Love her or loath her, MacDowell's longevity has been well-earned. Not only do her films generally make money but her strangely unthreatening, "natural" beauty has made her perfect for the much-reprised "apple pie" role, which she also seems to personify off-screen. (Ironically, MadDowell's real background is far from idyllic; her mother was an alcoholic and her parents divorced when she was six).
It was modelling that gave Macdowell the "in" she needed to take up acting and today she remains the face of L'Oreal. She even showed up in Cannes earlier this month for some promotional work. "I don't know, around 20 days a year I guess," MacDowell whinnies when asked how much of her time she gives to the hair company. "I've been working for L'Oreal forever. Early on in my career, it was thanks to my contract with them that I was able to concentrate more on my acting and studying." She admits she sometimes does get sick of being treated like a tailor's dummy. "But, you know, it's my job - so I try to be patient." MacDowell, remarkably, has been modelling for well over two decades, but has no intention of quitting quite yet. "I'll go on as long as it feels good," she says.
Interviewing MacDowell, it's hard not to be distracted by her hair and make-up. She's beautiful, to be sure, but her features have the frigidity of a porcelain doll; perfect, but not remotely sexy. Today, thanks to the assiduous attentions of L'Oreal's crimpers, she looks like a model from a mineral water commercial sprung to life.
At first, Macdowell is not particularly forthcoming. She answers each new question politely but quickly, and always looks round to her agent (who also seems to be her minder) for ratification. She is friendly enough but distant. Just as she manufactured smiles for the L'Oreal photographers as if on auto-cue, she relays her answers in a slightly mechanical fashion. She seems not quite real, more like a marionette than a normal human being.
Perhaps it's part defence mechanism - everyone wants a piece of her; the crowds outside are as ruthless as trophy hunters when it comes to snapping their idols and she seems a little fazed by their attentions. "It's kind of like going to Disney World but I'm the ride," she drawls in her sing-song Southern voice, "that's what it feels like when you're in the car and you have all these people looking at you."
MacDowell is between films at the moment. In a fortnight or so, she starts work on Town And Country, a sophisticated comedy about "rich folk in Beverly Hills." The film, which is being directed by ex-pat Brit Peter Chelsom (Hear My Song, Funny Bones) reunites her with Gerard Depardieu (her co-star in Green Card) and Diane Keaton (who directed her in Unstrung Heroes). "My character is great. I lie a lot. I get to wear amazing clothes and I sleep with Warren Beatty," she says.
Outside on the street, just opposite the hotel, there's a poster of MacDowell advertising L'Oreal. Right opposite it, as if deliberately put there to provoke her, is the image of Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts in the Four Weddings follow-up, The Notting Hill Story. Given the success of their first outing together, it was a reasonable expectation that Grant and MacDowell might be paired together again. "But they don't really do that any more," sighs MacDowell. "That used to be a thing they did in the olden days, repeating actors over and over again. But it doesn't really happen any more." Besides, she adds, she already has two films to promote. In Shadrach she plays Trixie, a Virginia plantation owner, and she also appears opposite Andy Garcia in the romantic comedy, The Scalper. The implication is clear: she wouldn't have been able to appear in The Notting Hill Story, even if they had asked her - so there!
MacDowell may look fragile and sylph-like but it's obvious she harbours some pretty strong opinions. For starters, she is not at all keen on the fad for waif-like models and actresses. "Some women are naturally thin," she muses. "But there needs to be an appreciation for a variety of types of women because we don't all come in one package. We're not pre-destined to all be a size six. It's very hard for a large group of women to maintain a thinness which is after all only natural to a few people."
She carefully points out that most children, her own daughter included, have a little puppy fat. "But people panic if you have a little belly or a curve. We cannot be just skin and bones. Women become women. That's what happens when you become a woman - you get hips and breasts. You become slightly round. It's like Venus, that's what you look like... but it's not celebrated enough."
Was she ever fat as a teenager? Never, MacDowell replies swiftly, although she has never been really skinny either. In her new film Shadrach, she adds, she had to put on weight for the part. "They were going to pad me but I told them not to. I just ate everything I wanted to eat and relaxed and didn't hold my stomach in and slouched a little bit. My character was the kind of person who drinks beer for breakfast. She has seven kids - it was fun to play!"
Acting "mom" clearly appeals to an actress who is forever trumpeting the importance of family life. It's intriguing how she only ever seems to be offered a choice of two roles: either she is the unattainable, muse- like beauty (Groundhog Day, Four Weddings etc.) or she is the family matriarch (Short Cuts, Unstrung Heroes, Shadrach). Back home on the ranch in Montana, where she lives with her husband (a former model) and children, MacDowell is the main bread-winner. Her work takes her away for months on end. "But I'm very fortunate that I have a husband with an open mind, someone prepared to play a non-traditional role - that's what helps."
If there is one surefire way to annoy MacDowell, it's to ask her why her voice was dubbed by Glenn Close in Hugh Hudson's Greystoke - The Legend Of Tarzan Of The Apes. "That's so boring. That was 17 years ago. I'm sick of talking about it," she snaps, "it's like hanging on to something that's really peculiar. It's really silly to keep on pulling that back out when it's such an old thing. It's like remembering something you did when you were two. It's ancient!"
It's easy to understand her sensitivity given her rough ride by the press. The fact that she is a model who speaks with a deep Southern twang seems to offend them. Anyone who saw her role as a grieving mother in Robert Altman's Short Cuts ("I really hated that character!" she says now, "she was so stupid!") or indeed her sparkling comic turns in Green Card and Groundhog Day will realise that she is far more than the "painted stick model impersonating an actress" that one critic recently called her. Even so, her sudden confession that her burning ambition is to act in a Mike Leigh film comes as a surprise. "I know I'd have no life," she says, "but I'd love to work with him."
Leigh and MacDowell... it's an intriguing prospect. Somehow, one just can't imagine the official face of L'Oreal next to David Thewlis or Timothy Spall in one of Leigh's anguished family dramas: Four Weddings And a Funeral is one thing, Secrets & Lies quite another. Then again, MacDowell is much steelier than her gilded persona suggests. Who knows, maybe acting with Leigh would be a doddle after all.