Ms Tough

Film still for Ms Tough

Why do women (and Woody Allen) identify so strongly with Celebrity star Judy Davis? Is it because she's attractive, intelligent and difficult, or do they just like watching the way she loses her temper, asks Leslie Felperin

One of the best-known 'little-known' facts about actress Judy Davis is that she played Juliet to Mel Gibson's Romeo when they were both at the Australian National Institute of Dramatic Art (from which she graduated in 1977). Gibson is easy to picture as an impetuous Romeo, doing a determined eye-flashing job in the swordplay sequences, but a more unlikely bit of casting than Davis as Juliet is hard to imagine - she's beautiful enough, true, but too wilful and aware to play such an innocent. She looks longingly at Sam Neill, as required, playing the stroppy Sybylla in Gillian Armstrong's My Brilliant Career (1979) - the film in which the rest of the world first saw her - but there was little of the ingénue about her even then.

Woody Allen, long regarded as the movie actor's ultimate prestige gig, is the director Davis has worked with most. Allen is famous for not over-rehearsing his actors, for letting them improvise within limits - a freedom Davis, a consummate ensemble player, never abuses. The roles he gives her are typically Allenesque, but they play to her strengths, a dynamic that swings from fragile neurosis to formidable aggression.

In Allen's latest film Celebrity she plays wary neurotic Robin Simon, whose slimy journalist husband Lee (Kenneth Branagh) has chucked her for her best friend. Few actresses would let themselves be filmed as unflatteringly as Davis does in the opening scenes. We meet Robin at a retreat trying to recover from the break up, muttering that she doesn't know what she's doing there, a scarecrow assembly of resentment, clenched arms and frazzled hair. Later, half-thinking about a facelift, she visits a plastic surgeon and sits patiently as he brutally draws attention to her physical flaws - her small eyes, her thin upper lip. She meekly accepts his criticisms, but in almost the next scene she blasts off her mousy facade in a fit of rage: on a first date with film producer Tony Gardella (Joe Mantegna) she gets drunk to hide her nerves and runs into Lee with his second new girlfriend Bonnie (Famke Janssen) at a film screening. The by-now inebriated Robin hurls abuse at her ex-husband from several rows away in the cinema, her voice quavering at first, but rising in a shrill crescendo as she denounces the "harlot" he's with and conjectures that he acquired her by dialling "1-888-Pussy".

Considering how much flack Allen has taken for his treatment of women on and off screen, he seems to be seeking some kind of fantasy reparation through casting such a tough customer as Davis. In Husbands and Wives (1992) Davis' character Sally's desertion by Sydney Pollack's Jack is assuaged by having Liam Neeson's Michael fall in love with her - only for her then to throw him over for a repentant Jack. A similar victory is at hand for Robin in Celebrity: her star rises as Lee's falls. She remakes herself as a reporter with a sleek blonde bob, in one scene nervously fiddling with her earpiece while interviewing Donald Trump for her show Luncheon at Le Bijou (in a textbook case of playing someone who is herself acting, Davis apes the purring tones and vapid poise of professional presenters). And she ends up with celebrity entrée and perfect husband Gardella on her arm.

The creative partnership between Allen and Davis has involved a certain transference. Davis' skill as a comedienne and empathetic presence buoy up Allen's movies, her subtle admixture of wit, failure and frayed nerves clutching our sympathy tight, but her characters have taken on the sexual inadequacy that was once a trademark of Allen's own persona. It may be Branagh who's doing the Woody impersonation throughout Celebrity, but while he's dating the likes of Famke Janssen it's a shy Davis who seeks advice from Bebe Neuwirth's prostitute about how to avoid gagging while giving head, miming so violently on a banana Neuwirth asks if she's ever hurt her boyfriend while doing it. This trend goes back at least as far as Husbands and Wives, in which Sally makes a frozen pantomime of passion as Michael makes love to her. Explaining in voiceover how she couldn't stop thinking about how the world could be divided into foxes and hedgehogs and wondering which of her friends was which, her clipped New England vowels and conversational tone are at odds with the panting images.

