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Madeline Stowe, a critic at heart

LOS ANGELES -- Well, of course I like Madeleine Stowe. When she was in college, she wanted to be a film critic. Few actresses have such obvious intelligence. But then she started hanging around with actors. This was at USC, only eight or 10 years ago.

"I thought all these people were incredibly exotic," she was remembering. "They had a capacity to express themselves that I had never seen before. I began cutting my classes to spend more time around them."

So much for film criticism. One day a friend's agent saw her in a theater lobby and asked to meet her, "and that's how it started." She was successful almost at once, winning leads in pictures starring people like Kurt Russell ("Unlawful Entry"), Kevin Costner ("Revenge"), Richard Dreyfuss ("Stakeout") and Jack Nicholson ("The Two Jakes"). Two years ago she got a lot of attention opposite Daniel Day-Lewis in "The Last of the Mohicans," and in 1993 she played in Robert Altman's "Short Cuts" as a wife who thought her cheating husband's attempts to deceive her were hilarious.

And now here she is in Michael Apted's "Blink." It's a thinking person's version of "Wait Until Dark," with Stowe as a blind woman who plays violin in a Chicago Irish band, and Aidan Quinn as the cop who can't figure out if she's crazy--or, for that matter, why he likes her so much.

In the movie, Stowe undergoes an operation to restore her sight, and then experiences a phenomenon called "delayed vision." Because her brain is overwhelmed by all of the visual information it has to process, she'll sometimes "see" things that she actually saw hours before. This fits neatly into the plot when a friend who lives upstairs is murdered, and the next day she belatedly "sees" the killer on his way out of the building.

This sounds, I know, like the worst kind of B-movie gimmick. But actually "Blink" is intelligent and subtle in its development, and the best thing in the movie is the relationship that develops between Stowe and Quinn, who plays the cop assigned to the murder case. They're both abrupt, angry people. They're both afraid of relationships. They both sound hostile when they secretly want to sound friendly. And Quinn doesn't necessarily believe her story when she says she sees things belatedly.

For that matter, I don't know if I do either. Is such a phenomenon possible? "Only sort of," Stowe said. "People who become sighted after long periods of blindness often have trouble processing what they're seeing, and we went from there. It works because her reality is distorted and heightened about what she's seen. It's a discombobulating thing."

It is. Imagine a woman, endangered by a killer, who cannot trust her own eyes. Who does not know if she is seeing today's reality, or yesterday's.

Until she read the screenplay, Stowe told me, she didn't much want to make another thriller. After "Stakeout" and "Unlawful Entry," she said, "I almost didn't do it because I don't believe in the genre anymore. Thrillers tend to slip into convention. But Michael Apted was very clear about creating a world where you actually experience and see what she's feeling, and I think that saves it in a lot of ways." Apted is a British director, now based in Hollywood, whose features like "Coal Miner's Daughter" and "Gorillas in the Mist" have alternated with documentaries like "35 Up," the latest in a series in which he has been visiting a group of British people every seven years since they were seven.

He shot "Continental Divide" (1980) in Chicago, starring John Belushi as a Sun-Times columnist not unlike Mike Royko, and in this return visit he uses his documentarian's eye to photograph a very particular Chicago. You catch a glimpse of the Sears Tower in the distance in a few shots, but all of the action centers in the near Northwest side neighborhood of North and Milwaukee. And his characters are neighborhood Chicagoans; he uses an actual Chicago Irish band, the Drovers, for Stowe's band, and in Quinn's character and the other cops he captures an authentic Chicago tone. They don't talk like movie cops; they talk just like the last guy who wrote you a ticket. (So authentic are the police performances that the first time I saw Quinn in the movie--with four or five other men in a tavern--I knew just from the way they were holding themselves that they were cops.)

Stowe's character is convincing, too. I liked her anger, I liked the scene where she came home alone and decided to drink a bottle of cheap wine, and I liked the way she was able to handle herself. Without giving away the ending, I will say that this is one woman who doesn't stand around helplessly waiting for the big strong policemen to arrive.

People walk out of movies, I told her, and they're always saying things like "Gee, didn't she stop to think that the guy still had his gun?" or "Why didn't she call for help?" Here you don't have to ask those questions, because she doesn't behave stupidly.

"Well," Stowe said, "we tried to keep it consistent. I just thought, 'Okay, all I can think about is what is truthful for this particular moment in this scene.' "

Basically, I said, women characters in thrillers come in two categories: They're helpless, or they embody the Fatal Attraction Syndrome.

