Calista Flockhart scrutinized on and off screen -- The 'Ally McBeal' actress isn't worried about the attention

It may not seem obvious on the surface, but it is without a doubt true that the anger, the annoyance, the sheer outpouring of spleen that has been directed this year toward Calista (Greek for ”Most Beautiful”) Flockhart and her on-screen alter ego Ally McBeal is in fact a testimony to the actress’ great attractiveness and the deep appeal of her character. After all, nothing exasperates us quite as much as the people and things we love. And the more we root for, feel tenderly toward, or identify with the winsome, vulnerable title character of Fox’s two-season-old hit, the more galling we find her inappropriately abbreviated skirts, her quivering, gaunt demeanor.

As if that weren’t enough, we then feel free to take issue with what we think this creation of a man — exec producer David E. Kelley — represents. TIME held Ally McBeal as the symbol of young, modern, sexually liberated women who seem to want to distance themselves from feminism, and as the sad end product of the struggles of Susan B. Anthony and Gloria Steinem. A few months later, it was the real Flockhart who was under the microscope, or at least her too-prominent clavicle and scapula were, as the nation eagerly digressed from matters Lewinsky to debate the possibility of Flockhart’s eating disorder and if she was presenting a poor role model for young women. These top-of-the-news discussions required a cover story denial from Flockhart, after which the great media beast turned its attention elsewhere.

It’s the province of certain real-seeming shows to twist us up this way; think of thirtysomething, and how everything about it was so appealingly real until it thudded into an iceberg of ”Who Would Do That?” But Kelley’s conceit, for all its quirky verisimilitude, is as much a fantasy as the Bionic Woman; picking at the absurd unbelievability of things like the law firm’s unisex bathroom or nightly socializing is as logical as pooh-poohing the biotechnical underpinnings of Jaime Sommers’ amazing powers. It misses the point: Ally McBeal is a Rorschach test, and what’s being tested is the viewer’s ideas of sex, power, and young womanhood; the question ought not to be ”Why does she act that way?” but, more profitably, ”Why do I?”

And Flockhart, 34, is the perfect actress to provoke this sort of inquiry. Like an island limned with bays and inlets and bordered with broad beaches, her wide, undisguising eyes and sensual, tremulous mouth offer visitors easy points of access to the character’s lively inner life. It must be hard playing a character so purposely unformed — though perhaps not harder than being scrutinized both for what you do and what your character does. Flockhart just tries to focus on the positives. ”I feel very fortunate — I get to come to work every day and act, and in a good part that has controversies and complexities. I don’t worry about people liking Ally. The fact that some people like her and some don’t gives me a lot of freedom as an actress to do what I want. It’s a big playing field, and it’s nice to know there are no rules.”

No rules? What an enviable position! Of course, it’s the reality of rules, and watching Ally figure out which ones to bend, or break, or make, that keeps us tuning in.

Ally McBeal
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