ARTS: THE TALL GIRL

Sigourney Weaver has a theory: producers are short, and like women to be shorter. She is nearly six feet. So they cast her among aliens
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The Independent Culture
As far as anyone can tell or remember, she's going on 240 years old. Her body isn't exactly soft warm flesh, and it turns out that her blood is dangerously high in its acid count. Plus, no one is sure how much memory she has. None of which is exactly attractive, or begins to get into some of her stranger new maternal instincts - why does she sniff the air so much? But who cares? Ellen Ripley looks a lot like today's Sigourney Weaver - which is to say, about as good as 48 years old can be, in a tight brown leather outfit, cut off at the shoulders, and with her own hair again, even if it does sometimes look as if she's been nuzzling some guy who eats glue. Ripley is back, and Sigourney Weaver has that deadpan insolence in her eyes as if to say, look, it's not just me - they cloned the bitch!

Alien: Resurrection, which opens everywhere, as they say, at the end of this month, will do terrific initial business, if only because a large part of all of us is so longing to see Ripley again. Oh sure, she plunged into a great abyss of molten lead at the end of Alien3, just as that frisky little one was breaking out of her, so by all narrative propriety she should be dead or an ingot. But five years have passed since Alien3, and that has been about the rhythmic interval between episodes in what is by far and away the most moving and absorbing science-fiction saga of our times (Star Wars, hang your heads in shame). Moreover, the exigency of death has spurred a huge story-telling coup: Ripley was kept genetically alive (were the dark forces of authority interested in her or her little one?) and now she's cloned - lifelike, with a faintly vampiric glow, definitely Sigourney Weaver (as co- producer now, with a $12 million salary - that's reality), but wiser or sadder, shall we say, a little more ironic or detached, a little freakier and a lot lonelier. "Hey, Ripley," says one of the new soldiers pursued by the big Alien. "You fought these things before. What did you do?" And Weaver or Ripley sighs and smiles, and says, "I died."

Having only seen Alien: Resurrection once, I don't quite know where to place it in the quartet yet. Is it terrifying? Is it gruesome? Yes. It is also very beautiful to look at, in a light in which you can feel the silver edging, and with several fresh gimmicks for the basic chase-and- paranoia situations. Does the new Ripley work? Or is she too close to Ash (Ian Holm) and Bishop (Lance Henrikson), the robots from earlier films? That's a tough call, because a clone can hardly be as emotional as the original, and this Ripley is shot through with regret or absurdity that she's "alive" again. But you're going to get to see mother-and-child scenes such as you can't imagine (and would rather not dream about). And I suspect that all over the world when Ripley and Weaver are first seen there is going to be applause, salutes and downright gratitude. (No one has ever forgiven David Fincher's Alien3 for killing her off - and shaving her head.) There are so few characters in today's movies that we like as much as Ripley. And there aren't many survivors more amused, tough and knock- out still than Sigourney Weaver.

She is 48 - she looks it in an honourable, candid way that is enough to make many men feel like boys. And what a season she is having. Alien: Resurrection will be the demon at the box office, and it is a performance that could easily win her another Oscar nomination (she got one in James Cameron's Aliens, the movie in which she was surrogate mother to a lost child). But she could get a supporting-actress nomination too for her disaffected, adulterous wife in Ang Lee's The Ice Storm - she could get that if only for the weary authority when, in bed with her lover Kevin Kline, after sex, as he begins to tell her about his frustrating day, she cuts him off with "I have a husband already." But she's done that double act before: in 1988, she was nominated as best actress for her Diane Fossey in Michael Apted's Gorillas in the Mist, and as best supporting actress for her treacherous boss in Mike Nichols's Working Girl.

Yet it isn't just the return of Ripley and The Ice Storm. Weaver is also on view in a tour de force as Claudia Hoffman, the wicked queen in Snow White: A Tale of Terror (in which, sometimes, her make-up seems worthy of the aliens in Resurrection).

Add to that her happy marriage to theatre director Jim Simpson, their daughter, her steady interest in theatrical projects, and her entire down- to-earth, un-self-pitying attitude to herself: "I'm usually satisfied with my career. What I find difficult is modern life. I have too many things going and my constant plight is, Where do I put my energy? Into acting? Into things I'm producing that are actually going to be shot? Working with writers? My family? It would be easier if I could just concentrate on acting, but I'm too schizy. I still have a small child and I don't want to miss time with her."

The confusion of claims on her time, and the commonsense faith that it can all be worked out, comes with her genes. After all, she is the daughter of great successes in the arts. Her father is Sylvester "Pat" Weaver, who was president of NBC Television in the 1950s and who is regarded as a heroic pioneer in the business. He effectively invented such staples as the Today Show and the Tonight Show. He was always very busy, yet he is known as a decent, funny man and a good father. Her mother, Elizabeth Inglis, was an actress in England in the late 1930s - she had small parts in Hitchcock's The 39 Steps and in Wyler's The Letter. Sigourney's uncle, "Doodles" Weaver, was a comedian on radio and television, and a long-time feature with Spike Jones and his City Slicker (let us add that Doodles Weaver also killed himself in 1983).