"Right. "

And neither one of those is an attractive choice.

"No, they're really not. They're an excuse. A lot of movie women simply exist as a reason for the men to have their fights and go through their conflicts and retain their heroic status. I had been very much a part of that in some of the earlier films I'd done. And while it was nice working with a lot of those people, ultimately was unsatisfying to play a victim, and I realized I couldn't do it anymore. It had to stop."

This character, I said, is tough, sometimes profane, sometimes obstreperous. I thought only men were allowed to be those things in the movies.

"Everybody describes her that way, and it was one of the things I was drawn when I read the screenplay, but now that I see the film, I don't see anything that erratic or unusual. She behaves appropriately for what she's going through. We've been talking a lot about anger. It's almost as though filmmakers are frightened of feminine rage. That's been a disturbing issue to me, because I've felt diminished as a woman and as a performer by my inability to get anger on film.

"When your career is younger, you tend to listen to people. Sometimes you give the performance that you mean to give. At other times you give it but it's not there in finished product. During the sneak previews, the testing process that Hollywood loves to go through, you find out that a woman's anger is one of the first things that audiences become uncomfortable with.

"So, I was nervous making this picture. I'd count in my head all the ways they'd find to get around my character's feelings. But Apted didn't have any such concerns; he was adamant that this character is entitled to her anger and expressions of frustration."

"Blink" is billed as a thriller, I said, yet the relationship between you and the Aidan Quinn character is so original and complex it could stand on its own.

"What do you like about it?"

The tension; it's a battle of wills. Neither one wants to surrender to their feelings.

"Well, they're two totally dysfunctional people."

There's that great line, I said, when he wants to kiss you and then he walks away and you say "One day your dam will break loose." Yet she'd rather let him walk away than make it ease for him. It's a love-hate thing.

"Think about this. She tells her friend in the movie that while she was blind, all men looked alike to her. Now that she's can see this man, it's become very personal to her. I'm not saying that's the experience that all blind people have; I don't know what they have. I never could get down to ask them that. But that's her experience. And then when you see him the first time with a woman, he's waking up and has no idea who she is. For years, for both of them, sex partners might have been interchangeable. Now here they are with each other.

"The way the script was originally, Aidan's character was written the way a woman is usually written: he was there to serve the protagonist of the film. I almost didn't do the picture because of that. They said, 'We're doing this on purpose. It's sort of like saying you can trade places.' I said that didn't make sense to me. I've been on the other side and it doesn't make a better picture. Look at 'Revenge' [her 1990 thriller with Costner and Anthony Quinn]. I think the fact that the woman isn't properly developed killed that picture.

"Well, they thought about it. Aidan's character originally didn't come in until the 24th page of the screenplay. They brought him in right at the top." She smiled. "And he's a total pig in the first scene, that character."

You're sounding just like a film critic, I said.

"That's what I studied to begin with."

Funny, I said. Actors usually have personalities where they want to stand in the spotlight. Vulnerable. Journalists usually have personalities where they want to stand beside the spotlight."

"The experience if being in a spotlight is just the most mortifying thing I can imagine. Movies are okay. I feel comfortable in a situation where it's myself and other actors and a camera and a crew, where everybody's doing their work. Nobody's focusing on me except for the director. Then I'm happy. But when I had to get up on a stage, playing the violin with the Drovers, I was terrified. I wasn't even playing, I was just miming all the notes and trying to do the right thing, and I couldn't do it. I panicked. I said, 'You gotta bring me some drinks because I'm not going to make it.' That kind of scrutiny is very difficult for me."

So we shouldn't look for you on the stage.

"Never, never. Absolutely never. The idea of it makes me really sick."

You'll be sticking to movies.

"Absolutely."

Have you got one in the pipeline after "Blink?"

"It's called 'Bad Girls.' It's an all-female western. I had a big problem with the title."

It sounds like it's about lesbians in prison.

"Yeah. Or some reformatory school. They're using the title as a marketing tool, I think. I tried to talk to them and it was an argument I lost. In their minds, they're mesmerized by that title, and four women holding guns and wearing period clothing."

It sounds like a movie I'd like to see.

"Actually you might. There's a lot of strong stuff in it and the character I play is very violent. I couldn't describe her until somebody said, 'Well, antihero is a word that's always attributed to men, but.."' And I said, 'That's it.' "

And after "Bad Girls?"

"I'm not coming out for at least another 6 months. I'm going to relocate my ranch. I have a place up north. I want to relocate to the hill country in Texas. I want to practice roping, and playing my violin."

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