After an Oscar nod for her role in "Portrait of a Lady," could Barbara see life as anything but sweet?

Looking glam does not become Barbara Hershey most, so this year she lost the lush lips, wrinkled like a raisin, blackened her teeth, and with that transformation, earned Hollywood’s biggest traditional stamp of approval — an Oscar nomination for her stunning supporting turn as the scheming, parasitic Serena Merle in Jane Campion’s The Portrait of a Lady.

”She’s like a very successful Kato Kaelin,” says Hershey, now wrinkle-free, dentally hygienic, and decked out in blue jeans and pigtails at a Santa Monica cafe. ”She’s very contradictory, manipulating, and controlling, but at the same time she’s a victim. Jane and I decided that today she’d be the head of a studio.”

That’s typical of Hershey’s inventive and intense approach to her roles. She can bury herself in a part so completely, it’s not surprising that despite a 30-year career, the 49-year-old actress hasn’t quite fixed an image in the minds of moviegoers. For some, she’s the free spirit who briefly changed her surname to Seagull in the early ’70s to honor the spirit of a dead bird she believed lived within her (inquire about that, however, and you’ll be greeted with distaste and boredom). To others, she’s the mysteriously alluring movie star of the 1980 cult favorite The Stunt Man. Film buffs may know her from her turn in Martin Scorsese’s Boxcar Bertha, and from her Cannes prizewinning roles as a backwoods Cajun mother in 1987’s Shy People and as a South African political activist in 1988’s A World Apart. Twentysomethings — at least those few who saw last year’s The Pallbearer — may recall her as David Schwimmer’s modernized Mrs. Robinson, while their mothers will doubtless identify Hershey as the wind beneath Bette Midler’s wings in Beaches (1988), in which Hershey’s collagen-enhanced lips got more attention than her performance.

Ironically, it is Hershey’s turn as a bitter woman past her prime that is finally gaining the actress a place alongside peers like Meryl Streep and Susan Sarandon (who reportedly had to pass on the Merle role because of scheduling conflicts), at an age when the movie industry generally closes its doors to women. But even if those studio gates don’t open, Hershey has other ways to occupy her time. When not working on a film, she lives just outside Rome, where she is studying art, learning Italian, and waiting for a script that offers something more than ”roles for 15 men and 1 woman.” ”I’m in my own particular world,” she admits. ”It helps to be in a place where movies are not the main industry and the main thought on everybody’s mind….I also think life is a teacher — [being in Rome] is making me a better actor because my life is richer and I am experiencing more.” But Hershey doesn’t lack ambition; she won her Portrait role by lobbying Campion with a videotape of herself as Merle (”I wanted her to see a finished performance”) and notes, ”I fly back [to L.A.] at the slightest provocation.”

Hershey would rather play with her pigtails than divulge any dirt about either her six-year-long alliance with David Carradine (which produced a now-24-year-old son named Free, who these days prefers to go by Tom) or her one-year marriage to artist Stephen Douglas in 1992. But even if such reticence can render her a bit impenetrable, Hershey’s directors appreciate that her rich personal life is fodder for her performances. ”One of her greatest strengths is her ability to make a character sound real,” says Woody Allen, who directed Hershey in 1986’s Hannah and Her Sisters. ”She doesn’t overdo. She does a lot of work at home and puts a lot of private time into her character.”

“Barbara’s put in a lot of work and has not had great roles in the last few years,” comments Portrait‘s leading lady, Nicole Kidman. “It was exciting to see her get an opportunity and run with it.” How far she’ll get to run has yet to be determined; while her performance has won raves (as well as awards from the National Society of Film Critics and the L.A. Film Critics Association), Portrait‘s weak box office showing has done little to prove that she can be a commercial commodity. But Hershey, who hasn’t yet decided on her next project, isn’t ready to break a sweat. “I have an Italian agent, and I’d like to do a movie in Italian,” she says. As for Hollywood, her approach seems to be equal parts ambivalence and anxiety: “When you put your eggs in that kind of basket, it doesn’t always happen. I’m afraid to hope.”