MAD ABOUT HER

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Tough men go dippy in her presence. They look beyond the blondness and see a questing intelligence, a wit that can sting or caress and, in the corners of her smile, a hint that with the right guy, she wouldn't mind messing around a bit. So, in Twister, a meteorologist (Bill Paxton) runs away with her, ditching his fiance to wildcat after tornadoes. On Mad About You, her TV husband (Paul Reiser) can't stop rhapsodizing. "I'm admiring a beautiful girl who married me for some reason," he says, and "all I know is that I want to wake up with you naked for the rest of my life." Rush these puppies to the ER--they're lovesick.

Now let's hand her a real challenge: the world's meanest man. This guy, a writer named Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson), can't even think about gays, blacks, Jews, Hispanics, women or little sick kids without making an acid slur. But long before the end of As Good As It Gets, the buoyant new bauble from TV- and movie-comedy master James L. Brooks (the Mary Tyler Moore Show, Terms of Endearment), Melvin is converted; he realizes that this woman, with her aggrieved look and a tongue as sharp as Cheddar, is his redeemer. He gulps hard and tells her, "You make me want to be a better man."

The Helen Hunt woman doesn't vamp. She has no outlaw swagger. She doesn't ratchet her I.Q. down 15 or 20 points to make the boys feel better. She refuses to play the little girl or the doomed diva. Or the perfect woman either, for she knows that flourishing at the end of this millennium is an art and a craft, and not many are up to it. But she has the grit to try. She attracts men, and appeals to other women, by being her own complicated self. Determined woman, staunch friend, strong mate: the sensible siren.

By all logic, Helen Hunt--even the name is defiantly sensible--should not be a major multimedia star of the '90s. No one should be, for television and film have become only distantly related media. TV appeals to the broad middle-aged, movies to the young and younger. The living room is the woman's domain, the cineplex a guys' clubhouse. TV bathes in social reassurance; movies strut toward sociopathic threat. Not many performers commute between the two with much profit or comfort. Yet Hunt has one of the 10 highest Q ratings (recognizability plus likability) of all women in entertainment, and her most recent movie, Twister, was the second top-grossing film of 1996.

Listen to Hunt's colleagues speak of her, and you may wonder if she is not as good as it gets but too good to be true. Nicholson: "She's a juggernaut of ability. You can lean on her. She's a great gal, as we used to say. She's a babe." Reiser: "She's a mix of two powerful things: she's deliberate, very precise, knows what she wants; and she's really game, willing to take risks. As an actress, she's really inspiring." Victor Levin, executive producer of Mad About You: "She can talk about anything. Plus she has an alacritive wit--not just funny but fast." It is said that no star is a heroine to her makeup artist, but here's Hunt's: "She's so yummy looking," says Jeanine Lobell. "Like cashmere: elegant but cozy."

Hearing these testimonials, a skeptical journalist is tempted to set up an 800 hot line for anyone with an unkind word to say about the actress, anonymity guaranteed. But there may be more urgent Hollywood news about Hunt. Yes, she's now a big star, winner of Emmy, Golden Globe and MTV Movie awards. But on the evidence, she is also a caring, clever person who loves her folks and her shaggy Samoyed dog Johnny, belongs to no cult, lives in the unchic San Fernando Valley, drives a boring black Volvo sedan, loves opera, listens to the dictates of her conscience, hears the ticking of her biological clock, protects her privacy as you would if you were famous and shrugs off her exhausting TV-and-movie workload--she made As Good As It Gets and a season of Mad About You simultaneously--by saying, "I'm cursed, or blessed, to be able to do more than one thing at a time. To keep the plates spinning."

Hunt proves that a performer can do fine work and lots of it, be respected for what she does and loved for who she is, without falling victim to the excesses of sex, drugs and lock-'er-up. Shouldn't that be worth just one tabloid headline? NORMAL WOMAN CONQUERS SHOW BIZ!

Hunt's triumph is more imposing in that she is a survivor of the frail, often self-lacerating community of child actors. This is not a star-is-born story but a star-is-grown one; she has spent nearly three-quarters of her life in front of footlights and cameras. At 34, Hunt is celebrating her silver anniversary in acting.

