FILM / Reading between the lines: Audiences and the camera love her, but Hollywood can't figure out what it has on its hands. John Micklethwait meets Geena Davis, Sex Goddess, feminist and actress

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The Independent Culture
A SWELTERING day in Los Angeles, and Geena Davis is finishing Anna Karenina. She is always reading books, 'usually 10 at a time'. And this in Hollywood, where a book is either a script recipe or a personality prop on a coffee table. But then Davis is no ordinary actress. Now 35, she has gone from dead home-owner (Beetlejuice) to Most Wanted housewife (Thelma & Louise) and now to Dottie Hinson, star catcher of an all-woman baseball team. The film is A League of Their Own - a summer hit in the States, co-starring Madonna and Tom Hanks. On set, Madonna just messed around. Davis read Henry James. If the husbands and highways of America weren't ready for Thelma & Louise, Hollywood is still a bit shaken by Davis. 'We all love Geena,' one mogul admits, 'but we don't really understand her.'

One thing they don't understand is why can't she behave like a film star? Not only does this woman read books for her own pleasure; not only is she a graduate of Boston University; she also refuses to work out, for the very good reason that she hates it. For God's sake, she won't even throw a tantrum on set because she 'does not see the point'. And then there's her looks - six-foot tall and most of it legs, a mouth stung to damson dimensions and an idiosyncratic clothes sense ('a cross between Tyrone Power and Carole Lombard,' says one designer). The gawky teenager, who finished fourth out of six entrants in a Miss Cranberry Bowl competition in Massachusetts, is now hailed as a Sex Goddess by Vanity Fair and as a role model by feminists. She has slid quietly into the front rank of Hollywood actresses: men desire her, women identify with her. On or off screen, it is difficult not to like her.

A League of Their Own is proof of her power. The film's mawkish charm comes from an all-girls-together spirit reminiscent of an Angela Brazil sixth form. The Rockford Peaches are led by Dottie, the kind of strapping games captain who made the late John Betjeman's jowls quiver in appreciation. 'Such a good sport' is how the director Penny Marshall describes Davis, which both sums up the movie's spirit and prods at its weakness - too much good clean fun, not enough romantic tension. At the last moment, the studio axed a love scene between Dottie, whose husband is away at war, and the coach (Hanks). 'It was only a kiss on the pitcher's mound - we played the rest of the movie as if it had happened,' Davis says with a sigh. 'Still, I'm happy.'

Davis has few complaints about anything. If her personal life has been less successful than her career - she was divorced from the actor Jeff Goldblum last year - it is hardly messy by the standards of her peers: she and Goldblum still go to movies together. The seriousness with which her looks or clothes are discussed in the press amuses her: 'Frankly, I find that other people's perceptions of me do little either to improve or destroy my self-esteem.' A penchant for cinnamon-flavoured toothpicks - who wants crumbs on a smile that wide, that famous? - is her only noticeable vanity.

She was born Virginia Elizabeth Davis, and grew up in the type of small-town middle-class family that American politicians like to eulogise. After college she modelled and waitressed in New York. Her first break came in 1982, when she took a knickers-and-bra cameo, as a soap-opera actress sharing a dressing-room with a transvestite Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie. Later this year Davis will appear in another film with Hoffman, Hero, directed by Stephen Frears, only this time she will be the co-star. How did she do it? Successful actresses come and go in Hollywood (whatever happened to Julia Roberts?), but Davis has emerged slowly and curiously. Her screen lovers include an alien (Earth Girls are Easy), an insect (The Fly) and a vampire (Transylvania 6-5000), all played by Goldblum. She nearly won an Oscar for Thelma & Louise, but had already netted one in 1989 for Best Supporting Actress - Muriel the dog-trainer in The Accidental Tourist. The performance was alarmingly true to the original of Anne Tyler's novel - all long nails and corkscrew curls, breezing into the cold life of a travel writer (William Hurt) and taking him to places he'd always been too frightened to go - French restaurants and silly love. In a film full of disturbed people, Muriel was by far the strangest. Davis's gift of goofy vulnerability (the sudden grin, the clackety dancing walk) meant that by the time Hurt was explaining to his wife that he needed to return 'to this woman, this odd woman', you were utterly on her side. It wasn't just dogs that obeyed her.

In Thelma & Louise, Davis was the perfect naive foil to Susan Sarandon's hard-bitten Louise. Everything they get involved in - from robbing a store to torching a tanker - looks like an innocent adventure through Davis's glistening saucer eyes. When Thelma tells Louise over a motel breakfast about her first orgasm, she looks more like a schoolgirl excited by a new crush, with a breathy tenderness in her triumph. The movie may have struck a blow for feminism, but it was a knock-out blow: as one producer puts it, it proved 'just how goddam attractive Geena Davis can look'.

Her next part will be as Beryl Markham, the redoubtable British aviator, in West with the Night. This will mean lessons in riding, flying and speaking with a British accent - better than Meryl Streep's, with any luck. Davis seems to practise what other actresses preach: she waits for interesting parts, rarely doing more than one movie a year, and taking care to avoid non-characters ('where I'm just the love-interest or the kidnapped wife who shouts 'save me' ') or roles which degrade women. 'Look at all the movies that are about women as monsters who go nuts, who want to steal your children or stab you.' It reflects, Davis feels, a deeper misogyny in society. 'If a woman is powerful, she is a bitch: if she is sexual she is evil. Women don't have enough movies we can identify with.'

That, she believes, was the secret of Thelma & Louise. She quotes Susan Faludi, the author of the feminist bestseller Backlash, who argued that, although other movies have featured strong women battling against fate, Thelma & Louise was the first film where women were 'strong in their own autonomy'. Davis points to the success of other women's films such as Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, which rubbished the theory that 'there's no money to be made out of women'. To that end, she has quietly started her own production company, Genial Pictures, run from an unpretentious office on the Fox lot.

From the unlikely beginnings of that dressing-room in Tootsie, Davis is one of the few actresses to have played Hollywood on her own terms, and won. She remains approachable, answering her own telephone and preferring to see movies 'with people who are paying to go'. She lives in the Hollywood Hills, but many of her friends are from the early days in New York and Boston. You can try and dig out a dark side to that all-American image, but there's no point. She admits to having made mistakes, of course ('most of the sort that I don't want to share with you'), but none she still regrets. So far her feminism has come in a honey-coated Thelma form, but there are signs that she is becoming more outspoken. She has been spotted at political rallies, campaigning for women candidates, and will introduce Bill Clinton at a fund-raiser later this month. Yet even this politicking is modestly done: it is hard to imagine Geena Davis becoming the Jane Fonda of the Nineties.

Recently she was sent buttons urging 'Thelma & Louise in '92', but treated them more as a joke than an invitation. It's her screen campaign that matters, anyway. If she delivers all that she promises, there's a good chance that Geena Davis will run and run.

'A League of Their Own' (PG) opens at the Odeon West End on 18 Sept.

John Micklethwait is West Coast Correspondent of 'The Economist'.

(Photographs omitted)