By DONALD PORTER
Mary Steenburgen isn't the airheaded wife of a fortune seeker, nor is she a frustrated author. She is, rather, an Oscar-winning actress who wears those roles as comfortably as Santa Claus wears a smile.
Some people might not recognize her name immediately, but if they frequent movie theaters and video shops they have surely seen at least one of Steenburgen's performances in films such as: "Goin' South," "Melvin and Howard" (for which she won an Academy Award as the wife of Melvin Dummar), "Time After Time," "Cross Creek," "Ragtime" and "Romantic Comedy." Currently, she can be seen on cable TV in an adaption of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "Tender Is the Night" and on the big screen with the lead in "One Magic Christmas."
Steenburgen, who was raised in North Little Rock, Ark., is impossible to pigeon-hole, since her screen roles have completely differed from one another. While many of her contemporaries are off making films that feature the woman as a noble underdog, Steertburgen is blazing a different trail.
"Maybe enough people are doing (those types of characters) that it's not interesting to me," Steenburgen said in a telephone interview from her Southern California home. "Also, you can only work from the films that you are offered, unless you develop your own. The films that I've done have literally been chosen from the ranks of the films that have been offered to me. And I guess they were -- to be very simple about it -- the films that I thought I'd like to go see. I don't look for a particular sort of woman."
Her films stand witness to that stated conviction, as she has been both domineering and subservient in her motion pictures. She is also different from many popular actresses in that she is not afraid to pat herself on the back.
"I want to do good work and good projects as long as I live and ... I think I'm doing that. The films that I've chosen are things that, in some way, I knew I was the best person for. If I said 'no,' it was because I didn't totally understand it the way somebody else took it and did. Whereas, I don't think anybody could have done any of the parts I've done any better than I did."
"I've never felt desperate," said the actress. "There are certain things in my life that I'm not too together about, but in terms of my work, I think as long as I want there to be that there will be a place for me in films). It may not be gold medal, number one, top of the heap, American Dream -- that's what Americans like - it may not be that, but I don't care."
Her confidence isn't overbearing, though, and doesn't resemble conceit. She admits to being very fortunate to have worked with "some of the most talented actors in the business, claiming that having good actors to react to is the ticket to successful performances.
"The things I do, I do because of the person standing in front of me," she said. "I don't figure it all out ahead of time. ... You just know how you feel about that subject and you let the whole thing wash over you. You can't act from your head. You can prepare and all that, but cerebral acting is dead. It's showy and not very interesting. It doesn't move you; it's to look at, but it doesn't touch you.
"When I hear that someone was intimidated by working with a great actor I think, 'What a stupid waste!' It's a gift when you're working with a great actor because they're going to make you look better the way Astaire made every woman he danced with look great."
Another ingredient that's required if actors are to do their jobs well is a competent director, and Steenburgen has worked with several of the very best, including Milos Forman ("Ragtime," "Amadeus"), Woody Allen ("A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy") and Jonathan Demme ("Melvin and Howard"). But the director she reserves the greatest affection for is Jack Nicholson, who is best known for his acting. It was he who gave Steenburgen her first screen job in the film "Goin' South" (a Western-comedy that Nicholson directed and starred in) and who also, she said, had a bizarre directorial style.
"Jack's style is unique unto himself, " she said, laughing. "Jack's a jazz-man. He's very oblique. His whole way of communicating is very unique. He's brilliant. I can only describe him as a jazz-man because that whole kind of syncopation of his mind and his speech ... is like jazz to me -- free-form jazz.
"For example, there's this scene in 'Goin' South' where we're (Nicholson and Steenburgen) sitting in a buckboard ... and I'm taking this outlaw back home that I've just married and I'm being really cruel and cool to him and he can't figure out why ... and I was wearing this burgundy colored hat that looks like a little, flat pancake. And it was at this rakish angle on one side of my head with a bow that went underneath my chin and tied on the other side, and I said, 'Jack, what do you think this scene's about?'
"And be looked at me for a few minutes and said, 'Well, Mare, as far as I can see this entire scene is about that hat.' And I sort of thought about it, ... stuck my nose up in the air a little bit and looked at him out of the corner of one eye and said, 'I see what you mean.' And we did the scene and he was right."