She was born in Culver City, Calif., just a few blocks from the lot where Mad About You is filmed. But as an infant, Helen moved to Manhattan with her parents, director Gordon Hunt and Jane, a photographer. "I wasn't that movie-obsessed," Helen recalls. "We were at the theater all the time." For years she was just another out-of-work actress taking classes and studying her craft. Then she turned nine and got a job, as the blond pioneer girl in the 1973 TV movie Pioneer Woman. Even then, Helen had the mile-high forehead, perfect oval face and watchful stillness of a Vermeer maiden. "It was very strange," she says. "Somebody forgot to tell me I was a kid. In Pioneer Woman, I was trying to play Sophie's Choice."

At 11, Helen joined Jessica Walter on the Amy Prentiss sleuth series; a year later, she was a regular on Swiss Family Robinson. And the roles kept rolling in. "We made a deal," Gordon Hunt recalls. "She could work as long as she had a B average. With most kids, if they get a B, you promise them a vacation. With Helen, if she got a B, she got to work. Work was her playtime. I could see there was a really mature soul in there." Casting directors noticed the same thing: Helen had not a sexual but an emotional, intellectual precocity. "I would cry," she notes, "because I didn't get the girlfriend or Brat Pack parts. People said, 'She seems too mature, too knowing.' Well, what could I do about that?"

The answer: just wait. "Helen's an old soul," says her manager and business partner, Connie Tavel, who met Hunt 15 years ago on a women's baseball team. (Typically, Hunt worked so hard honing her skills as a second baseman that at season's end, she was voted "most improved player.") "She was never an ingenue. Now she's growing into her old self. The part of her that kept her from roles at 19 has given her balance and success at 34."

By 19 she was back in New York City, studying acting and landing the occasional job. She played Shakespeare in the Park and Our Town on Broadway (she was Emily opposite Eric Stoltz). On film, she joined other stars of the future (Jim Carrey, Nicolas Cage, Joan Allen) in Francis Coppola's Peggy Sue Got Married and landed a meaty girlfriend role in Project X with Matthew Broderick, who for a few years was also her off-screen co-star. She eventually achieved a Hollywood identity: crown princess of disease-of-the-week TV movies. Fine, but could she do comedy? Reiser and Danny Jacobson, creators of a new show about a just-married couple in New York, may have wondered that until Hunt showed her stuff. She beat out Teri Hatcher (later Lois Lane on Lois & Clark), and--voila!--Jamie Stemple Buchman was born.

TV's notion of family in '90s sitcoms is rabidly postnuclear: single dads, single moms, two older guys, gangs of roving angels. The Jacobson-Reiser premise of a thirtyish, big-city couple in love--reminiscent of classic romantic comedy--was so old it was new. From the start, the show kindled an erotic intimacy; Paul and Jamie Buchman made smart bedroom talk in every room in their lower Fifth Avenue apartment. The combustive blend of Hunt and Reiser, the rare stand-up comedian who takes acting seriously and plays with a subtle attention to his character's mercurial moods, has made Mad About You the best-acted sitcom of its time.

The Buchmans, a documentary filmmaker and his Yale-educated, intermittently employed wife, face modern problems with laughs and lots of compromise. They try making time for each other ("I thought we could have sex now," says Jamie, after planting a big kiss on Paul. "Then we won't have to do it later!"). Sometimes they even work together, with frustrating results (Jamie: "I missed you this week." Paul: "We were together every minute." Jamie: "I know, I didn't have time to think about you--to miss you. I missed missing you!"). And they are constantly analyzing their own moves ("You were very close to the edge there," Jamie says after Paul deflects an argument with a compliment. "But I pulled it off!" he triumphantly replies).

More often than a sitcom ought to, the show pulls it off. It has nursed the Buchmans through infertility and virtual infidelity. This year it gave them a baby, and Hunt a chance to legitimize Jamie's drive and desperation as the postpartum crazies; she's often the mad one in Mad About You. In a superb episode this October (directed by Gordon Hunt), Jamie threatened to walk out of the marriage, then threw Paul out, then nearly frightened a fiance out of her wedding with a harrowing description of marriage and motherhood, then perked up when Paul brought home two pints of Ben & Jerry's, then flared again and fast-balled the ice cream out of their 11th-floor window. (Somehow the whole thing is resolved during a production of The Pirates of Penzance.) Hunt navigates these shoals with America's Cup-worthy dexterity, earning Reiser's praise that "she can spin from touching to funny on a dime."

