Homely? Well sometimes: Andie MacDowell is good at playing 'real' women. Other women like her characters, men don't much. Now she's in the unlikely hit, Four Weddings and a Funeral, and still it's hard to know if she's got more than ordinary to offer

ANDIE MacDOWELL was a top model who managed the leap into movies just as it was becoming an ill-fated cliche. She's been acting for 10 years now, in good films - great films, mostly - in which she appears as a sympathetic, lovely-looking woman, believable and fun to watch. She's played opposite Depardieu and Malkovich; she's been directed by Robert Altman; she's currently starring in the top two films at the US box office - Bad Girls, a female western, and Four Weddings and a Funeral, the low-budget English comedy written by Not the Nine O'Clock News veteran Richard Curtis, which has startled the British film industry with its wildly enthusiastic reception in the States. She should, by now, be an undisputed star, and yet the nagging question remains: is she really any good?

Maybe this is just prejudice against her mannequin past - the bane of MacDowell's acting career. Her response to the model question is to point out that the majority of Hollywood actresses started as models: 'Anjelica Huston, Jessica Lange, Geena Davis - what's the girl from Basic Instinct? Sharon Stone - Sean Young, all modelled. The big difference is that I was extremely successful.'

The tartness of the riposte is rather at odds with her likeable screen image. Naturalness - or the appearance of it - is her great quality: a mass of long, untended hair, barely made-up pale freckled skin; the body of a real person, a little thick around the middle; a frank smile. One of her great assets, as a model and an actress, has been her ability to seem possible, rather than a cartoon confection; to evoke empathy and identification. This is as useful in selling cinema tickets as it is in selling L'Oreal products - to which she still turns her hand a few days a year for a reputed dollars 500,000. And it's an impression backed up by her participation in lifestyle spreads for Hello] and American Vogue, down home on her 2,000-acre ranch with her husband Paul Qualley, an ex-model whom she met shooting a Gap ad, and their two children. Now they live in Gap heaven: big country for beautiful real people. Despite the title of her next film, MacDowell comes over as a nice girl, not a bad girl, big on sincerity, her glamour never tipping over into threat.

For this reason she appeals to women as much, if not more than, men, who don't always find her sexy. She has a solidity on screen, an earthbound womanliness. Though she can look delectable, she's not afraid to play frumpy, or the gauche Southerner, which women like her for and men don't. Even when she's prissy - as the uptight Bronte in Peter Weir's Green Card, exasperated by Depardieu's odious masculine habits; as the inept mother in Short Cuts, whose son has been knocked down by a car; or as the shy housewife in Steven Soderbergh's sex, lies and videotape, who's never had an orgasm - the roles are conspiratorially female.

But unlike the actresses she compares herself to, MacDowell is hard to define. There's an ambiguity between her glamour and her 'realness' - 'half matron, half siren' as one of her colleagues on Four Weddings describes her - that comes out in her best work. She's not all looks (Sean Young), all sex (Sharon Stone), all character (Huston, Davis, Lange). 'She's not taken seriously as an actress in the way that Michelle Pfeiffer is, or Meryl Streep was 10 years ago,' says New York magazine film critic David Denby. 'She holds her own, but there's no temperament there. There's nothing distinctive you could say was Andie MacDowell.' However much she'd hate the notion, a trace of the model's fierce blandness lingers in her. Though this serves her well in comedy, where her sincere delivery gives her characters a comic spin, there's a sense that directors have to come in close to coax a performance out of her, or they use her as a foil. Has she done all she can, or there something in her waiting to happen?

So good is MacDowell at appearing to play herself that I feel I know who I'm going to interview. Even warning bells - rumours of tantrums on the Four Weddings set, a photographer telling me she's tough as hell - fail to penetrate this nave illusion. Although I've never had fun interviewing a Hollywood actress before, I feel sure that she'll be cosy and friendly and we'll get along; that, at heart, she's one of us. I'm wrong.

I'm escorted to a suite in the St James's Club into which she walks, accompanied by Davien Littlefield, her manager of 14 years, as outsized and mid-Western-looking as MacDowell is pert and trim. The bodyguard stunt is a bad sign. We have a strictly circumscribed chunk of time. MacDowell thinks twice about shaking the hand I offer; then we sit down and go to it.

There's nothing soft about her. No Southern slowness, no spare smiles. Whatever charm she may have once reserved for journalists is long gone. She's dressed for the city in a sludge- coloured cropped sweater and wide trousers, her hair cut in a thick crop. I'm struck by the minuteness of her nose and the flat planes of her face. She sits straight and tense, barely concealing her impatience at having to subject herself to her umpteenth round of interviews, rapping out her answers in a rapid, high- pitched voice, leaving no room for interruption or dialogue.