Even in films not directed by Allen, Davis has made sexual frustration part of her comedy schtick - and the less satisfying the sex, the more loquacious her characters become. In the ludicrous farce Impromptu (1991), for instance, based on the novelist Georges Sand's relationship with Frederic Chopin, Davis' snide and desperately insecure Sand has never had an orgasm. Besotted with Hugh Grant's tubercular and closeted Chopin, she assuages her frustration through feverish sessions at her writing table, scratching intensely with her quill, her hand clutching the top of her head as if to hold it all in.

It's a tribute to Davis' persona as a thinking person's erotic ideal that she has so often been cast as a writer. As well as Sand in Impromptu she's played a brittle and emotional Lillian Hellman in the television movie Dash and Lilly (1999), a character based partly on Jane Bowles (and partly on the wife William Burroughs murdered) in David Cronenberg's The Naked Lunch (1992), and, of course, Miles Franklin's autobiographical surrogate Sybylla Melvyn in My Brilliant Career. "I get really jealous of writers," she tells me, "because they can go into that world and be so self-sufficient and creative. I've tried, but with very little success."

Davis is as formidable and prickly in the flesh as she is on screen. Early on in our interview I ask her what she meant when she once described herself as playing "characterless characters" and she is dismissive: "You know some of those quotes come from quite long ago. Half the time they're not even what I said, because you'd know more than me how often these things get fiddled with." She seems to enjoy making me wait for her replies to certain questions. When I ask her which has been her happiest film-making experience, she says "That's a difficult question..." and hems and haws in a faux-bemused fashion, tilting her delicate neck to look at the ceiling. She appears much younger than her 44 years: the pageboy bob gives her an elfin quality. Her immaculate dark brownish lipstick is always matt, perfectly applied without a hint of bleed, daringly intense against her pale skin, while her mouth makes little half-smiles at obvious questions, punching in two dimples on her cheeks.

Her stories are very funny when they come. She turns an anecdote about reading for the revengeful lover's part in Fatal Attraction into a comic phone dialogue between plummy English director Adrian Lyne and her sleepy self at 3 am Australian time. "He asked me, 'What do you think of the script?' 'Well, it could go either way, couldn't it? It's a little bit like Hedda Gabler.' 'That's so interesting!' 'Yes, because in a way she's launching a major attack on the bourgeoisie.' 'Fucking great! There's a production of Hedda Gabler going on in LA! I'll take that on board.' Davis ended up going over to see Lyne and the producers and was indignant to find the character had been turned into a rabbit-boiling nutcase. "So I did this read-through, which was dreadful, of course, because I couldn't keep a straight face. I said to him as I was leaving, 'If anybody sees that bit of tape, you'll hear from me.' I thought, this isn't going to work, this isn't the place for me. But it transformed Glenn Close's career. So who was the winner? Not Ms Tough, I think."

Obviously the story is meant to illustrate both the venality of Hollywood and how the narrator, prizing her integrity too highly, ended up shooting herself in the foot. But I can't help feeling that Davis is being disingenuous. Surely her high standards have paid off: even in the weakest films she's done she's often the best thing. In her routine role as a power-mad presidential aide and secondary villain in Clint Eastwood's Absolute Power (1997) she suggests she's in love with her boss, the president, just through the way she dances the tango with him, throwing back her head, leaning a little too close. In Bob Rafelson's Blood and Wine (1996) she's more than a match for Jack Nicholson and his alcoholic wife, battering him unconscious with a walking stick while crying uncontrollably before his actions lead to her death in a car crash - her last words a choked "fuck you" after he fumbles in her knickers looking for a stolen diamond necklace. And as Kathrine Witner in Michael Tolkin's spectacularly clumsy satire The New Age (1994) she manages to keep her character from becoming an amalgam of psycho-babble stereotypes.

Robin Wood has said of that performance that Davis reveals "an authenticity in a character defined initially as incorrigibly inauthentic", a phoniness conveyed, for instance, by Davis pitching her contralto voice an octave lower as she coos praise for a new-found guru, indicating his draped figure to guests with presentational hand gestures like someone showing off a new pair of curtains. She energetically keeps up her side in the endless rallies of marital-argument tennis with Peter Weller, who also played her husband in The Naked Lunch. Argumentative wives are one of Davis' fortes, a fact which reinforces her high-cheekboned, haughty similarity to the young Katharine Hepburn. In her most mainstream Hollywood movie, the comedy The Ref (aka Hostile Hostages, 1994) she and her husband (Kevin Spacey) drive Dennis Leary's kidnapper to distraction through their constant bickering.

