Rebecca DeMornay: My Lunch With Rebecca

The rather reclusive beauty Rebecca DeMornay converses about Hollywood style downhill racing, pretend breast-feeding, and then unseen talent of Tom Cruise.

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I can see Rebecca DeMornay as Joan of Arc, a role she would love to play. I can imagine her with the armor up to her neck, her squiggle of a mouth poised on a prayer, her eyes filled with a martyr's rapture. Of course, in the carmelizing, concept-crunching game of film production, Rebecca's Joan might be envisioned as a zealous blonde coquette with lily-livered Charles VII weeping into her bosom, asking her, "When do I get my egg back?" That brave, defiant Joan would cry out, "I want to be burned at the stake--in the nude!" What I have in mind, however, is a more self-communing Jeanne d'Arc, the Joan whose loneliness was, after all, so acute she needed not only voices from above but the entire army of France to keep her company.

Like Saint Joan, Rebecca DeMornay has done her best work on the march. When she rode the el with Tom Cruise in Risky Business as the token call girl in a schoolboy fantasy, she shed not only her clothes, but the kindhearted hooker stereotype as well--she was smart, nomadic, manipulative and brooding. Straw-hatted and bound up in longing for her conscripted husband, she took a bus ride with Geraldine Page in The Trip to Bountiful and it turned out to be her most convincing journey. It was trains again, hurtling across lonesome Alaska with Jon Voight and Eric Roberts, as she played a sooty-faced railroad mechanic in a jumpsuit in Runaway Train, and she held her own with an ex-champ and a scenery-chewer. In a B-52 with a bellyful of nuclear warheads and Powers Boothe headed for the Soviet Union (By Dawn's Early Light), she sparkled. As long as Rebecca's on some kind of lonesome road, she's able to get her footing. The blonde hair and cinematic body may be the obvious commodities, but in the commerce of anxieties actors trade in for profit, the commodity here is loneliness.

The Chariot, Rebecca's coffee shop of choice, is a genuine, one bustray dive crammed in the slip of fringe businesses under the aging skirt of the Mutual of Omaha building. I became suspicious of the place when I called to ask for directions and received them in broken English with sizzling sounds really close in the background. Still, when I get there I'm counting on seeing the Oliver Peoples and Harley crowd who follow the frontier chefs from one image-correct hideaway to the next. Instead, the place is almost empty. A guy reading the paper sits alone in one booth. Another guy in an oily suit is laying down the law to a timid-looking couple near the window. At the counter, a few cable TV installers are hunched protectively over their plates; an umbra of discolored paint fans out over the wall above the grill.

All this I take in during a brief surveillance, because Rebecca has chosen the first booth in the place, directly in line with the door. Facing me, her presence hits me like a wet kiss, or the zoom of an over-anxious cinematographer. I've never really considered her appearance remarkable, so the bracing quality of her looks has me reduced to you-look-so-much-better-in-person platitudes. The eyes especially. The geometry of film must do something to weaken them into the triangular shape I remember. Here, liberated and splashed with their real-life-award-ribbon blue, they're large and stirring as they follow me into my seat as though I might be a stringless balloon about to land on a thistle.

"Does it bother you that that thing isn't turning?" Rebecca is pointing at the sprocket on the tape recorder. Most actors become uncomfortable when they see the thing on, not off. Here is one who not only wants it on, but by her body English, at once elegant, tensed, and offhanded, is internally gearing up for something imminent and unsettling. I manage both to press the button of the tape recorder and order from a menu that's been aged to the wrinkled flimsiness of a cleaning woman's bus schedule.

"Some of the chances I took as an actress paid off and some didn't," Rebecca starts out, her voice a mixture of grade school teacher with a head cold and therapist with a secretive and very dangerous hobby. "You know, I noticed this magazine, Movieline, has this kind of attitude about actors and their careers--they seem to take an uncharitable standpoint towards actors." I feel an immediate electrical charge run through the rusting mechanism of my conscience. It's true, this magazine does forego the benevolent pass/fail system in its assessment of film principals. Then again, look what pass/fail did to the public school system.

"And I think it's really sad," Rebecca continues, "because it's really missing the point. An actor is making choices and taking risks that are very personal as his own art and his own arc and his own body of work of the things that he or she explores. You're trying to push the boundaries of yourself, trying to understand more and more of human nature. The thing about those so-called mistakes that you make, sometimes that's where you learn the very most. You don't learn nearly as much from your successes as you do from your mistakes. This is what should charitably be taken into account. Plus the fact that so-called mistakes or failures are sometimes 5 to 10 to 50 years later called masterpieces."

While it might've been gloriously fulfilling for Orson Welles to go to his grave with a glass of wine and a couple of slices of banana cream pie, knowing that after almost a half a century he had been vindicated with Citizen Kane, the smart money says Rebecca will have 200 candles to blow out before Feds makes the rounds in the repertory houses. I hope Rebecca's understanding of human nature evolved as a result of making this film, because mine didn't from seeing it. As a theoretically roisterous, got-the-world-by-the-short-hairs young woman, she came across with about as much verve as John Poindexter under cross-examination. She showed even less (while baring much more) in Roger Vadim's brain-dead And God Created Woman. By her own admission, "It was not a good movie. The character I played, it's funny because I've gotten more fan mail from women about Robin than any other film. She was very beautiful, feminine, but distorted by the director's perception of sexuality."

Still, the word "uncharitable" bleats through my brain as if it were spelled out in mustard across my cheeseburger. Even the most educational and benign criticism of my work puts me in a funk rivaling Macbeth's, and those impositions take place in private. But before my sympathy can fully take shape, Rebecca has me skiing in the Alps.

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