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SONG OF HERSELF

SINGER-ACTRESS ANNIE ROSS

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She has the gravelly voice of a hipster who has smoked too many cigarettes and sung too many late-night clubs to closing. No wonder Robert Altman thought of Annie Ross when he decided to add a singer to the Raymond Carver characters in Short Cuts. And no wonder Ross, 63, is so effective as Tess, whose weary, sultry renderings of torch songs weave throughout the film. Ross, best known for her work in the 1950s with the jazz vocal trio Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross, is no screen neophyte. Acting since the age of 11, she has appeared in films ranging from Alfie Darling (1974) to Pump Up the Volume (1987). She brought Tess to life through a careful collaboration with the film’s music producer, Hal Willner. To establish the mood, Willner embarked on a ”song search” to break some new musical ground for Ross, because, as he points out, ”Annie has sung every standard there is.” Willner’s search yielded the film’s nine offbeat selections, written by Elvis Costello, U2’s The Edge and Bono, and Dr. John, among others. ”Willner and I were treading very warily when we first met,” says Ross, ”but then I understood what he wanted to do, and I said, ‘Fine, let’s do it.”’ The resulting soundtrack layers Short Cuts with haunting overtones and helps to define the character of Tess, a widow who tries to drink away her past in the jazz club she co-owns, the Low Note. ”When she sings ‘I Don’t Know You,’ she could be singing about herself,” says Ross. ”’To Hell With You’ is how she feels. And you sense her ironic streak in ‘Punishing Kiss.”’ Living in New York and London, Ross (the single mother of one son, Ken) says she feels very much at home in Tess’ life: ”A singer’s life on the road is a very solitary one. It’s not always a lot of laughs.” But she’s happy to point out how her life differs from her character’s. ”I don’t drink all day, or get up at noon,” she laughs. ”All Tess thinks about is her performance-she wants to be insulated from the world. Tess is totally concentrated on herself, and I’m not.”