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Ashley, the Acting Judd, Discovers A `Paradise' In First Film

"That girl, Ashley Judd, you can never catch her acting."

Robert Mitchum, after seeing "Ruby in Paradise" at a film festival screening There are a lot of movies about people Realizing Their Dreams. Sometimes their dream is to become a big star. Or sleep with Robert Redford. Or walk on the moon. Or become heavyweight champion of the world. Or get the Force to be with them.

"Ruby in Paradise" (now playing at the Fine Arts) is a movie about a young woman whose dream is to succeed in retail merchandising. She gets a job in a beach wear shop in Florida, and she just loves it there.

I think this may be the most romantic movie I've seen all year. Not romantic in a love-story sense, but romantic in suggesting the glorious power of a life beginning to unfold. Not everybody can walk on the moon. But if you've ever wanted able to say, this is what I'm good at, and I love doing it, then you'll understand this movie.

The movie stars Ashley Judd. The publicity identifies her as the daughter of Naomi and the sister of Wynonna - the singing Judds. Ashley, who is in her mid-20s, is the acting Judd. She is so good in this movie that her character stops being a performance and becomes someone you feel like you know. She makes "Ruby in Paradise" the kind of movie that young people might actually learn from.

The film was written and directed by Victor Nunez, a Floridian whose previous films, "Gal Young Un" (1980) and "A Flash of Green" (1985), showed an instinctive feel for the daily lives of ordinary people in the South. This time, he tells the story of a young woman, played by Judd, who gets in her car and drives away from what seems to be a dead-end existence in a rural backwater.

She arrives in the city of Panama City Beach, looking for a job, and finds one in a shop run by a woman named Mildred Chambers (Dorothy Lyman). "We just laid three girls off," Mildred tells her. Ruby stands her ground: "Mrs. Chambers, I've done retail before. And I work real cheap." Mildred takes a good look at her, and hires her. The way to get a job, Ruby senses, isn't to ask people to hire you. It's to tell people to hire you.

As the film advances, Ruby is hit on by Mildred's loutish son Ricky (Bentley Mitchum), and eventually ends up having a low-key romance with a local would-be ecologist (Todd Field). But she never defines herself by her relationships with men, and the turning point in the movie is probably when Mildred takes her to a retail convention in Tampa, and she sees another young woman, carrying a briefcase, sit down for a business meeting. Ruby's eyes narrow, and we can guess that she has suddenly found her role model. Retail isn't a job anymore; it's a career.

I saw "Ruby in Paradise" in September at the Toronto Film Festival, and the next morning, I had breakfast with Ashley Judd and Victor Nunez. Talking to them, realizing this was Nunez' first film in eight years and Judd's first actual movie acting job, I was even more amazed at how assured the film was, how serenely confident of its story, and how to tell it.

"I read the screenplay," Judd said, "and I had an extraordinary reaction to it. On this particular day, I was going to four auditions, and Victor was the last person I got to see. I show up; I'm flipping madly through the pages, trying to even find my scenes. The casting director sees this, and she says to me, `Take your time, go home. Come back when you're ready. He'll want to talk to you about character.' I had been auditioning for a year, and I'd never heard that before. Moved by script

"So I went home, and it took me more than 24 hours to read the script, because I was so blown away I kept having to put it down. I cried on the couch, I cried in the shower, I cried in the bed."

"Too bad you weren't the head of a studio," Nunez said, smiling. "We might have gotten it made sooner."

The screenplay made her cry, I think, not because it wrings dramatic tears out of overwrought melodramatic situations, but because it is so true to the small moments of life, to the joy of getting your first good job, and the pride that prevents you from begging for it. And all of that Judd communicates without ever once seeming to strain for effect. Until now, Judd is best known for her role as Swoosie Kurtz' daughter on the NBC dramatic series "Sisters."

Watching her act, and Nunez direct, is like watching one of those great Ozu films in which the actors didn't act, they simply existed, and life flowed through them. Where, I asked her, does someone learn to act like that?

