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What is it about Andie MacDowell?

What is it about Andie MacDowell? — Why the star of ”Green Card” may be the next big thing

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Upstairs at New York’s tony 21 Club, the scene resembles the reception after a Hollywood power wedding. Isabella Rossellini, Joan Didion, and John Gregory Dunne mill around the reception line while Warren Beatty, imperially slim, quietly holds court on the staircase. Disney studio chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg, the party’s host, jovially works the room, proud as a father of the bride. The champagne flows copiously, and the woman of the moment inspires appropriate awed whispers: ”Isn’t she beau-u-utiful? Oh, she glows!” The resplendent one is Andie MacDowell, the model-turned-actress who is now turning star; the disheveled giant at her side is Gérard Depardieu, the beefy Sun King of French cinema.

But they are not a couple in fact, only in cinematic fantasy. In Peter Weir’s new movie, Green Card — whose Dec. 1 celebrity screening is the occasion for this party — the characters played by Depardieu and MacDowell enter a sham marriage so he can avoid deportation to France and she can get a posh Gotham apartment in a co-op whose board frowns on singles. Disney is looking to their unlikely romance to attract the same moviegoers who made the studio’s Pretty Woman one of 1990’s biggest hits.

Though their marriage is make-believe, the bash is charged with the same mix of giddy anticipation and firmly suppressed fear that energizes the most memorable weddings. Both actors have plenty to celebrate, but could be forgiven a few jitters as well. Depardieu is making his debut in American films. And after her superb turn as the romantically reawakened housewife in 1989’s sex, lies, and videotape, MacDowell is hoping Green Card, Weir’s follow-up to Dead Poets Society, will serve as her passport to the big time.

Swirling through the crowded room, she is stunning tonight, smiling expertly and fielding compliments like a seasoned pro. MacDowell’s movie career got an awkward start in 1984 when her lines in Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes were overdubbed by Glenn Close (director Hugh Hudson decided MacDowell’s Southern accent was too ripe for the character, a Baltimore belle). Now she betrays the merest hint of her origins in tiny Gaffney, S.C., as she indefatigably murmurs, ”Why, thank you” in gracious broadcast English.

Over a lunch of Caesar salad and decaf cappucino in a restaurant near Central Park two weeks later, MacDowell, 32, is a bit tense. The crush of interviews and photo shoots to promote Green Card has left her a bit worn and more than a little nervous about how the picture will be received. What’s worse, she’s uneasy about her son Justin, 4, and daughter Rainey, 20 months, suffering from earaches in the upstate New York home she shares with husband Paul Qualley, a model. When I mention I’ve seen Green Card at a sneak preview for ordinary moviegoers (as distinguished from the rich and famous who were invited to the screening), her brow furrows and she presses for details. ”How did they react?” she asks, stirring her decaf.

MacDowell can probably begin to relax now. Green Card did terrific business in two theaters in New York and Los Angeles before opening nationwide on Jan. 11. And though at least one major critic, New York‘s David Denby, concluded that her sex, lies triumph ”may have been a fluke,” other critics were swept away. While MacDowell picks at her salad, an effusive fan rushes up to the table to deliver her review in person: ”Loved you in Green Card!” she gushes.”

That’s very sweet,” MacDowell responds with a smile, but it’s clear that her heightened recognizability unnerves her. While shopping the other day, she says, ”People were staring at me and asking for autographs. I wasn’t trying to be grand or anything, it’s just that I’m not used to it and it makes me very uncomfortable.” She’s cozy with cameras on a set, but not with the anarchic flashbulb barrages of paparazzi. ”I’m not accustomed to people yelling my name — it’s frightening. I need a course in Paparazzi 101.”

Before 1991 is over, she may have an advanced degree. Green Card is only the first of three MacDowell movies due this year. In mid-February she costars with John Malkovich in The Object of Beauty, a moody film about bickering yuppies stone broke in a London hotel. Coming up this summer is her first potential action blockbuster, the Bruce Willis vehicle Hudson Hawk. Willis plays a reformed cat burglar forced to commit crimes involving the works of Leonardo da Vinci; MacDowell is a femme fatale dispatched by the Vatican — a kind of nundercover agent. ”I play a nun,” she explains, ”but a hip nun — she does get to kiss the guy, which most nuns don’t.” The larky, improvisation-prone production was a welcome respite. For once, she says, ”I didn’t have to feel pain, or be complex or complicated in any way.” She didn’t even mind one death-defying escape scene, in which she clutched Willis as he clung to a rickety Leonardo-style glider. ”We were 200 feet up,” she says. ”If the glider had tipped, it would’ve been quite a drop.”

Giddy heights are nothing new to MacDowell. After leaving small-town life behind in the late ’70s, she scaled the summits of the Manhattan modeling scene, spending the ’80s shooting magazine covers, a series of TV ads for Calvin Klein jeans that she helped write-remember those slightly naughty stories told by a saucy Southern girl? — and a L’Oreal campaign that earned her approximately $6,000 per hour (”It was a 9-to-5 job, intense, but pleasant”). It was certainly more pleasant than her work at McDonald’s back in Carolina. Maybe that’s why she looked so beatific.

MacDowell’s early forays into film were less auspicious. After the Greystoke debacle, she says, ”I was in a big state of shock for a while.” She took an insubstantial part as Emilio Estevez’s beloved in 1985’s St. Elmo’s Fire, and one magazine writer concluded, ”Unlike many of her model-turned-actress colleagues, MacDowell has no delusions of dethroning Streep.” But she was determined to work and in 1988 persuaded a nobody named Steven Soderbergh to audition her for his bare-budget sex, lies, and videotape. ”Shit,” he confided in a diary he kept during the production, ”at least she wants to do it. Elizabeth McGovern’s agent hated the script so much she wouldn’t show it to Elizabeth.”

