FILM / Time to put away childish things: With 'Cape Fear' and 'Husbands and Wives' Juliette Lewis cornered the market in sulky nymphets. David Thomson wonders if her dangerous allure can survive growing up

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HOW GOOD is Juliette Lewis? How good is Hollywood going to let her be when she is so palpably available for girls who - at the very least - are so busy thinking of being bad that their chewing-gum sticks to their braces? Is she an extraordinary actress, or just a wild young woman? Can she survive, being both? And is there any way she or we are going to get to find out? After all, in the next year she's going to be 21, which is old for the wide-eyed, jail-bait nymphs she's had the market on for a few years now. Could Juliette Lewis play anyone older than college age without coming off certifiable? Would she lose it, whatever it is, if she started acting . . . well, grown-up? And what's a film critic doing speculating like this when he has daughters older than Juliette Lewis? Admit it, she's a dangerous turn-on.

But in a picture-business way she's hot. This spring in Britain she opens in three movies: Kalifornia, Romeo is Bleeding and What's Eating Gilbert Grape?. And later in the year there are two more coming: Natural Born Killers (written by Quentin Tarantino and directed by Oliver Stone) - guess what part she plays in that? - and Nora Ephron's new, as yet untitled movie about the staff on a suicide hotline at Christmas. Lewis is in demand, but is she also getting as much in while she can, wondering whether her rage will last?

How good is she? Well, think of Scorsese's Cape Fear (1991), in which she plays the daughter of the threatened household - sighing, pulling at her hair, sucking on a pout. She was 17 when that opened, so maybe 16 when it was shot. She had puppy fat still and the sort of skin a kid has to scrutinise every night for spots. And she was instantly perfect as the slouchy, grouchy, awkward, aching, disaffected, disappointed, behind-your-back insolent, and dangerously ready teenage daughter. She wasn't pretty: by regular standards, Juliette Lewis isn't beautiful. But after a couple of scenes of her petulant-horny, bored-aggressive attitude there wasn't a bookish man in the audience who wasn't thinking Lolita.

In Cape Fear, Jessica Lange, playing her mother (and herself hot stuff a few yesterdays ago), gazed at her with pity, helplessness and undisguised envy. De Niro, apparently, got

excited over the actress - I mean, over her acting talent, you understand. And so he promoted her and encouraged her to improvise in that sinister, seductive scene on the stage of the high-school theatre where he pretends to be her drama teacher and begins to educate her in darker arts.

This scene is the best thing in the movie, it seems to me: a scene so good that you even see a different narrative direction for the ugly, melodramatic story. De Niro's character, Max Cady, wants to get Lewis's father, a lawyer (Nick Nolte), in every way he can. More or less, he's thinking of raping Lange and Lewis in front of Nolte's (and our) horrified eyes. But in that beguiling scene on the stage, Cady begins to be diverted by understanding Lewis's character. There's the threat of sex for sure as he puts his thumb in her mouth - and Lewis has a mouth a couple of sizes too big for her face, a mouth that says, 'Here. The gold is here.' What a movie Cape Fear might be if instead of going the violent way, Cady wooed Lewis and married her] That would be a more delicate and complex blow to the lawyer and one better rooted in the swamp of family life.

It doesn't happen that way. The horrible ritual of movie menace takes its course, and we get momentous terror and blood-letting up the Cape Fear river. Lewis is reduced to jelly and tears; she's as raw as you've ever seen any actress; and, in the end, her faith in dear old Dad is restored. Yet Cady - and De Niro, maybe - for an instant helped us recognise the peril of a real and unmanageable teenager with a will of her own.

All of a sudden, Juliette Lewis had arrived. She got a best supporting actress nomination for Cape Fear (she lost to Mercedes Ruehl in The Fisher King). Her story was told in the movie magazines - and it proved as arresting as her greedy look on screen. She is the daughter of supporting actor Geoffrey Lewis (he played the redneck sidekick in those films Clint Eastwood made with the orang-utan). So Lewis had been raised in and around Los Angeles. Her parents divorced when she was two; but she credits them both with letting her grow up free. How free? After three weeks of high school in the San Fernando Valley, she dropped out, went to court and obtained an order saying she was exempt from the laws that govern child actors. She was more interested in scripts than classes. Her parents supported her in this, and they helped the 15-year-old search out her own apartment. Even in Los Angeles, none of this is ordinary, or a line of action that too many parents would go for. It meant that at 15, without schooling, Juliette Lewis was effectively on her own, and a working woman.

She had no obvious difficulty. Before Cape Fear, she was getting work in TV movies - such as A Family for Joe (which starred Robert Mitchum), and the lead in Too Young to Die, in which she played a teenager standing trial for murder as an adult. And, as in Cape Fear, it was clear that she managed simultaneously to seem old for her actual years while conveying the vulnerability, the hesitation, the sheer muddle of a child, better than most actresses.

Woody Allen saw her and, one way and another, dropped Emily Lloyd from his upcoming Husbands and Wives, leaving room for Lewis. Previously she had played small-town girls. Now she was Rain (named after Rilke), living on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, her father an investment banker and her mother something important at Lincoln Center. As if this was not class enough, she was the star student in Woody's writing class at Columbia, the author of a knockout story called 'Oral Sex in the Age of Deconstruction'.