She sipped her coffee as if wondering if such a question had an answer. "I've known from the time that I was about 7 years old that I was meant to be an actress," she said. "It was just a consciousness that I had. All of my imaginary life and inner workings were geared toward it. I know how to figure out what a scene is about, what it means to me, who the other people are to me and what I'm doing. And from there, you just live out the scenes. Sanford Meisner called it `living truthfully under imaginary circumstances.' "

It also became clear, as she talked, that passages in her own life with her mother and sister might also have given her ideas for Ruby. The Judds are rich and famous now, but it was not always so, and there might have been times when Ashley's mother, Naomi, might have felt a little like Ruby, trapped in a backwater with no life-support systems. And the children might have observed that.

She sure didn't grow up at the movies, Ashley said. "For the most part, we couldn't afford it. But I saw 'Jaws' and 'Big Wednesday' - that was a surfer movie. And 'Bambi.' " Few outside influences

You couldn't afford a television when you were growing up?

"Well, that was a choice that Mother made. I was born in Los Angeles, and we lived there until I was 6, at which point we moved back to Kentucky because Mom figured that we weren't growing up like Kentuckians by osmosis simply because she was from eastern Kentucky.

"So we lived on the river and we didn't have a television and then we lived in a small community on top of the mountains."

And you couldn't get a signal?

"I suppose that there are places like that, but of course, it's a very stereotypical image, a shack or a trailer with a great big dish. If you're ardent or strident enough about it, you can certainly get a signal. In the third grade, we didn't have one; in the fourth grade, we had one. I can go on cataloging the years in that manner, but mostly TV just wasn't a part of our upbringing.

"We had different things to do with our time and with our minds. I was always encouraged as a reader. I think that encourages good acting because automatically you have to believe something that's on a page and have an emotional connection with it. I was never one of the kids who had to pretend like I was still in the bathroom so I could finish a chapter."

She talked like a reader, in sentences and paragraphs, sensibly.

"A couple of times when I was growing up, it was a little painful because I wanted to be more like the kids who lived in subdivisions and I would have preferred my furniture to be from a department store rather than from my great, great grandmommy Burton. But that's what we had and that's what we were and mother was always proud and it sounds, I guess, like a little bit of a cliche, but we were really happy and we loved each other. Feelings for family

"It was hard sometimes, and we were hard on each other, but I had a dream the other night that I was making a movie. I had $400,000 and I was making it about my family and somebody kept pressing me, 'What is it about, what is it about?' and I finally said, 'It's about our inexhaustible capacity to forgive one another.' "

She smiled. "I thought that it was a pretty neat thing to say in a dream."

You have a very strong family feeling.

"It sounds so corny but, I believe in bettering myself and reading and loving my family and respecting people and working very hard. I would say that I've got a really good work ethic. My granddaddy ran a filling station, and my other grandfather founded an aluminum-siding business in 1947. I know how long the day is and where a nickel comes from."

Not, you must admit, the typical statement of young Hollywood star in the weeks after the sad happenings at the Viper Club.

So many of the dreams in the movies, I said, are not dreams anyone can really have happen to them. We're not going to become rock stars, or save the rain forest. This is a movie that seems to celebrate the kinds of bedrock values you're talking about. People trying to better themselves.

"You know," Victor Nunez said, "the young woman who actually managed the store we filmed in, that was her story. We went back to shoot a couple of little quick shots for the very ending of the film, and she told us that she was going back to school, getting her degree in nursing. She'd been running the store for 10 years, and it was time now for her to move on."

Ashley nodded. "We saw Ruby's story mirrored a lot in Panama City Beach. A lot of folks we came across, when they heard the story, whether they were the receptionist at the hotel or a clerk someplace, would say, `Yeah, I packed up my car in 1981 and came here from Ohio. This is my story.' "

"But kids my age, they want to learn about something and where do they go to learn about it? To the movies. They don't go out to real life. And so they don't learn anything. Someone once said about the new young filmmakers, 'I've seen where they've been. They haven't been to anyplace that's real. They haven't been to life. They've been to the movies.' "

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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