Andie MacDowell: Sex, Truth and Film

Andie MacDowell has trouble picturing herself as a movie star--but after sex lies and videotape, she may have to.

It is a summer Thursday and God, apparently, is in a bad mood. The nimbus clouds have cracked open and savaged the East Coast with a downpour not even Gene Kelly would dance in. The denizens of Manhattan's West Side are sprinting wildly for shelter. The cabbies do what is traditional for them during storms and flick on their "off-duty" signs. The hucksters are making a minor fortune overcharging for black umbrellas.

Because of the shower, The Pumpkin Eater, a vegetarian restaurant on Broadway, is more crowded than usual for an afternoon. The customers, dripping and grouchy, sip coffee as they wait out the wrath of the heavens. Then Andie MacDowell walks in sans umbrella or raingear, and there doesn't seem to be a drop on her.

She has that chipper look that's so annoying to people who want their misery to have company. She is dryness personified. Her hair is neatly in place, unaffected by the wind. She is wearing a blue Minnie Mouse sweatshirt, bolstering the impression of insouciance.

As she makes small talk with the manager, who is the only other happy person in the cafe, she seems ethereal, free of worries. But she has problems too, she insists. And this interviewing thing is right smack at the top of the list. "I'm kinda nervous," she says, ignoring the man next to her, who is shaking himself off like a wet puppy. "I've never had to do many interviews until now. It's frightening, makes me sick to my stomach. I am scared I'm going to be a bad angle for somebody." She speaks in her hushed Southern drawl that is all sweetness. You can't take this misery seriously.

The reason Andie MacDowell is the center of the media's attention, the instigator of her angst, is a movie called sex, lies, and videotape, which was the darling of the Cannes Film Festival, the winner of the Palme d'Or. The movie is a first feature by a 26-year-old Southerner named Steven Soderbergh. He is a prodigy and Cannes loves prodigies, especially prodigy directors.

But in the case of videotape the relatively unknown actors also received their due. The film's star, James Spader, won the best actor award and MacDowell received outstanding notices. Spader plays a drifter named Graham, an impotent man who travels the country videotaping women's confessions about their sexuality. When he returns to his hometown he rocks the sexual foundation of the marriage between his old friend John (Peter Gallagher) and Ann (MacDowell).

"The film will be different things for different people," MacDowell says, tugging at her hair. Then almost breathlessly, "I am sure some women are going to be able to relate to the character I play, because I know people who've gone through many, many, many years of marriage without having had an orgasm. John views Ann as too special to have sex with. Many times men see the woman they marry as not the type of woman that'd do that 'thing'. So, they go somewhere else." MacDowell has a very clear notion of who Ann is: "She's kind, but also wimpy. She wants to please. She exists for her husband, does what he wants her to do. She's her mother's daughter, her husband's wife. She's afraid of sex, probably feels that it's dirty."

Andie MacDowell was born 31 years ago in a small South Carolina mill town named Gaffney. Her father worked in a lumberyard and her mother, who died a few years ago, was a music teacher, "the source of almost any artistic inspiration I had", MacDowell says. "It always seemed to me that she could do anything."

MacDowell never graduated from college. During her sophomore year at Winthrop College she convinced her father the wages she was receiving for her modeling stints would be multiplied several times over in Manhattan.

She was grabbed by Elite literally the day she walked through their doors and became one of the most sought-after models of the '80s--a woman with the non-conformist beauty and ease in front of the camera that earned her a spot on Harper's list of the world's ten most beautiful women.

Though MacDowell played major roles in Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan,_ Lord of the Apes_ and St. Elmo's Fire, her affection for the craft of acting was probably born with sex, lies, and videotape. When she talks about her other films (never mind the "really bad" Italian mini-series she did with Ben Kingsley) she is distinctly down-beat, albeit respectful.

Consider her experience with Greystoke. Here she was, a model without a single acting credit, called on to play the female lead in Hugh Hudson's first film since his Chariots of Fire won the Oscar. The script was written by Robert Towne--who, most will acknowledge, is the best Hollywood has to offer--and one of her co-stars was the great Sir Ralph Richardson. Insiders were already talking about a second best picture Oscar for a Hudson film and, who knew, maybe a few statues for the actors as well.

But, just as the film was about to go into the can Hudson decided MacDowell's Jane should speak with a British accent. He didn't ask her to dub the part. "Maybe he doesn't think I can do it," she said to herself. Then the knife went deeper. Hudson hired an American to dub the British accent. And not just any actress. He hired Glenn Close.

MacDowell doesn't seem interested in talking about Hudson, though she received a letter of congratulations from him for videotape. She says she can watch Greystoke without getting angry or hurt but, "Someday, I'll make a movie with a British accent. I have to get over this."

St. Elmo's Fire was, of course, a brat pack showcase: Rob Lowe, Demi Moore, Judd Nelson, and so on. With the exception of the cast's oldest member, Mare Winningham, MacDowell has not kept in touch. "It's difficult sometimes to become friends with actors," she says reluctantly. "All those kids were very young. I could tell they were uncomfortable even being friends with one another because they were competitive. They didn't really know how to deal with that."

St. Elmo's Fire was released in 1985 and that, until now, was where MacDowell's career seemed to end. Her four-year absence from the screen was a direct result of her marriage to musician Paul Qualley and of her children Justin (three) and Rainey (six months). "I was out of commission for a while. You've got to take that into account," she says without apology. "I didn't want to sacrifice my life to become famous."

She may not have a choice now. About the famous part, that is. It's difficult to recall any independent film (videotape cost pennies over $1 million) generating so much excitement. She laughs, really laughs, at the prospect of being famous, a star, a sex symbol, an icon. "This one friend of mine came by today and said, 'Oh, it's great that your film is doing so wonderfully and that it's getting such good reviews. But I just cannot picture you as a movie star.'"

She nudges her head forward. "You know what may be the oddest thing about being a star? Stars have an affect on people," she says. "It's a responsibility and it's frightening. I know films affected me. During my teen years I was real emotional. I could be really up or down. I'd go to a movie and it could just really change my life. I could be totally inspired or taken by a character and made to feel that everything's alright."

She lets the herbal tea roll down her throat. "I guess if my character has that type of effect on people watching the film, then I've achieved something," she smiles. "What I like about sex, lies, and videotape is that I don't play a beautiful woman. I'm not ugly, but I'm not a model either. I'm just a real person like everybody here. I guess bringing that off is an achievement."


Rod Lurie is an L.A.-based writer on film.