By Gary Deane
“She’s a ‘40’s actress dropped into the ‘90’s. I adore her. There’s something about her that just breaks my heart.” Jonathan Kaplan, director, Unlawful Entry (‘92)
Madeleine Stowe knows how to show up—and never more than one time in 2012 as a guest on ABC’s morning chat-fest, The View. It had been two decades since Stowe been named as one of People magazine’s “50 Most Beautiful Persons in the World” and nothing much had changed. As could have been predicted, peevish hosts Whoopi Goldberg and Joyce Behar looked unimpressed. However, Stowe was in blithe spirits that day. She'd recently received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress in a Drama Series in the noir-drenched Revenge, a program which would run from 2011 to 2015 and Stowe hit the stage with old-school sway, an unblushing throwback to a time when dressed-to-kill glamor and allure was the order of the day. Charming, unfiltered, and fiercely smart (she was a favorite guest of TCM host, the late Robert Osborne), it soon became clear that while she was all set to be engaging, she was—if push came to shove—just as ready to fully engage.
For a period, the world had heard little from or about her. In the late ’80’s and early ‘90's, Stowe had been a fast-rising star, working with such A-list directors as Michael Mann, Robert Altman, and Terry Gilliam, and on the cusp of a gilt-edged career. Then suddenly things cooled off and she would find herself adrift aboard a succession of office flops and anodyne made-for-TV movies. With Revenge, all that would change. The show, a high-drama evening soap, starred Emily VanCamp as a young woman whose father had been jailed for crimes he’d never committed. Sent away as a child, she’d now returned, bent on taking revenge on those responsible—namely the Grayson family and its matriarch, Victoria Grayson, played fearsomely by Stowe. Victoria is a classic femme fatale who takes no prisoners. When she hears her best friend has slept with her husband, she brings her close and whispers, “Every time I hug you, the warmth you feel is my hatred burning through”. You get the idea.
Stowe’s own beginnings were less dramatic. Born in 1958 in Eagle Rock, California, a working-class community sandwiched between Glendale and Pasadena, she actually was painfully shy growing up. She took up piano at age ten and for the next eight years did little else but practice and perform under the tutelage of Sergei Tarnowsky, once the teacher of Vladimir Horowitz. When Tarnowsky died at age 92 in 1976, Stowe quit playing, having decided that “It was time to not be all by myself anymore”. She enrolled at the University of Southern California to study film and journalism and went on her first date—with Dennis Quaid who declined to take her virginity, not wanting the responsibility.
Then came some stage acting. But after seeing her at the Solaris Theater in Beverly Hills, an agent landed her a part in the TV series Baretta, starring Robert Blake as an undercover cop. After that came appearances on Barnaby Jones, Little House on the Prairie, Trapper John, and in the mini-series The Gangster Chronicles, starring Brian Benben as Michael Lasker, a character based on mobster Meyer Lansky (Stowe played Lasker’s wife, Ruth, and in 1981 Stowe and Benben themselves would marry). TV movies followed, including The Nativity (‘78), a kind of biblical ‘When Joseph Met Mary’ with John Shea; then Blood and Orchids (‘86), a landmark broadcast television mini-series featuring Jane Alexander as Doris Ashley, a Hawaiian plantation owner whose daughter, Hester (Stowe, in a shattering performance) is sexually assaulted by a friend of her daughter’s husband. To protect the family, Doris has Hester accuse four young Hawaiian men of battery and rape—unleashing events viewed through the cynical eyes of the investigating detective, played by Kris Kristofferson.
Tropical Snow (1988), her next feature, starred Stowe and Cuban-American Jsu Garci (as Nick Corri) as Marina and Tavo, pickpockets working Bogota’s international airport to support their families. The two agree to act as drug mules for small-time dealer, Oskar (David Carradine) and swallow cocaine-filled balloons just before flying to New York. Things do not go well for the pair. Written and directed by Columbian film-maker Ciro Duran, Tropical Snow is a noir with a beating heart, a lament for a country and the plight of its people. Despite the film’s low-rent production values and the soundtrack’s Miami Vice-like grip, its story and characters are compelling—especially Marina who, though terrified, does what she must to survive. Her only real currency is her looks and having worked in a seedy dance bar, she’s only too aware what comes next for pretty women.