Since the beginning of last season, Hunt has served as a Mad About You producer. This is no star perk. She proposes story ideas, speaks up in the conferences, makes heeded notes on each script. Next month, she will direct the first of three episodes. Reiser and she will also decide then whether to re-up for Season 7. "Cross my heart, hope to die, I really don't know what will happen next year," she says. "And neither does Paul. It's a load of money, and I don't take that lightly. But we both have lives we want to get back to. And we wonder, Have we done it all?" To judge from next week's episode, "The Conversation," the answer is, Not nearly. Shot in one commercialless 20-min. take, the show has Jamie and Paul waiting outside their bedroom for their daughter to fall asleep. Two people talking--a novel idea for a sitcom. And for the Buchmans, who wonder how much they still have to say to each other.

Jamie on her worst day couldn't touch Melvin Udall, of As Good As It Gets, on his best. Melvin writes romantic novels--62 so far--and strafes the lives of all who amble into his gun sight. Most folks allow the stray nasty thought to blip across their radar, but Melvin lacks a social censor; he blurts out every random insult that occurs to him. "Sound crazy somewhere else!" he snaps at a helpful Hispanic maid. "We're all stocked up here." At times he turns his vocal virulence into action. In the hallway of his Greenwich Village apartment, he spots Verdell, a dog belonging to his neighbor Simon (Greg Kinnear), and dumps the poor pooch down the garbage chute.

Suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder, Melvin adheres to strict rituals: wearing gloves, washing hands, turning his door lock five times, avoiding stepping on cracks in the sidewalk. And mocking those whose misery is less acute than his. Thrown out of his shrink's office for a typical outrage, he stops to stare at the troubled souls in the waiting room and asks them, "What if this is as good as it gets?"

Each day Melvin goes to a coffee shop with his plastic utensils and orders breakfast from "his" waitress, Carol Connelly (Hunt). She is the best part of his awful routine. But why does Carol suffer Melvin's churlishness? Because suffering is her vocation. Her son's asthma makes motherhood a full-time paramedical job. Take Spence's temperature, mop up the vomit and, five or six times a month, run him to to the emergency room, where, she says, "I get whatever nine-year-old they just made a doctor." Carol knows all about her son's illness but nothing about her own. She has become addicted to service. Hunt says of Carol, "She is complicit in the problem. She has to look at how she needed her son to be sick so she'd know who she was."

The plot will give this codependent all she could hope for: two more sick children. Melvin has a child's enveloping egotism. And Simon--the lauded gay artist mutilated by punks in his own home, then financially broken by the medical bills--is another wounded kid who needs a foster mom. He also needs a friend. Slim pickings--it's Melvin, who's been persuaded to care for Verdell. To be rehabilitated, the mean old man must inch his way up the food chain of compassion. First he has to fall in love with an orphan dog.

Time out! In a garish era for movies, does Brooks even have a shot with this Candygram? Its sentimental story has more cripples and victims than A Christmas Carol. And the first half an hour, a bit slow and unsure of its tone, plays like The Grinch from Greenwich Village. The film also echoes Jerry Maguire, the Tom Cruise hit that Brooks produced last year. That one had a self-obsessed hero, a sweet mother-child tandem and a media figure in trouble. All you can say about Brooks' new film, which he wrote with Mark Andrus, is that it's richer, funnier, less predictable and miles more human, with Brooks' patented quirky grace notes--dialogue you don't hear anyplace else, alas, in popular art. The film is like a party that takes a while to warm up; once you get to know the strangers there, you're bound to have a terrific, touching time. Bring hankies.

Nicholson has the most prominent part, and makes it sing wickedly. Kinnear (born two days after Hunt) proves his charming turn in Sabrina was no fluke. And as Verdell, a Brussels griffon named Jill is a magnificent actor, even stealing a big crying scene from the wily Nicholson. But Hunt is the big-screen revelation, playing against her Jamie type while locating in Carol some of that same frazzled drive. Here, Hunt had to deglamourize her image--give herself a makeunder. It's not just that Carol's hair is dark and lifelessly curly; work and worry have lent her an almost cadaverous pallor. In years of devotion to her son, she has forgotten the body language of adult affection. When a doctor speaks to her kindly, she can express her gratitude only by clumsily hugging his face. But she's great at crying: in one scene, her tears squirt perfectly down both cheeks, like the soap mechanism on windshield wipers.