Sigourney Alexandra Weaver (the first name came from The Great Gatsby, in which Mrs Sigourney Howard is Jordan Baker's aunt) was born in New York in 1949. She was raised on the Upper East Side and on Long Island, in apartments and houses with plenty of servants. She was then educated (without great difficulty) at Stanford, where she majored in English and did a lot of theatre, and at the Yale Drama School (who sent their letter of acceptance to Mr Sigourney Weaver). Tall (five feet 11 inches in her bare feet), handsome, intelligent, articulate and hardly bashful, especially when she dresses seriously (she is one of the great dressers at the Academy Awards and other public occasions) - it is not the best recipe for success in show business. Sigourney Weaver accepts that she intimidates some people:

"Here's my theory: producers are short. I'm not the average producer's sexual fantasy. I am tall. When I come into a room wearing platforms, they go, 'She's not my type of woman', because what they're looking for is the petite blonde who looks up to them. With me, directors either sit up in the middle of the night and go, 'Sigourney Weaver!' or they don't. It hasn't been a problem with leading men, although I remember on Scarface coming in to meet Al Pacino, and he didn't get up to shake my hand. The only leading man I've ever worked with who was psychotic about my height was Chevy Chase (on William Friedkin's Deal of the Century), and he's 6 feet 4 inches. It's ended up that I've played lots of women who are very isolated. Those are interesting parts, but they are not as easy for me as a love story. My West Coast agent says, 'Sigourney, nobody knows how sweet you are'."

That remark about isolation is intriguing. In Alien, she was the last human left alive on the space-craft; in Aliens, she had the little girl to protect, and great rapport with fellow-soldiers: then, in Alien3, she had a brief, bleak love affair with Charles Dance - but that hardly counted beside her momentous pregnancy: the monster was her destined lover. And in Alien: Resurrection, she is so far beyond human sympathies that she ... well, see for yourself. Ripley is a unique case, you say. But in Gorillas in the Mist she played a woman who was inclined to trust and love the animals more than real people. In The Ice Storm, she is a very lonely woman, a dark force of energy that is plainly not content with the release of furtive sex. In Copy Cat she played a very intelligent woman impeded by agoraphobia. In Roman Polanski's Death and the Maiden (adapted from Ariel Dorfman's play), she trusted no one - while in Working Girl, no one could trust her.

That tends to make Weaver seem qualified to play rather alienated and humourless figures. Yet that is far from the simple truth. In at least the first two Alien pictures, and now in number four again, she registers the humour in some terrible ordeals.

And in several films she has been very funny - Working Girl, Dave, Jeffrey and the Ghostbusters pictures. Indeed, if ever the popular taste and movie skills return for making screwball comedies like Bringing Up Baby or My Man Godfrey, I think that Weaver has the talent and inclination to make a fool of herself in public in the way that distinguished Katharine Hepburn, Rosalind Russell and Carole Lombard once upon a time. There were signs of that in Working Girl, even if that film settled lazily for making her a villain.

But the love stories Weaver says she prefers have been few and far between, maybe because many actors would feel foolish reaching up to kiss her. So, apart from the very erotic relationship with Mel Gibson in Peter Weir's The Year of Living Dangerously, there's not a lot - in Bob Swaim's Half Moon Street, she was the call-girl to Michael Caine's diplomat, gloriously topless most of the time and breathtakingly sexy, yet hampered by the stilted script and a rather chilly directorial point of view. In Eyewitness, she had to get romantic with William Hurt - seldom a warming sport. Add to that two uneasy movie ventures with Gerard Depardieu - One Woman or Two, directed by Daniel Vigne; and Ridley Scott's 1492: Conquest of Paradise, where she was Queen Isabella of Spain to Depardieu's Christopher Columbus.

Not every one of those movies seems exactly compelling or begging to be made; yet Weaver is also famous for projects she has turned down. For example, she did not take the role that established Kathleen Turner in Body Heat; she declined the Meryl Streep part in Marvin's Room; she could not be persuaded to take on the profitable nonsense of 91/2 Weeks; and - most intriguing of all - she flinched from the lengthy schedule required for the role of Madame Merle in Jane Campion's The Portrait of a Lady. Barbara Hershey was excellent in that part as it worked out, but who wouldn't have been interested in seeing Weaver's lofty intelligence deal with the Henry James dialogue and the reptilian closeness of John Malkovich?

She has worked on stage. As early as her days at Stanford, Sigourney Weaver was caught up in experimental political theatre (this was the late 1960s). And at high school, she often played male parts just because of her height. She was in David Rabe's Hurlyburly, and more recently she was in Christopher Durang's Sex & Longing. Indeed, in the past, she has worked a lot with Durang (they were at Yale together), and even co- wrote Das Lusitania Songspiel (a Brecht parody) with him. In theory, Weaver seems ideal for classic roles - Ibsen, Shakespeare, Shaw. But like many American actresses she has avoided that challenge. She was once set to play Lady Macbeth, opposite Nicol Williamson, but he fired her for some kind of indiscipline (or laughing at the wrong moment). And so, despite The Year of Living Dangerously and Gorillas in the Mist, it is Ripley that defines her, the role Weaver has now carried through so many ordeals, beyond death itself and into a cloned twilight zone. How does she see that evolution?

"In the first, she [Ripley] was the new recruit, very idealistic, very much by-the-book. Second one? Disillusioned, angry, filled with foreboding about re-igniting her battle with the aliens, a battle that actually brings her back to life in a way. The third one, she knows she's going to die, feels that inevitability coming closer and closer. In this new one, she's unleashed, totally unpredictable. Even she doesn't know what she's going to do. She's more animal, sniffing the air."

In some ways, it's not unlike the process by which Diane Fossey got close to being a gorilla, and it reminds one that Weaver has never shown more ecstasy or abandon than in the African film. There is something about her that needs or grasps the idea of something more than mere humans for company. After all, long before the latest stage in Ripley's evolution, Weaver was truly unearthly as the zombie in Ghostbusters - and in Snow White she effortlessly links the real villainess and her witchly apparitions. So don't be too surprised, or horrified, if in Alien: Resurrection this Ripley comes close to embracing the bitch she once vowed to destroy.

! 'Alien: Resurrection' (18) opens Fri.

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