The first of these was Revenge (‘90), directed by Tony Scott and based on Jim Harrison’s 1979 pulp noir novella in which women are held to be grand prizes in a male game. Kevin Costner stars as Cochran, a jet jockey who goes to visit Tibey, a wealthy friend in Mexico. Tibey is an up-from-the-gutter character (performed with peasant grandeur by Anthony Quinn) whose sable-haired trophy wife, Miryea (Stowe) enjoys every comfort, though he refuses to give her what she most wants ̶ a child. It’s not long before she and Cochran are stealing glances across the table at dinner and walking beaches together. The ferociously jealous Tibey learns of their dalliances and in a fury orders his men to deal with them. Miryea is drugged and disfigured and dumped at a brothel, and told, “If you want to be a whore, you can be one for the rest of your life”. Tibey’s taken his revenge but the badly-beaten Cochrane responds in kind. As noir often has it, no one wins—though Cochran and Mileya endure long enough to salvage some of their humanity. Stowe gives a gut-wrenching performance as a woman whose only consolation is that she gets to choose a final means of escape from hell.
Now on a roll, Stowe would next feature in the Jack Nicholson-directed retro noir The Two Jakes (‘90), the long-delayed sequel to Chinatown (‘74). Nicholson again stars as private eye Jake Gittes, this time hired by Jake Berman (Harvey Keitel), to catch his wife, Kitty (Meg Tilley) in the act with his business partner, Mark Bodine. At question also are the fortunes of Bodine’s spouse, Lillian (Stowe) and the related whereabouts of Katherine Mulwray, last seen being abducted by her incestuous monster of a grandfather, Noah Cross. Though The Two Jakes is messy and frayed, Stowe—tough, foul-mouthed, and appealingly loopy in pink angora and a ‘40’s Victory Roll—is the movie’s sole undiluted pleasure.
Two years later came Jonathan Kaplan’s chilling domestic noir, Unlawful Entry (‘92), with Stowe sharing the bill with Kurt Russell as a couple, Karen and Michael Carr, who’ve moved recently into a leafy Los Angeles neighborhood. One night a robber breaks in and holds a knife to Karen’s throat. Though he eventually runs off, the two are badly shaken. Michael, knowing he’d been unable to protect his wife, is humiliated. The police are called and one of the officers, Pete Davis (Ray Liotta), goes out of his way to help out with installation of a security system. To show their appreciation, they invite him to dinner. In the days following, Pete begins to show up unannounced and intrude upon their lives, telling Karen, among other things, that she needs a better man around the house than her husband. Unlike other domestic thrillers of the day such as Fatal Attraction (‘87) Pacific Heights (‘90), The Hand that Rocks the Cradle (‘92), and Single White Female (‘92), Unlawful Entry’s storyline is as credible as it is gripping, as Kaplan (Heart Like a Wheel (’83), The Accused (’88) sets the story in an entirely plausible world. Cheap dramatics are avoided, the tension builds organically, and it takes most of the movie for Pete’s obsession to fully reveal itself. Stowe is strikingly and uncomfortably real as a woman-in-peril who fails to realize how drawn she is to Pete’s fantasy. While she doesn’t lead him on, she makes the near-fatal mistake of not nipping his dangerous imaginings in the bud and awareness comes not a moment too soon.
Then came Robert Altman’s three-hour pastiche, Short Cuts (‘93), based on the stories of Raymond Carver, America’s blue-collar Chekov. Stowe features as Sherri, the wife of Gene Sheppard (Tim Robbins), a motorcycle cop who routinely cheats on her. Not that she cares, being a scrapper who laughs at the lies and sorry excuses that her husband tries to feed her. Sherri is the film’s most appealingly sympathetic character and Stowe’s performance won her a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress (Stowe first had been assigned the role played by Juliane Moore but Stowe balked at the nudity the script asked for and Moore agreed to swap parts).
Stowe was now going to from strength to strength and China Moon (‘94), her next movie, a second coming for film noir tropes borne of the classic period, was a chance to play what she was meant to be—an unreconstructed femme fatale. Rachel Munro, a pampered, unhappy Florida beauty is stuck in an abusive marriage to a philandering husband, Robert (Charles Dance). One evening she heads to a local beach bar to drown her sorrows and meets Kyle Bodine (Ed Harris), another cop who’s always on red alert. Only this time Bodine lets his guard down and ends up a chump to end all chumps.
China Moon (effectively a re-make of The Man Who Cheated Himself, ‘50’) was directed by John Bailey, the cinematographer who’d worked with both Lawrence Kasdan (Body Heat, ‘81) and Paul Schrader (Hardcore, ‘79; American Gigolo, ‘80). China Moon also bears a strong family resemblance to Body Heat, with its moody Florida settings, and a gullible protagonist led down an equally dark path by a predatory female. However, Stowe’s Rachel is both less obvious and more complicated than Kathleen Tuner’s pulp fiction spider woman, Mattie Walker; neither is Kyle Bodine as frivolous and given to casual affairs and one-night stands as William Hurt’s louche Ned Racine. Unlike that of Ned, Kyle’s fall is far more tragic. Free of self-reflexive irony or reversals of classic elements, China Moon is a modern noir as though conjured and directed by classic greats Robert Siodmak or Edward Dmytryk.