The Flint Beneath the Shimmer

After a classically inauspicious beginning, Andie MacDowell has run a long gauntlet toward Hollywood success and respect. With one starring role in the touted Multiplicity and another opposite John Travolta due later this year, she just might be about to really catch fire.

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As Andie MacDowell strides toward me through one of the snazziest restaurants in Austin, Texas, my first thought is: This woman's best work is dead ahead. OK, laugh. For years it's been hip to dis or devalue MacDowell, I know that. It started back in 1984, when she twirled off the fashion runways of Rome and Paris into a plum lead in Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, only to have her South Carolina drawl expunged and replaced with Glenn Close's faux British drawing room tones. A mortifying blow, Hollywood and the media that follow it wrote MacDowell off as a ventriloquist's dummy, albeit one with a Modigliani-esque face, abundant charm and one fabulous head of hair. For the next four years, The Model Who Had to Be Dubbed snagged only lucrative TV commercials, an Italian miniseries and a role in the Brat Pack soap opera, St. Elmo's Fire. Critic John Simon labeled her "that horse-faced pseudosultry jeans model... who cannot act and cannot even read lines."

Then, all of a sudden, MacDowell showed up in the small, brilliant, out-of-the-blue sex, lies, and videotape. As the sexually bottled-up married woman who falls for her husband's weird friend, she turned in a sly, triumphant performance that would have cinched stardom for nearly anyone else. She placed a close second behind Meryl Streep as Best Actress at Cannes and The New York Times called it "incomprehensible" when she failed to win an Oscar nomination. But the Hollywood establishment, still sniggering over Greystoke and her modeling past, showed her only a grudging respect, falling over them-selves to predict stardom instead for her costar Laura San Giacomo, Since then, MacDowell has nibbled around the edges of major stardom, being all too easy to underestimate in hits (Groundhog Day), almost hits (Given Card), out-right flops (Hudson Hawk, Bad Girls) and ambitious off-the-menu items (The Object of Beauty, Short Cuts, Unstrung Heroes). Even in a box-office and critical grand slam, Four Weddings and a Funeral, critics overlooked her gracious playing to genuflect instead at the altar of Hugh Grant's formidable charm.

While MacDowell's perseverance may remain an enigma to some, to an ever-growing group of others she is that close to becoming the real thing. It's been a long haul, but mainstream Hollywood finally appears to be catching on to what filmmakers like Peter Weir (who praised her for having "a sense of mystery that is rare among modern women") figured out years ago: Andie MacDowell makes what she does look lots easier than it is. About to be seen opposite Michael Keaton in Multiplicity, a farcical fable riding into theaters on a promising buzz, MacDowell is pronounced by that film's director, Harold Ramis, "a traditional movie star, in the sense that she plays herself extremely well." And she's already at work here in Texas on another highly touted picture, Nora Ephron's comedic Michael, in which she stars with John Travolta.

So, that's why, when MacDowell shows up looking feral, sleek and absolutely present in a black leather jacket and matching slacks, I know there's flint to be struck beneath this woman's shimmer.

As soon as MacDowell sits down across from me, it's clear that movies have largely missed out on her sparkly energy, bristling wit and up-tempo smarts. At 37, married for 10 years to former model and major babe Paul Qualley and a mother of three ridiculously gorgeous children, with whom she shares a 3,000-acre Montana ranch, she looks supremely comfortable in her translucent skin.

All well and good. But can this nervy, sexy energy translate into playfulness? I decide to find out by mentioning that Marisa Tomei once merrily told me how she had turned down Four Weddings and a Funeral.

MacDowell responds to this bit of information in butter-wouldn't- melt-in -her-mouth tones, brow slightly arched. "They saw a lot of other people for the role," she tells me. "I was quite impressed that I was the one who was, in fact, doing the movie. Not only did Marisa Tomei lose out as an artist for not taking the opportunity to work with wonderful people on this amazing movie, she lost a lot of money."

MacDowell delivers this last pronouncement with such unalloyed, lady-like glee that we both crack up. ''And the money just keeps coming." she adds, grinning. "See, I didn't get money for it up front, but I had points. I had a huge mortgage and I didn't plan the last baby, but Four Weddings and a Funeral paid for me to sit back and take a year off, pay my mortgage, have plenty of money and even invest some, too."

Take that, Marisa!

Now, can MacDowell be as candid about her own career missteps as she is about her good fortune? I've always wondered, for instance, what kept her going after Greystoke, a debacle that would have sent other models running for cover to the comforts of prescription drugs and more Vogue covers. How did she gut through one of the more career-crippling blows in screen history? "When I heard the news, I was in my hotel room alone," she recalls, after a moment's hesitation. "At the time of Greystoke, I was not even in a good relationship, so I had no one to share it with. I didn't deceive myself for one minute about what the media was going to do with it or what people in the business were going to think. I said to myself, 'Either I jump out that window out of humiliation and embarrassment or I fight.' The choice was there: die or fight. It was set up so perfectly for people to think that I had no capabilities whatsoever. So, I decided to go to class, to evolve. Until sex, lies, and videotape, I was untouchable. My manager was fighting for me with people who would not even see me. It certainly hasn't been easy, but I'm proud of my achievements."

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