BILLY BOB...OLIVIER?

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The movies' most memorable new face doesn't belong to a gorgeous thing named Gwyneth or Liv. It isn't all that pretty or even that new, seeing as its possessor, actor-auteur Billy Bob Thornton, is 41 and has been kicking around films for a decade. But those who have seen Thornton as Karl Childers in Sling Blade can't get that face out of their bad dreams. The skin is celibate smooth, the eyes clamped shut to keep the demons out, or in. And when the pursed mouth opens, it speaks, in a barrelly bass, of dreadful sins and Old Testament vengeance. Karl is a slow-witted killer--he murdered his mother and her lover when he was 12--with the visage of a fallen angel in private, permanent pain.

The beautifully felt performance behind that face ought to earn Thornton, who also wrote and directed Sling Blade, an Oscar nomination or two next week. The tale of Karl's return home after 25 years in a mental hospital, and of the awful temptations to repeat his crime, has already turned the actor into Hollywood's guy du jour. Clint Eastwood, Elizabeth Taylor, Mel Gibson and Tom Cruise are vocal fans of the film, and Thornton's fellow Arkansan Bill Clinton is expected to screen it at the White House soon. A perennial supporting player, Thornton is now getting fat roles in A pictures: as Sean Penn's nemesis in Oliver Stone's U-Turn and as James Carville, more or less, in the Mike Nichols film Primary Colors. "He's a redneck artist," says Nichols. "Like Nicholson, Travolta and Whoopi Goldberg, he can play street characters with enormous intellect. He has a genius for connecting with people."

Not bad for a man who spent years in medium- and no-budget films (Remember Chopper Chicks in Zombietown?), playing bad ole boys and inbred rubes with names like Coldface, Lightning and (twice!) Billy Bob. "I was nominated by Joe Bob Briggs for a Drive-In Academy Award as 'the whiny husband,'" the actor says while lunching on "vittles" at a Wolfgang Puck cafe in Hollywood. "I didn't win, but it was absolutely an honor to be nominated."

His name may have helped Thornton get that japish citation, just as it may have hurt his early chances for serious roles ("And the Oscar goes to--Billy Bob who?"). But that has been his name since his youth, in Malvern, Arkansas, where Dad was a basketball coach and Mom was a fortune teller with, Thornton says, true psychic powers. The lad was unusual even then, says his boyhood friend Tom Epperson. "My nickname for him was Silly Slob."

After various gigs as a musician, including drummer in a ZZ Top-knockoff band called Tres Hombres, Thornton figured he and Epperson could strike it rich in New York City (that visit lasted all of 10 hours) and then Los Angeles. Together they wrote Thornton's eye-catching role as the white-trash murderer in One False Move. In this heralded heist film, shot in Arkansas in 1991, Thornton is never scarier than when he smiles--the picture of boll-weevil evil. He's good at that. "Billy can organize all the madmen inside himself," says John Ritter, the Three's Company refugee who gets a career makeover as a gentle gay man in Sling Blade. "If Horton Foote and David Lynch ran at each other at 100 m.p.h. and collided head on, the result would be someone like Billy Bob." In his spare moments, Thornton got married. Four times.

Karl, a poignant, complicated character, came to Thornton on the set of a cable movie, 1987's The Man Who Broke 1,000 Chains. "It was hot," he says, "and I had a conductor's uniform on with a collar up to here. My part wasn't going well because the director wanted me to overact. At lunch I was thinking how everyone else on the set was a real actor and I was a nobody. I started making faces at myself in the mirror and started talking in that voice. I looked so goofy, I just went, Eeeewegh. Then I came up with the monologue, with the voice. I thought it was a pretty good character." He performed the monologue as part of a one-man show, then filmed it as a short that he used to raise money for the feature. The full-length Sling Blade was made for $1 million. Last year Miramax Films bought it for $10 million and signed Thornton to a three-picture deal.

The Malvern kid is Razorback royalty now, but he's shy of the Oscar talk. "I have a little of a small-town-guy inferiority complex," he says, "so I think that kind of thing couldn't happen to me." Well, get used to the kudos, Billy Bob. You and Karl--the man and the face--deserve no less.