The Upside Of Allen

Actress' willingness to embrace smart, sexy and out-of-the-ordinary roles has once again put her on the map.

April 12, 2005|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Joan Allen jumped onto movie-lovers' radar almost 20 years ago in one of the most sensuous and berserk scenes ever filmed. In Manhunter (1986), she played a blind woman stroking the fur, muzzle and fangs of a drugged but semiconscious tiger, feeling its warm breath on her flesh and pressing her ear to its pounding heart. Her wholesome, direct features lit up with excitement and delight. For seconds, she became a red-hot beauty.

That didn't happen often for the next decade and a half. She began to get cast (and win acclaim) for the whitest of white-bread roles, such as Pat Nixon in Nixon (1995) and the repressed suburban housewife in The Ice Storm (1997). But she's been upending expectations thoroughly and (let's hope) for good with two image-cracking performances that can be seen in theaters now, in The Upside of Anger and Off the Map. And come June, she'll be featured in another sensual story titled Yes.

"Oh, my God," she exclaims, "they're such great parts!"

Even over the phone from New York City, Allen radiates pleasure. She "loves" her directors, adores her co-stars and can't wait for people to see her next movie. "Oh, my God" is her favorite interview expression, and it's catching. Oh, my God, you think, she's terrific.

She vents an alcohol-fueled, eros-based fury as an abandoned upper-middle-class housewife and mother of four girls in The Upside of Anger (playing nationwide), an uproarious domestic and romantic comedy. And she embodies the rooted but mystical allure of a take-charge Southwestern earth goddess in Off the Map (at art houses, including the Charles), an often funny, always affecting and offbeat family drama.

"The icing on the cake," she says proudly, lightly - wait, could she be giggling? - "is Sally Potter's film, Yes, about a love affair between a Western woman and a Middle Eastern man, written in verse. It's an astonishing film, and, after 9/11, a healing and amazing story."

Voted Most Likely to Succeed at her high school in Rochelle, Ill., where she was born in 1956, Allen has often suggested the gal at the head of the class who seems merely smart, pleasant and nice - until a flash of anger or ardor reveals the passion within.

She got to strut her stuff on stage as an early member of Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company, with the likes of John Malkovich and Gary Sinise. Yet, until now, too few movie directors exploited her range or ignited her performing fire. The closest she came to rapture was as the all-American TV mom in the stylized black-and-white town of Pleasantville (1998) whose vibes set a tree ablaze, in color, when she gave in to sexual pleasure.

In 2005, Allen has achieved a transformation from mousiness or steeliness to sexiness rare for anyone in American films - and even rarer for a 48-year-old, and even rarer for a 48-year-old woman. And she went right after it. When starring as the likely first female vice president in The Contender (2000), she knew that Mike Binder, part of the ensemble, had been a standup comic and a writer-director. Curious about why he dashed off the set between camera setups, she found him editing a movie in his trailer. One of Binder's earlier films, The Sex Monster (1999), particularly tickled her - Binder played a husband who coaxed his wife into a threesome only to discover that she preferred women. ("Funnier than it has any right to be," confessed Todd McCarthy in Variety.)

The Sex Monster inspired Allen to let Binder know, "I'd love to do a comedy sometime. A lot of people don't associate me with that. Then Mike wrote me this amazing character, Terry, in The Upside of Anger - and it's been fabulous."

This refreshingly anti-moralistic movie depicts Terry's alcoholism as something easy to fall into: self-medication for a rancorous depression. Allen says it was challenging, disreputable fun to portray "many degrees of drunkenness. Sometimes I'd be surprised to show up for a morning scene and have Mike call for props to get me a drink." She and Binder measure Terry's intoxication so specifically, it helps viewers trace the ebb and flow of her mental fog as she becomes a different, potentially richer person with her unlikely slacker lover (Kevin Costner) than she was with her husband. Allen, now a New Yorker living in "a very PC, very `therapized' environment," says it was "freeing" to play Terry and "do things like rip up a closet or stop a car in the middle of an intersection," or blurt out to the family of her oldest daughter's fiance that they're obviously "not Jews" when she finds out he's a David Junior.

Terry, who "hardly knows herself" and is a terrible mother, acts with magnetic "boldness."

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