Changes in Attitude Actress Barbara Hershey Featured in 'Portrait of a Lady' Has Built a Career on Diverse Roles

By Lynn Elber Ap Entertainment | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), January 17, 1997 | Go to article overview

Changes in Attitude Actress Barbara Hershey Featured in 'Portrait of a Lady' Has Built a Career on Diverse Roles


Lynn Elber Ap Entertainment, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


TRACE the connection between the wicked temptress of "The Natural," the stricken lawyer of "Beaches" and shadowy, tragic Madame Serena Merle in the "The Portrait of a Lady."

Barbara Hershey, who played those film roles, is pleased to provide the answer: None whatsoever, beyond the actress herself.

A charmingly stubborn sort, Hershey has built her career on diversity rather than star turns, avoiding predictable choices that might have made her more marketable. And, perhaps, a bigger name. But now, with her indelible performance in director Jane Campion's "The Portrait of a Lady," based on the Henry James novel, Hershey is reveling in acclaim and Oscar buzz. As Madame Merle, she has captured best supporting actress honors from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and has been nominated for a Golden Globe award - this for an actress who freely admits to conspiring against her own career from the start. As a 16-year-old newcomer featured in the 1960s television Western series "The Monroes," Hershey says she found her character reduced to chirping "Goodbye, Clayt" and "Clayt, you came back." "At the end of one season, I was writing the network under fictitious names, asking them to cancel it," she says, letting loose a guilty giggle. "And I got my mother, who was really, really proud of me, bless her heart, to write in and ask them to cancel it, too." Goodbye TV, hello movies. Variety was the goal, she says, the chance to find herself in as many different characters as possible. Hershey calls up an offbeat childhood memory as early proof of her focus. "I used to do this strange thing as a kid where I'd fall asleep at night and I would have seen a photograph in a newspaper or magazine . . . and I would imagine that face being my face," she says. "It makes sense to me, now that I know what I want as an actor. I'm fascinated with people." Filmmakers, clearly, find fascination in Hershey's blend of sexual allure and intelligence. Although her uneven career has included such lightweight fare as the recent "The Pallbearer," she has worked repeatedly with some of the best directors. There are casual references to Marty, Woody and Barry. That's Martin Scorsese, who directed her in "Boxcar Bertha" and "The Last Temptation of Christ"; Woody Allen, with whom she appeared in his "Hannah and Her Sisters," and Barry Levinson, who directed Hershey in "The Natural" and "Tin Men." Further proof of Hershey's accomplishments: a best actress prize at the Cannes film festival in 1987 for the Southern drama "Shy People" and the same honor the following year for "A World Apart," set in apartheid South Africa. …

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