August 26, 1994 at 04:00 AM EDT

They were merely human, or just a writer’s fancy, but when we hear their names-Ty Cobb and Jesse James, Einstein and Frankenstein, Jean-Luc Picard and Dorothy Parker-we can’t help imagining lives larger than our own. Legends we call them, and this fall’s movies echo their feats and horrors, real, imagined-and reimagined. We’ll contemplate health with the crackpot cereal king Kellogg and death with the seductive undead Lestat. We’ll try the gauzy goldfish bowl of Paris fashion and the iron bonds of friendship between two convicts. A contract killer will live by the Bible. A scion of learning will be disgraced. There will be visits to modern Miami and bygone New England and 24th-century parts unknown, the cross-dressing camp of a ’50s B-movie master, and the tall tales of childhood dreams. Even the names on the marquee will be legendary (though some are more newly minted than others). Hepburn. Newman. Beatty. De Niro. Streep. Foster. Cruise. And one day you may look back on a newcomer’s performance in this mythmaking season and say, ”I remember when….”

The River Wild

Starring Meryl Streep, Kevin Bacon, David Strathairn. Directed by Curtis Hanson.

Even though both he and Meryl Streep came shiveringly close to a watery death on camera, Kevin Bacon calls The River Wild ”much more of a thriller than an action movie.” He’s thinking of the film’s tense human triangle: Streep as a rock-muscled river rafter, Strathairn as her somewhat estranged husband, and Bacon as a perilously attractive bad boy rocking their boat. ”Most people think of her as cerebral, tasteful, intellectual,” says director Hanson of his Oscar-winning star. ”The degree to which she plunged into (her role) was amazing. She just got deeper and deeper into it.” Deeper than she’d planned: When Hanson discovered that a wave on Montana’s spectacular Kootenai River had knocked a camera out of position late one day, he asked Streep to go out and do the scene just one more time. ”She hit a hole in the river, it sucked the raft in, the oar caught, and Meryl was just ejected,” says Arlene Burns, her rafting tutor. ”She took a quarter-mile swim in freezing white water.” Fished out by a kayak rescuer, she had bruises to go with her blistered, duct-taped hands. ”She was mad at me, but she got over it,” says Hanson.

In fact, Streep defended Hanson when Universal started fretting about the progress of what may be the most ambitious river movie ever made; the director was noted for the indoor suspense of The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, not for marshaling a filmmaking army in the Montana wilderness. Streep’s loyalty kept the moneymen at bay (an ex-Universal employee puts the studio’s gamble at $45 million) and won Hanson the right to keep shooting rafting scenes well into November, when the temperature dropped to 29 degrees. There were some major dues for the crew to pay. Scenes routinely required 25 takes, and actors had to hop onto helicopters as many times a day to get back to each scene’s starting point on the river.

The toughest of the bunch, by common consent, was Streep. ”I was astounded by her fitness, and her exponential daily improvement,” says Burns. The last day of shooting, she rowed 24 miles on tough class four rapids. ”This character is closer to the real Meryl than anything she’s done,” says Hanson. Her quintessential trait, according to the director: ”Ballsy courage.” (Sept. 30) *What’s At Stake: At 45, Streep is approaching the age when even the most revered actress faces a shortage of substantial roles. Not only could her career use a smash hit — which The River Wild could be-but her bold new role could make her big in foreign markets, where action speaks louder than words.

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