Rain wasn't so much a character in the script as a wind blowing on Woody's dreams - isn't that the function of most of the other people in his films? But Lewis made so much of it. She was thinner; her hair was darker, shorter and more jagged. It was easier now to see the scars on her face - one near the left eye, one on her spacy brow, not scars from cuts, but places where something had knocked the top off her skin. Her eyebrows were like a four-year-old's attempt to draw a straight line. Her upper lip seemed to have shoulder pads.

With all of that, she was a flirt and a fidget. Her hands were always moving, fussing with her hair and going to that lippy mouth as if to say, feed me. In a weird way, these moves were as dizzy as Woody's way with words; it was as if he had infected her. She had only a few scenes, but she monopolised them. When she and Woody are sharing a cab and she begins to tell him what's wrong with his novel (he is so lovelorn he has shown her the work in progress - and she loses it in another cab), the whole scene is played on her. It's riveting, but there's the beginning of mannerism, too - a lot of tics and tricks that only actors do, especially when they don't have much script to work from.

But she had another great scene, to rival the one with Max Cady in the theatre: there's a power failure during a thunderstorm at her birthday party, and, lighting candles, she gets Woody to kiss her - it's as if he's in danger of going off on some greased slide to heaven and hell. She was 18 and she had these two terrific pieces of film to her credit; she had played a sulky Southern kid and maybe next year's Donna Tartt. What next?

Not really enough. Romeo is Bleeding is a piece of modish junk, the kind of project actors try to avoid - it's actually far worse for Gary Oldman because he plays the lead in it. The three women in the picture are set pieces: sad wife, cute mistress, monstrous femme fatale. Lewis is the one in the middle and she doesn't get a chance to do much more than flash her grunge mannerisms and dance in lurid underwear for one scene. (You can imagine the director filming it on the principle that it would probably come in handy.) She ends up shot dead, but her character never had a chance of life.

Kalifornia is richer, more carefully done and better written, but I'm not sure it's any more respectable. This time Lewis plays the sweet but infantile (is she even retarded?) companion to Brad Pitt's serial killer. Pitt (Lewis's live-in lover for some time) is into serious James Deanery here. He is a nasty killer, but his studied acting is more frightening and far more real: Kalifornia is one of those movies in which the sense of life has all been acquired from old movies. It may be that Lewis edged into the retard mode just because there was so little in the script, and no chance of coaxing Pitt out of his black hole of self-absorption. She has some pretty scenes: getting out of a car and feeling the wind of a coming storm; finding the right slack stance, like a puppet hung up for the night; and talking like someone who never grasped the rules for what makes a sentence. Again, she's shot dead - so often in these films, the hot kid makes a pretty corpse.

Thank God for What's Eating Gilbert Grape?, in which she isn't killed and doesn't play a killer. Instead, she settles nicely into director Lasse Hallstrom's fond observation of the dismal life of young people in rural Iowa. Her challenge here is a rare one in modern American film - to make an ordinary, decent person interesting. She succeeds, in part because it's the best film she's ever had the luck to be in. We may note that this took a Swedish director, a willingness to go to Iowa, and a gallery of unglamorous, decent people. No actress can count on such good fortune recurring.

I know that Quentin Tarantino and Oliver Stone have their fans but, in advance, Natural Born Killers promises to be a cartoon satire on the media (and on squeamishness), with a lot of schtick. The killers are Lewis and Woody Harrelson, all hi-tech fire-power, punk clothes and deadpan affect. She's blonde this time, and I can bet that her mouth will make lovely wrestle with Tarantino's cobra dialogue. So what? When does her career move on? What's the step that takes Lewis from here to being the next Michelle Pfeiffer, or Katharine Hepburn?

Two years ago, Movieline - the hippest and most subversive film magazine in America - ran a very good article on Juliette Lewis (by Michael Angeli). The same issue had Ellen Barkin on the cover, and a wicked copyline for the Lewis piece - 'The young Ellen Barkin'. Which leaves a paranoid wondering how long before some other infant killer is called 'the young Juliette Lewis'? I say that because, despite her appeal to the wandering eyes of men in the audience, Lewis must have a strong response from women her own age. She isn't starry or processed. She looks as if she wears her own clothes - clunky shoes, wispy antique frocks - in defiance of wardrobe's edicts. But that odd allure can come and go very fast, and in the last 20 years Hollywood has had so many examples of sensational young actresses whose arc never found stability: Tuesday Weld, Natalie Wood, Debra Winger, Jessica Lange, Nastassia Kinski, Rosanna Arquette, Molly Ringwald, Ellen Barkin . . .

Some of those careers have lasted, but the early edge and promise have been blunted. The actresses slipped down the staircase; they made bad choices; they couldn't control their careers; they got into too much bad - fun - company. Today, kid actresses know that, and sometimes they are too cool to want to be seen trying for more than a few years. Juliette Lewis could be better than most, and in the next few years she has to determine whether she is a sensation or a career, a kid or a woman.

'Kalifornia' is on general release; 'Romeo is Bleeding' opens on Fri; 'What's Eating Gilbert Grape?' opens on 6 May.