Iron butterfly

Twenty pages into her first read through the script of The Last Seduction, John Dahl's stunningly nasty film noir, Linda Fiorentino realized she simply had to play the film's antiheroine, Bridget--a femme so fatale she makes Sharon Stone look like Sandy Dennis.

She'd reached the page where Bridget arrives in the upstate New York town of Beston after stealing $700,000 from her husband, a weaselly, drug-dealing Brooklyn internist played by Bill Pullman. Bridget saunters into a local bar, fires up a Camel, and asks for a Manhattan. Enter Mike (Peter Berg), a well-meaning hunk of beefcake, who sidles over to Bridget and murmurs, "You're not from around here, are you?"

"Fuck off," she replies, then heads for a booth.
Mike follows her. "I'm hung like a horse," he declares.
Bridget sighs the sigh of a superior being. "Show me," she says.

Mike panics. He fidgets and stammers. Suddenly he feels as suave and dangerous as a gnome in pointy shoes and a jingle-bell cap. "Right here?" he whines. "You've got to be kidding!"

"You said you were hung like a horse," she insists. "So show me."
"When I got together with John Dahl," says Fiorentino, in the same whisky-and-cigarettes growl that hooked poor Mike into a murder-for-hire scam he'd regret for the rest of his godforsaken life, "I asked him, 'Let me get this straight: I get to do all this nasty stuff, and I don't have to apologize for it?' And he said no, because what's hilarious about Bridget is that while she's manipulating the men in the movie, she's manipulating the audience, too. She's playing on their expectations of all the cop-out femme fatales who've been made to show a soft side. You're waiting for the third-act speech where Bridget says she's sorry she did this, but she's sick and just couldn't help herself. And it never comes.

"It was totally contrary to the Hollywood view of how women are supposed to behave," she adds. "Look at Thelma and Louise. It was allegedly this breakthrough role for women, but you'll notice that there had to be a rape to explain what would drive these women to rebel against male society, and in the third act, they die. If you're a woman in a movie, you're not allowed to just rebel, the way men can just rebel. You have to be reprimanded--your character has to receive her comeuppance. But Bridget was given the freedom to be bad without asking for sympathy. She was the ultimate version of other roles I had played and really enjoyed--the strong, intelligent woman who didn't take any shit from men."

Which might explain why Linda Fiorentino has been on the verge of stardom forever without crossing over. She's worked in films for a decade, yet her rsum is surprisingly short.

You might have seen her in the 1984 Matthew Modine wrestling flick Vision Quest as a tough young woman who renders Modine stone-silent with a single kiss. She was the S&M sculptress in Martin Scorsese's After Hours, and the troubled flapper in Alan Rudolph's Hemingway-era Paris melodrama, The Moderns. She's been in other theatrical movies since then--enough to count on your toes. And if you're an insomniac who channel-surfs cable, you're probably more familiar with her. She's done plenty of direct-to-video movies--mostly erotic melodramas with IQs only slightly higher than others of their type.

The best of the bunch, and the most helpful in understanding Fiorentino's serpentine career trajectory, is Acting on Impulse. In it she plays a B-movie queen fleeing a troubled past who stays at a hotel during a sales convention and meets a tight-assed, very married junior executive played by the eternally bland C. Thomas Howell.

Soon they're embroiled in a surprisingly funny, down-to-earth affair. Fiorentino liberates Howell and the movie, too, sashaying through the halls, hips swinging, drink in one hand, cigarette in the other, luring the executive away from his business duties by cooing, "Party in myyy room." She's a refreshingly guilt-free hedonist. Her most natural position is lying on her back on a bed, fully clothed, slightly tipsy, chuckling as her head hangs off the edge of the mattress and she watches TV upside down.

She also gets to deliver the kind of heartbreaking monologue most A-list actresses would kill for. It occurs when the heroine and her lover watch one of her old movies on cable, a barbarian adventure in which she wears a cast-iron bikini. She recalls how she went to Hollywood as a teen hoping to become an old-style movie star, only to discover there were no star parts in A-list movies for the Joan Crawfords and Bette Davises of today--only girlfriends, wives, daughters, hookers, and other male-accessory roles. She decided it was better to make B movies, because even though they require you to get naked and stab men with butcher knives, at least you get top billing and your character drives the plot.

Not surprisingly, Fiorentino improvised the monologue on the set. "The scene as written was similar," Fiorentino says, "but I told the director, 'Listen, I have a better story than this, and it's a real one.' In that scene, I was confessing who I really am."

What she really is is a Philadelphia-born, blue-collar, Italian-American Catholic with a knack for flaunting the rules. She got barred from her senior prom after being caught smoking at school. She bopped around Hollywood and New York throughout her youth, auditioning fruitlessly for movies and TV and doing off-off-Broadway, at one point sharing a tiny Manhattan apartment with an unknown wiseass named Bruce Willis, with whom she worked as a bartender. She finally broke down and took acting classes, only to quit after one of her improvisations--a gleefully enthusiastic masturbation scene--prompted an instructor to brand her disturbed.

Following her breakthrough in Vision Quest and After Hours, she took small roles in small films--some good, some wretched--to pay the bills. She was much pickier when contemplating big parts. "If nobody's gonna see it," she says, "I'll do it if the part is interesting. But when something is high profile, you have to be more careful, because one wrong choice can really stunt your opportunities in the future."

Accordingly, she turned down the Demi Moore part in the ill-fated comedy epic We're No Angels because she thought the script was rotten, and advised its star, Robert DeNiro, to do the same. In 1991, Dutch-born thriller director Paul Verhoven asked her to play the psychiatrist boy toy in Basic Instinct--a part that later made Jeanne Tripplehorn into a sought-after, A-list actress. She told Verhoven she'd rather play Sharon Stone's part.

"Paul told me I didn't want it because it meant I'd have to be naked all the time and on top of Michael Douglas, and that I just wasn't big enough on top," she says, laughing uproariously. "It ended up being a big Hollywood movie that was well-made, but definitely not as shocking as they promised it would be. The most shocking thing in that whole movie was Michael Douglas' butt. That man really shouldn't have taken his clothes off."

She's getting plenty of high-profile offers now, though. She's set to star in the thriller Jade as a shrink accused of murdering a patient. The cast boasts such respected, up-and-coming actors as Chazz Palmintieri (A Bronx Tale, Bullets over Broadway) and "NYPD Blue" fugitive David Caruso, and its director is William Friedkin, whose relentlessly hard-edged, cynical movies she adores. "I've probably seen The French Connection 12 times," she gushes. "The Exorcist, too. I just love that movie. For a Catholic girl, that's the ultimate fantasy, isn't it? Being the devil."

Being the devil also can have perversely positive side effects. Two weeks ago, when Fiorentino went to visit a friend who worked in a Los Angeles office building, the receptionist began raving about her work in The Last Seduction. Fiorentino's trademark throaty chuckle revs up as she remembers the encounter.

"This woman told me, 'I know this is going to sound weird, but your movie made an impression on me. It made me feel strong. It made me want to quit taking so much crap from my boyfriend. It made me feel like it's okay to have an opinion. Since I saw it, when I've been in a position where I feel like things aren't in my control, I try to imagine what Bridget would do. Basically, what I'm saying is that I saw your movie and I've been behaving like a bitch even since.'

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