MacDowell’s startling performance led The New York Times to pronounce it ”incomprehensible” that she didn’t earn an Oscar nomination. When the movie took top honors at the Cannes Film Festival, she was runner-up for Best Actress. The winner was Meryl Streep. As our lunch winds down, MacDowell’s publicist arrives with the star’s horrendous afternoon schedule. ”Can you get me a cellular phone?” MacDowell asks. For a moment she sounds like a star demanding perks mortals only dream of, but it turns out she just wants to be able to keep tabs on her family. Hustling off, she invites me to her new hometown up the Hudson River after the holidays.

Ten days later we reconvene at MacDowell’s favorite health-food restaurant on a street graced with old stone buildings and a vista of waterfalls frozen to cliffs jutting from the Hudson. MacDowell hangs up her cape and sits down to chat. The cape looks familiar, and she explains it’s the one she wears in Green Card.

”I really don’t look like a model, though I can be made to look it in photographs,” MacDowell says, settling down to herbal tea and a muffin. ”I look — not particularly ugly, I don’t guess — but just normal, like a housewife.” Funky believability was what both she and director Weir had in mind for her Green Card character, a quiet horticulturalist. ”I wanted to look like an earth person,” she says. ”They didn’t want me to look like a model. I was overweight, and Peter told me not to lose any.”

MacDowell is peeved that some people assume she can only play characters very like herself. ”I’ve never really played myself,” she says. ”A lot of people keep thinking sex, lies was me — I feel obliged to tell them I don’t have that character’s sexual problem. I’m a very strong person — dominating — and I’ve played very weak women. There’s a wild side of me that I keep under control. A couple times a year I release this wildness: I dance on tables, and all sorts of stuff like that; if I’ve got a pretty pair of underwear, I’ll show ’em.”

MacDowell has already shown a gift for a subtler style of performance. ”She has a sense of mystery that is rare among modern women,” says Weir. While filming sex, lies, Soderbergh wrote in his diary, ”There’s a fine line that Andie had to walk between playing someone who is not very self-aware and someone who is outright stupid. Andie nailed it on every take.” Her art is that of the minimal gesture — in the Soderbergh movie, she conveyed James Spader’s hypnotic effect on her by spilling her tea just a bit, and later by running her finger around a wineglass with unconscious erotic grace. In Green Card, she came up with a similar bit involving a fake love letter to Depardieu: Brushing her lips with it, she shows she’s just realized its sentiments are sincere. ”I love anything like that,” she says,”those tiny little things that say so much. Rather than doin’ this” — she grabs my wrist in a stagey way — ”I’d rather do that.” The grab turns to a caress. Andie MacDowell has the touch.

MacDowell’s acting may be more instinctual than technical, but she knows how to draw on her own upbringing to create characters of convincing depth. Whereas Streep went to the Yale School of Drama, MacDowell got suspended from Winthrop College ”because I did so poorly — I had way too much energy to sit down and read a book.” Yet her family had force-fed her lessons in appearance and reality better than Pirandello ever could. ”It was very helpful, because my job is very chaotic, and I always lived in chaos.”

MacDowell and her three sisters watched their divorced mother drink herself to death; their remarried dad ran a more rigid household in North Carolina. His well-to-do milieu reminds her of that of Brontë, her sober-minded character in Green Card. ”I came from that kind of family: At his house it was very structured, they had dinner right at six, and they’d tell you when to come in at night. But things got screwed up. Divorce was such a scandal in a small town in the South back then — people were always in your business, always punishin’ you. It was real hard for my mother to get well, because alcoholism at the time was a really scandalous thing. She lost her job playing organ at the church, and then she lost her job at McDonald’s. It was really bad, ’cause it was her last job. We could’ve checked her into a mental institution by force, but that was too frightening for us.”

Instead, all five women learned to mother each other, producing luxuriant blooms of Dixie eccentricity for Andie the actor to harvest. Her sex, lies character has elements of Andie, the family hellion, and big sister Beverly, who yearned for order. In Green Card, Brontë’s habit of rolling her eyes when Depardieu mortifies her is heisted from Andie’s 16-year-old niece.

Her mother managed to quit drinking in the last year of her life, ”which was a huge triumph,” says MacDowell, ”because she’d drunk ever since I was born. She was only 53 when she died.” MacDowell’s comeback after the Greystoke disaster may owe something to her mom’s legacy of grit.

Though she doesn’t do nude scenes (the backside revealed in Object of Beauty is that of a 19-year-old stand-in), emotional nakedness is MacDowell’s special strength. She shines in a close-up, emotions playing across her face like breezes on a pond. Some of her feelings, carefully selected, animate Green Card. It was shot mostly in sequence, and her first meeting with Depardieu looks genuinely awkward because ”I was scared to death of him.” Their tearful farewell is convincing in part because the two actors had become fond friends.

Can MacDowell convince studios that she’s a versatile star they can bank on, and not a one-hit wonder? Her three disparate pictures in the next six months could decide that.

As we stroll down the street to her car, MacDowell sings the praises of her river town, which has only one stoplight and no paparazzi. ”Up here, people just know me as Justin’s mother,” she says. Moments later, a citizen accosts her. ”You’re Andie MacDowell!” he says.

MacDowell blushes, much as she did in sex, lies, and videotape when the therapist asked a probing sexual question. Then she mumbles a confession, slips into her station wagon, and drives off to get the kids. She may or may not make it to Meryl Streep’s league, but one thing is certain: She’s not just Justin’s mother anymore.