Film: A superior intelligence with just a hint of the perverse

Woody Allen says she is an `acting genius'. She, typically, disagrees. Adam Mars-Jones meets Judy Davis

Judy Davis is an extraordinary actress, a performer who can bring powerful bass notes to otherwise ordinary films. Not that she's the sort of star who steals scenes, more that she can endow them with raw depths that even the writer might not have imagined (her closest rival in this art is Miranda Richardson). In interview, she is modest to the point of superstition, as if acknowledging her own powers would somehow put them at risk.

When she referred to Montgomery Clift as an actor she admired, singling out his scene on the phone in The Misfits, she made an unnecessary disclaimer even before she'd finished saying his name, so that it came out: "Think of Montgomery - not that I'm equating myself with Montgomery Clift..." When I praised a particular performance, she rushed to deprecate either the performance or how much she'd contributed. Of her Oscar-nominated turn in Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives, she says, briskly: "Anyone could have played it. It was all there on the page."

In Charles Sturridge's film of Where Angels Fear To Tread, for instance, she complicates otherwise rather banal equations (Italy and sensuality, good; England and restraint, bad) by showing us someone who is utterly threatened by expressiveness. If it is possible for people to enjoy themselves in a relatively uncomplicated way, then her whole life is meaningless. Judy Davis enriches Forster's message by resisting it from within the film. The character's pain is both raw and terribly funny, but the person who made it so, although she doesn't seem displeased with what I say, distances herself from the achievement. "A touch over the top, I thought, when I saw it. I needed to do that, needed to know how far I could go. That was just a little too far. I'm sorry that the film-maker had to bear that weight, but that's part of the deal. We're all learning." She strikes an odd, moralising note, odd but characteristic of her, when she says: "Characters like that are so dangerous, aren't they?"

The people whom Judy Davis plays are anything but standard screen women. They tend to be women who are ill at ease with themselves, who can't find ways of expressing themselves, and no one can produce arias of awkward body language as well as she can.

When she describes the character she plays in Woody Allen's new Celebrity as "not particularly sympathetic", she's careful to add: "Which I don't mind, it's not something I need to be." Davis isn't an ingratiating performer - she doesn't turn on the charm. But the character she plays in the film is the only one an audience could possibly care about.

Her career choices, since her breakthrough role in Gillian Armstrong's My Brilliant Career (1979), have been generally offbeat and shrewd, with the huge exception of the British thriller Who Dares Wins, in which she played the villain, a ruthless terrorist.

She's funny about the experience. It was her first visit to Britain, and she had some questions about the script. "We sat down in these studios in... is it Buckinghamshire?" Pinewood, perhaps. "Pinewood!" She breathes the word with a sort of thrilled horror. "There was one very stupid part of the script, where we're supposed to say, `We're going to blow up part of southern Scotland,' or something, and I said to the director, `Can we make it more apparent that this is a publicity stunt?' And he said, `Yeah, yeah, but let's wait until Richard (Widmark) arrives'. Then this director whose name I forget sat at this big long dining table and said, `Well, Judy, is there something you wanted to say?'. He just dumped it on me. Richard Widmark said, and here she puts on a huge, gruff American voice: "What is this? Fucking kindergarten!"

She's funny about it all; sees the joke against herself. There she is, playing the terrorist totty in an utterly disposable film, but she's so earnest about her craft that she's worrying about plot implausibilities and reading piles of books about the Baader-Meinhof gang. But her memory of disorientation and being humiliated seems to prevent her from turning it into a comedy routine.

I show her her entry in David Thomson's Biographical Dictionary of Film, in which he praises her "rich line of gruffness, intelligence, and superiority", saying that no one "can give such rapid hints of the perverse or the eccentric", and "no one has ever been so unabashedly freckled and scrawny, without losing an atom of appeal". He also suggests that it will take brave ventures to cast Judy Davis, and that hers is a career of "moments and scenes and of films that killed her off or hardly had the nerve to run with her...".

Perhaps it is inevitable that the word that registers most deeply in this admiring anthem is the word of physical description. "I sure don't look scrawny in Celebrity." With a rather sour intonation, she adds, "Wrong there, Dave". She gave birth to her second child 12 days before arriving in New York for the filming.

When I ask her to consider the other parts of Thomson's assessment, she stonewalls, as if she finds it alienating. "Well, you know, a film is really conceived in the editing room, and I have no control over that. Most film careers are careers of moments and scenes." This was where she mentioned Clift, and also Bette Davis in some of her great moments. "The one about the actress. My brain's gone. All About Eve."

She wouldn't admit to envying anyone else's career, apart from the actresses who got to work with Ingmar Bergman, "because of what they learned about life". It was Bergman's The Magic Flute that showed her what film could do, when she saw it at drama school. "I saw it recently on a television screen, and I got Colin (Friels, her husband) to watch it, I even got my son to watch it... and 15 minutes later I turned it off." She'd have to see it on the big screen to decide whether to blame television.

When I ask her about a part in which I thought a great Australian actress might take an interest (Australian subject, Australian director) - Lindy Chamberlain in Schepisi's A Cry In The Dark, the part actually played by Meryl Streep, she doesn't actually say that she turned it down on moral grounds. But they did come to her about the part. "And I wasn't interested. The court case was still going on. Which seemed to me sort of inappropriate."

Even when she does accept a role, she remains a critical presence. She vigorously contests Woody Allen's estimate of her performance in Celebrity ("All I have to do is put the camera on her, walk away, and let her acting genius take over"). "He gives me too much credit. When we started working, it became clear very quickly that whereas I thought the pitch was there," - hand at waist height - "Woody thought the pitch was there," - hand above her head. "So I went whoo! OK. You want it very extreme from the outset."

The film doesn't make up its mind about the character she plays, but Davis seems to dislike her, almost on a moral level. "In my view that woman is grotesque at the end of the film. I think she's grotesque because of what she becomes" - a vapid and entirely happy television presenter.

I pick up on her disapproval and ask her about it. "I worry about somebody like her in 10 years' time. What that woman has chosen ain't going to feed her for long, and then what's going to happen?"

I'm fascinated by what she's telling me, this great star who thinks Bergman's actresses learned about life from working with him, and that a television presenter shouldn't be happy. Do you really worry about the character outside the movie? That's when she stops me short. "Quite frankly, I don't give a flying fuck. But you did ask."

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