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Rebecca De Mornay: Back with a vengeance

Rebecca De Mornay: Back with a vengeance — Her terrifying portrayal of an evil nanny in ”The Hand That Rocks the Cradle.” Jump starts a stalled career

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Rebecca De Mornay has been locked in a tiny, windowless recording studio for 10 1/2 hours with only a bowl of Cheetos, a quart bottle of tequila, and two engineers, trying to help her old friend Leonard Cohen get one of his new songs down on tape. Cohen, an attractively beaky man in a dark, gangster-style suit, is near-comatose at this point, but De Mornay is wired, one minute sitting in the corner biting her nails, or smoking a cigarette, or guzzling water, or singing unabashedly in Cohen’s deep, dirgey style, the next minute conferring with one of the engineers, then with Cohen. She’s a serious and beautiful blur of long, straight, strawberry-blond hair, porcelain skin, laser-beam blue eyes, killer cheekbones, black jacket, black trousers, black boots, and a shirt the color of blood.

The huge mixing board screws up for the umpteenth time, and the two young engineers leave the room in search of assistance. De Mornay, sitting there with her eyes suddenly sealed shut, her jaw an animated knot, seems poised to do what Peyton, her character in The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, might have done in this situation — that is, pick up the nearest blunt object, beat the furniture to sawdust and kindling, and bludgeon the unsuspecting engineers into a mess on the rug. But the next thing you know De Mornay’s in the recording booth, singing quietly with Cohen the melancholy tune he wrote and she coproduced, titled ”Ring the Bells.”

By 11 p.m. the cut is finally complete, but De Mornay is still spinning, unable to come down from a monumental day: Not only did the 29-year-old actress, who hasn’t had a hit since 1983’s Risky Business, find out this morning that her new movie was No. 1 at the box office (over the phone she could hear Disney Studios chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg screaming delightedly in the background), but Cohen unexpectedly invited her to coproduce today’s haunting tune and to help arrange background vocals on it.

They sit very close together now, the movie star and the poet, eyes closed, listening to their recording of the song De Mornay describes as ”beyond lonely”: ”Ring the bells that still can ring/Forget your perfect offering/There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in”

Here is the image that has sent American parents everywhere phoning home to check on their sitters, that has made a relatively inexpensive thriller with no household names the first hit of 1992: the brilliant and stony face of Rebecca De Mornay, all senses on fire, lying in wait for her prey. What’s startling about De Mornay’s performance as Peyton Flanders is how fully and completely this otherwise modest actress allows herself to become a woman who would do the unthinkable with such relish: set out to gain another woman’s trust and then systematically try to destroy her marriage, kill her, and steal her babies.

But this is what makes De Mornay the unusual actress she is, whether she’s playing the enterprising call girl in Risky Business, Geraldine Page’s sympathetic traveling companion in The Trip to Bountiful, or the self-protective wife in Backdraft: this quality of thereness, combined with an almost flawless beauty, a sexiness that seems meant for her pleasure alone, an unwavering and decidedly unsilly poise, and a talent for being whomever it is she wants to be in the moment with complete abandon.

”When you get stars doing bad things in movies, they always want to indicate to the audience that it’s not really them, or that their character was driven to do this,” says Cradle director Curtis Hanson (The Bedroom Window, Bad Influence). ”What I admire about Rebecca’s performance, though, is that she had the courage to go with it.” In fact, De Mornay needed little guidance for a demanding key scene in which Peyton goes into a bathroom stall and flips out, using a plunger to take a lifetime of rage out on the walls. & Hanson laughs, remembering his efforts to steer her.

”I started to say something to Rebecca about what she should do, and she stopped me and said, ‘Curtis, I’ve had tantrums. Let me show you.”’ Hanson says. ”So the cameraman and I went on top of the set, and I looked down and said, ‘Action,’ and Rebecca just literally erupted — it got wilder and wilder. The cameraman and I were both somewhat taken aback. Afterward, Rebecca just tilted her head back and gave me this little smile, like, ‘How do you like that?’ I wanted to go down and kiss her.”

”A movie is like a dream,” says De Mornay as she happily scarfs down a late-night cheeseburger at a favorite West Hollywood bistro, where she’s come with Cohen in tow. ”I heard Orson Welles say that many years ago. And all the key players have to be dreaming the same dream. If they’re not, everyone’s sort of at odds, and you can feel it in the film.” She pauses. ”In our case, the dream is a joint nightmare.” She laughs out loud.

