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The irony is elephantine:
It's likely that director Taylor Hackford will never have a bigger hit than "An Officer and a Gentleman." And yet its female star, Debra Winger, pronounced the experience of making it a sexist nightmare.

When you ask the normally talkative and even verbose Hackford about it now over the phone, all he'll say is this:

"I don't bad-mouth people I work with. Different people have different philosophies about how they talk to the press and what they say. In this instance, all I can say is that I stand by the movie. I think it's some of the best work she's ever done, if not the best. That's statement enough for me."

Period. Next subject. Thirteen years later, the man who was Winger's Nemesis (or was that Richard Gere? It has never been settled) has become the Big Time Actress' Best Friend, directing one of the most impressive actress' shows to come along in a very long time -- the current family gothic from Stephen Kingville, "Dolores Claiborne."

Oscar winner Kathy Bates and extraordinary young actress Jennifer Jason Leigh star as mother and daughter in the most dysfunctional family in Maine. Among currently active movie actresses, that's about Hollywood's maximum in allowable horsepower.

"The great thing in this particular project is: finding good roles for an actress in a Hollywood feature film is rare," Hackford says. "Finding two great roles is just unheard of. In this particular instance, (these actresses) don't have any illusions any more that these things fall off of trees. Both Kathy and Jennifer knew this was something they wanted. They didn't have to be cajoled or seduced into it."

While Hackford would no doubt deny any change within him, there's no question that a major change in his life since he made "An Officer and a Gentleman" is that he is living with one of the most widely revered film actresses in the world -- Helen Mirren. He admits -- "absolutely" -- that the fact of that has given him immense insight into and sympathy for the plight of the current film actress.

"To me," he says "I'm living with the greatest actress in the world -- certainly one of them. . . . But again, though, I was raised by a mother alone. I kind of grew up with women in my life." The female perspective,
then, is not new to him.

Hackford is one of the most interesting film directors in America. Except for his abiding interest in rock 'n' roll, Hackford gives no clues, from one film to the next, what he will do.

Consider his film list:

"The Idolmaker" (starring Ray Sharkey in a veiled portrait of Bob Marcucci, the Philadelphia rock manager who discovered Fabian and Frankie Avalon)

"An Officer and a Gentleman"

"Against All Odds" (an erotic remake of the classic film noir "Out of the Past")

"White Nights" (Iron Curtain defection number starring Gregory Hines and Mikhail Baryshnikov)

"Everybody's All-American" (Dennis Quaid as a football hero past his prime)

"Hail, Hail Rock and Roll" (documentary about Chuck Berry)

"Blood In, Blood Out" (three-hour drama about Latino gang life, retitled "Bound by Honor" but never widely released)

And, now, "Dolores Claiborne" -- which is bound to be a rearrival for a director who shouldn't really need one.

Hackman is almost as active behind the scenes. He produced "La Bamba," and his production company helped to get such offbeat movies made as "Mortal Thoughts" and "Queen's Logic." This is a man doing his bit for the cause.

A conversation with a filmmaker bound to be on a high point in the sine wave of his career:

Q: These are two powerful performances (in "Dolores Claiborne"). Some actors and actresses are better on first takes than they ever are afterward. And some take a long time to warm up. Considering the importance of their scenes together, were they in sync?

A: Not at the beginning. Both are really experienced. Kathy is one generation away from Jennifer and therefore had a lot of stage experience before. Remember, though, Jennifer started working as a young girl. She comes from a movie family. (Note: Her father was actor Vic Morrow, killed in the tragic "Twilight Zone" helicopter accident.) I think her first film was when she was 15. She's had a lot of experience also. . .

They did have different styles but they both understood -- like any good actor -- that you don't do a scene alone. We did rehearse a bit. It took a little time for them to find the dance step and get their rhythm right. They do have different styles. But it wasn't at all unusual for me to see Kathy standing behind the camera giving Jennifer off-camera lines and crying. Each of them was so touched by the other. They don't have to do this. But they were totally committed to each other.

Q: It's a horrific story. How did you protect the young actress who has to mime being sexually abused in the movie by her father? She has to know what's going on in order to do the scene. At the same time, it's hard to imagine that you all weren't worried about her welfare.

A: That's a very good question. We had a nationwide search (for the actress who would play the young version of Jennifer Jason Leigh). Ellen Muth, whom we found in Connecticut and who acquitted herself beautifully in the film, was a junior high school student. She's 14 now, was 13 then. She had no experience whatsoever. She had not done film or television. She'd taken some acting classes in her school. But she is very smart. She's a member of Mensa. She wants to be an actress.

Although she didn't have the experience, she had the intellectual capacity to understand this is a very serious piece. I talked with her parents, who were very lovely people. They were obviously concerned. I told them while we were not doing anything explicit, the subject matter was quite specific. We worked through this. . .

Jennifer took a very intimate and personal role with Ellen. They were playing the same person (at different ages). I wanted Ellen to walk and have the same gestures as Jennifer. As a result of this, they formed a very close bond. That also helped. . . . David Straitharn is a fabulous and fearless actor. He's a father. He has three children. He has a family. It was very difficult for him to play this role and play it right -- not cop out.

Even though they had no scenes together, Jennifer and Ellen were inseparable. David, who was doing the scenes with Ellen -- all the time she understood he was there for her.

Was it easy? No. She grew to such an extent in this period of time. It was astonishing. This is a girl who will be an actress. This is a girl who wants it badly and is very smart. In the process of us trying to protect her, she had the intelligence and commitment to go after something and understand that it was a role.

Q: I always thought Ray Sharkey was a remarkable actor and your "Idolmaker" was the best thing he ever did. Was he having his problems then? (Note: After a life of serious drug abuse -- including heroin addiction -- Sharkey died of AIDS in 1993. He was 40 years old.)

A: Just at the cusp. I think Ray's life mirrored "The Idolmaker." "The Idolmaker" was about a man who was incredibly talented, but he lived in an era when Rock Hudson and Tony Curtis were the idols and he had to work behind the scenes. We hadn't gotten to the generation of the Dustin Hoffmans and Robert DeNiros where you could have somebody who wasn't particularly pretty.

Ray worked in "The Idolmaker" so wonderfully and he had such prodigious talent. The trouble was that his expectations were that his career in Hollywood (would skyrocket). At the time the film was beginning to screen around, he started to hang with some people who had been through the process and were stars.

They were telling him, "You're so talented, you're going to be a star. This is the way you have to act. This is what you have to do." That's all fine as long as the film is a hit. The film itself was well-reviewed but, as you remember, it didn't do any business. In Hollywood, if somebody comes onto the stage without the classic good looks of a Mel Gibson, they have to make it on sheer talent alone. When the film didn't do very well, when Ray's expectations didn't happen, he took a fall and it's really one of the great tragedies.

It's terrible because he was a man of extreme talent and passion. That dream-making machine builds expectations and when they're not met, you take a fall.

Q: Given your long association with rock 'n' roll, who do you like in the current crop?

A: It waxes and wanes. Whatever he's being called today, Prince has got incredible variety and talent. He's like Sly Stone was in his era -- inventive and phenomenal. He waxes and wanes and could self-destruct himself.

I love Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders. Talent will out and she just came out with an album that will bring her back. One album can be brilliant, but you have to build a career. Two or three albums and then you realize someone's got the staying power and the true talent to survive.

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