And in real life Davis seems never to have been afraid of an argument, nor hesitant to recount it, especially if it makes a good story. She clashed with Armstrong on My Brilliant Career, a film she's very dismissive of ("I'll hate it until the day I die - beautifully made, beautifully directed, but I just can't stand it"), insisting that her character was too insecure to do anything as bold as kiss her beau. (Even so, she later worked with Armstrong on High Tide, 1987, playing a scatty dropout singer whom she describes as "closest to my own persona".) She "butted horns" with David Lean on the set of A Passage to India, though her performance as the sexually repressed Adela Quested who meets misfortune in a cave earned her an Oscar nomination. She's polite about Cronenberg and The Naked Lunch, saying she found him "very intimate, the way he directs, very seductive". (And she reflects that seductiveness in the film, making a hip-swaying temptress out of Joan.)

She seems to have more affection for the Coen Brothers, in whose Barton Fink (1991) she played a ghostwriter who masochistically does all the work for a William Faulkner-like Southern lush while he takes all the credit. It's a smallish but crucial role, and Davis does a fine variation on her pinched, high-collared spinsters: rueful, patient, pushing the Southern accent to the brink of caricature. Despite the emotional chilliness of the film, you feel saddest when her character is killed off, her presence reduced to an unseen head in a hat box.

A number of Davis' characters meet nasty ends: Joan gets shot through the head at the beginning of TheNaked Lunch; there's the fatal car accident in Blood and Wine; and a drowning in Ben Lewin's Georgia (1988). It's tempting to project a pattern into this, particularly as lately Davis has so often been cast as the discarded older woman. Perhaps this is why female spectators identify strongly with her - she gets dumped on, but she's never a victim. Even when frumpily dressed, limbs folded in as if trying to take up as little space as possible, she's weirdly sexy, an intelligent woman who makes dumb mistakes.

Her most unhappy filming experience was playing another matron for George Sluizer on Dark Blood, a film that was never released because its young star River Phoenix died of a drug overdose before it was completed. "I tried to get out of that film so many times," Davis remembers. "For instance, I was supposed to have big breasts and the last scene was to be the boy clutching at my breast as he's dying. So I said to the director, early on, 'I'm concerned about the breast imagery because I don't have any breasts. Sadly, I wish I did, and I wish there was a way we could temporarily pump them up, but we can't.' He rang me a few weeks later and said, 'Judy, I've been talking to a friend and apparently there is a way of temporarily pumping up breasts!' Later I got down on my knees when he and the producer came up to Toronto and said, 'Please, please, recast me. You've got time and it would be much better for everybody.' But they wouldn't. The very fact that I so badly wanted to get out of it made Sluizer more determined." Asked if she thinks directors are sadistic, she says, "He [Sluizer] was. But not all. Though a lot of really good directors have a killer in them, as if they'd do anything to get that image. But that comes with the terrain and I don't mind it."

Davis praises Woody Allen for showing her, "How far you can go. One has to be much braver than one might imagine. I've always been a bit careful." It's an odd self-image for an actor who never seems afraid of doing challenging films or of exposing herself, and whose accounts of her own dealings with the industry appear reckless rather than tame. "I remember when I was about 25 I got an agent in LA and she said, 'You've got to come over and meet some people at the studios.' She was a very nice girl, but she took me over this ghastly route many an actor has travelled before. By the time we got to Columbia, I think it was, I'd had it. So I get into this room, and the executive was a nice guy, who asked, 'So what do you want to do, Judy?' I said, 'Well, I don't want to do any of that shit.' 'Uh huh, what kind of shit?' 'Oh, you know - that kind of Hollywood shit.' And he said, 'Well, let's see. This year we're making an action movie, and there's an animated cowboy film - there's probably not much for you in that.' Looking back, it was probably me making sure it wasn't going to be an option."

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012