Nearly all my questions seem to trigger irritable, defensive answers. She's defensive about modelling, defensive about being a model-turned-actress, defensive about the fact that Paul Qualley has acted as a househusband in the service of her career. She jumps down my throat at the suggestion that several of her best roles share traits of repression. 'I don't think you can compare them; they're different characters. I mean there's all kinds of repressions, and the woman in Green Card I don't think was repressed. In what sense was she repressed . . ? I think that maybe sometimes people like to have an interesting way to write articles.' Elsewhere, she has been at pains to point out the richness of her sex life with her husband, should anyone for a moment wish to suggest that she had anything in common with the sexual hang-ups of her character in sex, lies and videotape.

When I ask her if she has ever felt limited in the roles she's played, she retorts, 'When you look at the work that I've done in the last few years, I don't know that it could be better.'

'You don't get the sense of insecurity from her at all,' says Mike Newell, her director in Four Weddings. 'I don't know where that's come from, since she's from a pretty modest background and didn't have a particularly easy time.'

MacDowell (real name: Rosalie) grew up in the town of Gaffney, South Carolina, the youngest of four daughters whose parents divorced and whose mother eventually died of alcoholism. She talks matter-of-factly about this - how her mother was a fall-down drunk who went from being a music teacher to working in McDonald's alongside the schoolgirl Andie, who would ply her with coffee and breath fresheners. She once

said that when she was in her teens she felt 100 years old.

She's clearly proud of her independence, recounting how she left college, where she was studying to be an elementary school teacher like her sisters before her, to try what everyone had told her she should do, walking into the newly founded Elite agency in New York, where she was promptly signed up. 'I'd read an article about the agency which said it had a family atmosphere,' she says, turning to Littlefield. 'Ain't that a joke?' She brightens momentarily when I tell her I work for Vogue, where she did modelling jobs, one of which led Hugh Hudson to cast her in Greystoke, her acting debut.

She survived the mortification of having her Southern voice dubbed over by Glenn Close in the film, and the subsequent industry derision; in fact, this spurred her on. Four years later, after the success of sex, lies and videotape, she found herself 'extraordinarily busy', and now she picks her roles to suit her taste and maternal dignity. 'I watched - and I don't mean to put down Sharon Stone, it's her choice and there's a lot of people that obviously liked the movie because they went to it - but I watched the movie in fast forward on an airplane until she crossed and uncrossed her legs, just 'cause I wanted to see. I find that extremely demeaning to me as a woman, and because I have children too.'

MacDowell, who has spent nearly half her life in the worlds of high fashion and movies, had been described to me by directors and fashion editors as 'astonishingly unspoilt', 'real and funny', 'extraordinarily unpretentious'. If she has pretensions, they're to reality. She and her family live in Montana in the approved movie star way, but MacDowell seems genuinely determined to be part of the local life. 'While we were filming they had lots of friends coming out to see them from Montana who were almost amazingly normal, including an old guy called Bob they'd bought the ranch from,' says a crew member on Four Weddings. This is MacDowell's 'real Rosie' role, the one she played in her cameo in The Player, ostensibly as herself, waxing lyrical about Montana and its people: 'you should try it.' What she wants to do now, she says, is make a documentary about the women's group in the valley where she lives. 'They get together to learn how to do things you do on a ranch like canning, putting up preserves, and so on . . . '

So much for reality. MacDowell's role in Four Weddings and a Funeral, which opens here on Friday, is an unapologetic slice of American gorgeousness. Flitting in and out of the lives of the circle of English friends who group and regroup, she manages to combine being classy and, in the words of another (female) character, 'a slut', cheerfully seducing the hero at every available opportunity - a perfect male fantasy, in other words, and therefore a cipher of a role, which she delivers straight. Her familiar presence seems to have provided a filter through which American audiences can home in on the film's British charm, and particularly that of Hugh Grant, its dashing, bumbling star, even if this doesn't necessarily rebound well on MacDowell. One witness at a New York screening of the film reports that the audience booed and heckled at the film's closing clinch, when Grant gets his dream girl. 'No,' they yelled. 'Don't do it, you don't want her]'

So what to make of her? 'I suppose it's inevitable that she's slightly spoilt,' says one of her co-stars. 'Sometimes she'd be very down-home and kind of innocent and the next moment she'd be very petulant.' 'She's the opposite of being that cute kind of straightforward sweet thing she appears,' says another, Anna Chancellor, who plays Hugh Grant's jilted girlfriend in the film. 'She's much funnier than that, more loud and wild and a brilliant mimic. She'd tell really funny stories. I don't think she's tapped all her talent yet. She hasn't touched on the lethal side of her personality.' -

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