Though De Mornay says that she’s very proud of how much fun The Hand That Rocks the Cradle is, she also acknowledges that she didn’t feel there was enough time spent on Peyton’s back story — on why she would marry a man who could sexually molest the women he treated in his ob-gyn practice; or on what Peyton might have felt about the fact that the woman she victimizes, Claire (Annabella Sciorra), had been molested by Peyton’s husband.

”The movie really did phenomenal business,” De Mornay says. ”Everybody’s spooked, everybody laughs, everybody screams. But for my money, I want to know more. Maybe I’m intellectual, I don’t know. But I want to know more when I see a movie.

”I mean, although Curtis had a great instinct for what the suspense elements were, I had to really fight with him to let me bring as much humanity to the part as I did. Peyton was a woman ravaged by the loss of her husband and her unborn child. She was operating out of an unconscious mechanism of rage, fear, and longing for what was taken from her. She was obviously the bad guy, but she wasn’t out to do what she did for vanity or materialism. She wanted a home, a baby, a husband. There was something very moving about that to me. I had to find the emotional connection points, to breathe humanity into what would otherwise be a two-dimensional character.”

Though she’s not particularly interested in talking about it, De Mornay, too, is well-acquainted with loss. She’ll tell you begrudgingly how her parents split up when she was 2 months old; how her mother remarried a man named De Mornay soon after, but he died when Rebecca was 5 and her brother was 2. How her mother — ”a progressive thinker” — then sent her to England so that the self-described ”chubby” little girl could attend the highly innovative school Summerhill, which De Mornay loved for experiences like watching her ancient sewing teacher sunbathing nude in the middle of a field, but which also brought its share of humiliations, like being teased for being too shy to undress in front of the other children.

She tells how her mother then took her out of that place and headed for India, but landed instead in the Austrian Alps, where De Mornay was enrolled in a German school at age 12. ”That was interesting,” she says. ”After about a year and a half of sitting there like a deaf-mute, I finally learned to speak German. And then I learned to write it, and then I learned Latin in German.” By the time she was 16, she had an agent who was selling her songs to German rock & roll musicians, and she had written the theme song for a kung fu movie called Goodbye Bruce Lee.

Bored with all this biography and starting to crash hard, De Mornay says, anyway, she’d rather people not know anything about her — not about her two-and-a-half-year live-in relationship with Risky Business costar Tom Cruise, her love affair with Harry Dean Stanton, or her recent, failed marriage to screenwriter and novelist Bruce Wagner (Force Majeure).

She’s not even sure, at this late hour, if she wants to talk about her career, which, after an eight-year-long nosedive from the giddy heights of Risky Business, has finally come back with a vengeance. When asked if she’s happy with her new success, De Mornay, her face suddenly lined by fatigue, says somewhat testily and unconvincingly, ”Of course I am. I’m thrilled. I’m walking on air.”

And when asked what it’s like, this kind of success, De Mornay shoots a look that says, ”Give me a break.” But she answers politely, ”I think it’s wonderful. But I don’t care. I mean, I do care, but I don’t.

”My mother thought I should be in movies,” she continues. ”She always thought I would be a very good actress. But I couldn’t stand what my mother said about anything — I was a teenager — so I didn’t believe her. I just saw it as something that she wanted to inflict on me along with her health food.”

”She was a remarkable woman,” says Cohen, who’s been quietly eating up everybody’s leftovers.

”The last time I spoke to my mother was five years ago, when I presented an Oscar at the Academy Awards ceremony,” recalls De Mornay. ”It was right before she died. You know, when they interview you on your way into the auditorium? I looked into the camera and said, ‘Is this live?,’ and they said, ‘Yes,’ and I said, ‘Hi, Mom!’ I heard she was awake and she saw that. Then she went into a coma.”

By now everyone at the table is sucking peacefully on toothpicks, and De Mornay, her arm draped over the back of her chair, is all smiles and small talk. Finally, it seems, after feasting on one of the biggest days of her life, she can relax back, fat and satisfied.

”Excuse me,” she says, while digging around in her mouth with her toothpick. She stops for a moment and smiles. ”Excuse me while I pick my teeth.”