Late in the film, Simon sees Carol stepping into the bathtub and is inspired to start sketching again. This drab waitress--she's so beautiful: "You're why cavemen chiseled on walls." Brooks insisted that the scene not be leering, because "these days the world is so damn foul. Before, it was, 'Tee-hee, there's a nude scene of Helen Hunt.' Now somebody freeze-frames it and sells T shirts." The actress (who had a topless love scene with Eric Stoltz in a poignant scene in the 1991 movie The Waterdance) needed no persuading. "I wanted some sense of modesty," she says, "but also for it to be clear that she was nude. Carol had gone from being clenched and covered, absolutely starved for any sense of herself and her own beauty, to really opening up."

Brooks originally wanted Holly Hunter, star of his Broadcast News, to team with Nicholson. When negotiations collapsed over money, the studio forced him to see Hunt. "I was real cranky about it," he says. "She was too young. Frankly, I saw many, if not all, of the great women. Then there was this one who was too young. And she was good. Real good." Now he--all right, like everybody--is a true Helenist. "There are lots of false idols being bowed to in Hollywood today," he says, "but Helen worships the right god. Instead of 'Please make me a movie star, please make me adorable, please make me wonderful,' she says, 'Please make me true, please make me serve the character, please make me funny.'"

Please, please; work, work. Hunt suggests the schoolgirl who always has her hand raised. In reality, she attended UCLA for, oh, about a day, but in her work she is a brilliant student--and a grind. To prepare for the role in As Good As It Gets, she spent time with a mother caring for a sick child, studied with an accent guru, picked over clothing to make sure it was nondescript enough and, as she always does, wrote in her journals, which by now must be more voluminous than Remembrance of Things Past. "I even treated Twister like Shakespeare," she says. "I researched it psychologically and meteorologically. I visited the National Severe Storm Labs in Oklahoma." Somebody said her character was as obsessed with tornadoes as Ahab was with a certain whale--so "I read a Jungian analysis of Moby Dick."

Hunt is readier to describe her bedtime reading than to discuss who might be listening if she were to read out loud. Her beau is Hank Azaria, the almost unfairly gifted comic actor who played the hunky maid Agador in The Birdcage, provided the cunningly cringing voice for Bartok the bat in Anastasia and inhabits more than a dozen regular characters on The Simpsons (including Moe the bartender, Chief Wiggum and Kwik-E Mart owner Apu Nahasapeemapetilan). He is also Nat, the sweet-souled dog walker on Mad About You. Azaria, 33, and Hunt have resolved not to speak publicly of their relationship.

Yet when the actress talks about the encroachments of a successful career on the rest of her life, she suggests one-half of a conversation that any 34-year-old woman might have with her best man on a nagging, looming topic: What next?

"The truth of it is, I have been working quietly on balance, trying to have a personal life," she says. "I want to pursue this ever growing thing called my career. At the same time, I look at women with children, and I think, 'Who am I kidding?' What I'm doing is kindergarten compared to that. That's when it gets real. Until that happens, I'm in training." She is aware of the dilemma. "I know women who gave it all up to have kids, and it wasn't right. I know women who went off to work--and that wasn't right. That's the messy unanswered question for me, and I feel small in the face of it. I have a friend who says you just have to grab a bigger racquet and rush the net. So that's what I'm trying to do."

Plates spinning, clocks ticking, net rushing. Hunt is as busy as any modern career woman, and as pensive about her genetic legacy. As surrogate friends, we wish her happiness. But we also hope she doesn't mind staying in the limelight for a few more years. Hollywood needs someone like Hunt, an actress who is both glamorous and grounded, to be a star. The industry's variety, if not its vitality, depends on crowd-pleasing performers with a wide range of personalities. And at least a few of them ought to be women. Hunt might have a chance to define feminism, and redefine femininity, for a more mature movie audience--and, by her success, get different kinds of good movies made. Maybe another nice romantic comedy like As Good As It Gets.

Jim Brooks thinks Hunt has "the whole package." He cites Katharine Hepburn, an actress equally adept in comedy and drama, a beauty who could play heiress or spinster. Says Brooks: "Helen just might have those chops too."

Chalk up one more challenge for Helen Hunt. And, in Brooks, one more conquest for the woman everyone is mad about.