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Fiorentino Finds Good Ways to Be Bad

`I have this terminal condition called bitchiness, right?" Linda Fiorentino smiled, and tossed her hair back from her forehead. Straight, black hair, framing dark eyes that level with you. Just the way she looked in "The Last Seduction," and just the way she looks in "Jade."

At a time when half the women on the screen seem to be bimbos or slashers, she came along in 1994 with a low-budget film that brushed them aside. A film in which she played a woman who was smart, evil and ruthless, and who got away with it. In the video stores "The Last Seduction" is always out of stock; it's a cult hit not only among film fans, but among women who relate to her strong heroine, and among men who. . .

"There's a challenge there that some men relate to," Fiorentino was telling me. "I could feel it from the reactions I got on the street. There were men who saw that characters and thought, I want to be the one to bring her to her knees. I could take her down. That's the challenge for them; the turn-on."

In "The Last Seduction," she knows what she wants and gets it. There's a would-be stud in a bar who thinks he's going to act macho and pick her up, and she wraps him around her little finger, in more ways than one. In "Jade" (opening Friday at local theaters), she plays a related role, as a woman who is wife, mistress, threat, solution; strong cops, lawyers and millionaires are mesmerized by her.

"I'm single," Fiorentino said, "and I've gone on a few dates since `The Last Seduction' came out and I could see the disappointment in the eyes of men who thought I was going to be hot date and teach them all this weird stuff. And then they find out I'm just a normal person, you know, and I don't have leanings toward strange sexual behavior and it's like a disappointment crosses their faces."

In person, she's likable and warm. She sets people at ease. That is not the character she plays in any of her best roles, including Martin Scorsese's "After Hours" (1985), where she was the leather-clad domanatrix, or in "Vision Quest" (1985), where she was the 20-year-old who gets involved with the complicated kid on the high school wrestling team, and turns out to be even more complicated. The string continues in "Jade," which was written by a certain Joe Eszterhas, whose credits include "Showgirls" and "Basic Instinct," and directed by the master of thrillers, William ("The Exorcist") Friedkin.

Basically, she plays bad girls, women with a secret, women who see through men. I asked her how that got started.

"I keep asking myself the same question," Fiorentino said. "Maybe others see in me what I don't necessarily see in myself. And a lot of it in Hollywood has to do with what you look like. I'm dark and my eyes are dark and my voice is deep, and how the hell could I play a Meg Ryan role, the way I look?"

She looks great this morning, sitting in a Ritz-Carlton Hotel room, and then later over lunch downstairs in Foodlife. She is smart and verbal, and knows it, and likes to play with it. Her movie roles depend on that verbal power, which is ever so much more intriguing than ice picks and the other standard tools of the Hollywood Bitch.

Actors often say, I mused, that the evil roles are more fun to play.

"They are, but I think I've done it enough now. I think there is a certain catharsis in being as evil as you can and getting away with it, and getting paid for it." That sounded splendidly villainous, but she put a certain spin on it, so that in a way she was kidding herself.

There's a theory, I said, that Hollywood executives are afraid of women, and that explains why women are seen in the movies as either helpless sex symbols or perpetuators. If they're not a victim, they have a knife in their hand. Very few of them are friends, lovers, mates in the movies.

"These men obviously have problems."

What's going on with that?

"I think it must correlate with power, you know. When we were doing `Jade,' the way Joe Eszterhas wrote the sex scenes was so dated and so boring, and I just thought, I can't do this. And there was a lot of nudity, and I thought, we've gotta come up with something a little more interesting, just to keep me going here.

"So I did a little random research, you know, and I asked a couple of women I had known who had affairs with men who were very powerful - and invariably those men in powerful positions wanted to be dominated by the woman at the end of the day. They wanted to be the submissive party in the sex act, and it correlated with the level of power. Maybe men with no power want to dominate their women. I just thought, well, this is interesting. And it's the same for women: Women want to be the dominant party because that's their fantasy and the male fantasy is to be the submissive party. And so we got into that in `Jade.' "

It is a little strange, I said, for you to come off of "The Last Seduction," which took no hostages, and now you find yourself in a screenplay by Joe Eszterhas, whose insights into women are, to say the least, on a different level. When I talked to Friedkin at the Venice Film Festival, he said you were the most courageous woman he had ever known. Now what did he mean by that?

