: She has this confident physicality."

When I interviewed Judd by phone last month, she was McQueenesque -- driving herself through Manhattan gridlock to have a pre-show dinner with director Anthony Page, who guided her through Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. On Feb. 17, four days after our talk, she tore a ligament and sprained her foot onstage; she tried to soldier on, but had to leave the play on Feb. 23, three weeks before the end of her scheduled run.

'Unapologetic' allure

Reassuring me that her cell phone was attached to a headset, Judd shrugged off my surprise that she would agree to be interviewed while driving; after all, she's been married to race-car driver Dario Franchitti since 2001. Between bouts of outrage at backed-up intersections, she displayed the smarts that earned her Phi Beta Kappa at the University of Kentucky.

She took the lead in Twisted, Judd says, because "Sara Thorp's script presented me with a somewhat unprecedented character." She becomes "her own best suspect" because she's had a series of one-night-stands with men who end up dead. "In terms of gender stereotypes," continues Judd, "she's as 'male' as she is 'female,' and she's unapologetic about it."

That mix is what attracted her. Old Hollywood would have advertised Twisted with the slogan "Ashley Judd as you've never seen her before!" Of course, audiences would have known in those days that they'd get Judd as they had seen her before, but with some delectable new twists.

Male and female audiences alike enjoy seeing Judd race through movies like Kiss the Girls (1997) and High Crimes (2002), getting physical while parading her characters' expertise in medicine and law, respectively.

She's not a superwoman but she is a take-charge woman, with all her faculties keenly tuned. And she has an innate classiness that transcends social class. A childhood that encompassed 12 schools in 13 years in California, Tennessee and Kentucky, with patches of poverty along the way, has helped make Judd gritty and sure and real on screen. Viewers respond to the hardscrabble texture beneath the doll-like features -- doll-like, that is, except for the way her grin and twinkle can expand them into mischief or wiliness.

As she talks, Judd doesn't just display a knack for summation, but also an instinct for the elegant phrase. Asked how she kept her footing in Twisted's psychological maelstrom, Judd says "I just opened myself up to each scene and took on the mantle of imaginary circumstance."

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