" `Jade' wasn't exactly the easiest filmmaking experience. It was a courageous attempt on my part, and I think Billy recognized that."

What took courage?

"At the time . . . I'm gonna tell you things I haven't told anybody yet . . . at the time I was reacting to a lot of things that were going on in my life in terms of, well, suddenly being recognized for a change."

Tears started in her eyes as she said that, but she cleared her throat and carried on.

"I think that had a lot to do with my approach to the role. There was a lot of resentment and I think that became a part of the filmmaking process on `Jade.' I mean, I truly was living moment to moment and I think Billy recognized that. He knew how difficult it was for me at that point. I was very skeptical about doing this film. I'm not a huge Joe Eszterhas fan, as you can imagine. I just thought, this is a whole other world. I was very skeptical about getting involved in this production and I think that Billy, having had the experience that he had up until that point, became sort of a mentor to me, and said, `You know what? I screwed up, Linda, and as your fan I'm not going to let you screw up.' And I think that became part of the collaborative effort on the film itself and so in that way became more exciting for me."

You mean, he felt that he had screwed up earlier in his career with certain choices?

"Absolutely. At a very young age he was the biggest director in Hollywood for a while (after `The French Connection' and `The Exorcist'), and I think he believed there came a time when he betrayed himself and his work. So I learned a lot from him."

Fiorentino speaks with such a low voice it's a surprise to discover she's not a smoker. It's the kind of voice that lends itself to confidences and asides and, in the movies, to seductive conspiracies that men are later going to regret they ever heard. She has presence and style that have always been there, in both good movies and bad. In the right role they make her intriguing, like the great bad ladies of the screen, like Barbara Stanwyck in "Double Indemnity," or Faye Dunaway in "Network," or the Marlene Dietrich who said, "You don't get to be known as Shanghai Lil in one night."

I asked her: Have you always been, more or less, like you are? Is this you?

"I don't think so," she said. "I think that we all reinvent ourselves. We all grow up with different experiences. I grew up in a large Italian Catholic family; very operatic. It makes sense that I would choose acting as a career. I had a difficult time as a child trying to find my own place in my family because there were eight children screaming for attention and I think that we were all trying to find our way - and I literally reinvented myself for the attention. I became like this."

Who were you before you reinvented yourself?

"A nerdy little kid who always got straight A's, which were never good enough for my parents: `Yeah, you got straight A's. Let's see if you can do it again.' And I was always in the advanced math class and I think by the time I got to high school, I realized that that wasn't very attractive to the boys, that I was smarter than them. So I began to pretend I was a little more stupid, I think."

I think you've gone back to the "smarter than them" image. . .

She smiled again.

"Maybe a combination. What works on the surface may not work beneath the surface."

Say what?

"Isn't that the agreement that the audience makes with the filmmaker? It's the agreement you make when you pay that $8. You're going to go in there and believe everything that you see, whether it's true or not. It's the surface that counts. It's a complicity between the filmmaker and the audience and that's what makes it work. After `The Last Seduction' came out, I'd have a dental hygenist telling me, while I'm having my teeth cleaned, `I saw your movie and I went home and behaved like a bitch and my boyfriend loved it. We had the hottest sex that we had in a long time.' I just thought, this is astounding."

"That definitely was a dream role. After I read that script, I was in Arizona and I got in a car and drove six hours to get to the meeting because I had never read anything so unique in terms of a female character. And I walked in the meeting with John Dahl, the director, and I said, `John, you are not allowed to hire anyone but me for this film.' And I wasn't kidding. I figured it was a kind of role and a kind of film that if it worked it would work very well and if it didn't, I would probably be in law school right now pursuing my other career."

Yeah, I said, you were headed for law school when you got sidetracked into acting. Well, you could always play Marcia Clark. You look a little like her."

"My eyes are dark enough."

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