"A Passage to India" brought Judy Davis an Academy Award nomination, but seven years later she is still not a major star.
Part of it is by choice. Since the 1984 epic, Davis has preferred the stage and smaller, less commercial films from her native Australia, such as "Kangaroo" and the arthouse favorite "High Tide."But a personality as unbending as some of her characters' may have also made a difference. She doesn't hesitate to criticize her films or the people she worked with.
"My Brilliant Career" brought her international acclaim in 1979, but she dismisses it as "oversimplified." Asked about Sir David Lean, the director of "A Passage to India," the actress replied they didn't get along, the camera work was "static" and she would have liked a little more dialogue from the character portrayed by her.
"It's a problem, really, I'm impulsive," she laughed during a recent interview at a Manhattan hotel, days before Sir David died at the age of 83. "I've often wondered why I'm so honest and I think it must be laziness, it's just so much easier to say what you think than making something.
"In the novel of `A Passage to India,' my character's quite talkative, and I kept telling that to David. `She's quite talkative, you know.' And he'd say, `Don't talk to me about that book!' "
She offered no opinions of her latest film, "Impromptu," a romantic comedy about the relationship between 19th-century novelist George Sand and composer Frederic Chopin. Davis portrays Sand, Hugh Grant is Chopin and Bernadette Peters, Mandy Patinkin and Julian Sands co-star.
A century before Katharine Hepburn's slacks were the talk of Hollywood, Sand hurried about Paris in men's suits. She was a shrew in no danger of being tamed, having affairs with novelist Prosper Merimee and poet Alfred de Musset among others, and then freely recalling them in her books.
In 1836, she met the frail, sensitive Chopin and pursued him for two years, ignoring his initial resistance and eventually living with him for several years. Their relationship ended bitterly a decade later and the composer, in ill health much of his life, died in 1849.
"She was overwhelmingly passionate and it was a thing I had to work at," Davis insisted. "With Chopin, many women made their desire known and then they'd back off, but once she wanted something, she was absolutely driven to obtain him and nothing stood in the way. I found that difficult to understand."
Born in Perth, Australia, in 1956, Davis remembered herself as a shy girl living in a small town surrounded by desert and ocean. She saved herself for the stage, developing an interest in acting at an early age and keeping at it despite seeing little chance of turning it into a career.
"In the community I grew up in it was far from being a respectable profession," she recalled. "You don't become an actor; you might want to join an amateur repertory group, but you don't do it for a living.
"In the '40s and the '50s, all the Australian actors left the country, Peter Finch included. It's really very new, the concept that an Australian actor can make a living and and hold his head up."
But Australian movies had begun to succeed overseas by the late 1970s, and while studying at Sydney's National Institute of Dramatic Art, Davis made her film debut in "High Rolling," which came out in 1978.
She followed with "My Brilliant Career." Davis starred as Sybylla, an aspiring writer in turn-of-the century Australia who longs to get out of the bush, fearing her greatest ambition would be nothing more than acquiring a good dress.
Sybylla proves too tough-minded to settle down. One unfortunate suitor is pushed into a flock of sheep, another is tipped from a rowboat. In the end, she is alone and proud of it, a smile breaking out as she contentedly leans against a fence and watches the sunset.
"It's quite lovely to look at, very pretty to look at, but not all that interesting to me," Davis shrugged. "I think I found the script to be oversimplified. I think it was more pictorial than intellectually robust. As an actor you want to be able to get your teeth into something."
Adela Quested of "A Passage to India" was her most restrained role - "a nonentity" is how Davis describes her. The actress prefers characters such as D.H. Lawrence's outspoken wife in "Kangaroo," and the down-and-out dancer in "High Tide" who accidentally meets the daughter she abandoned.
What does Davis look for in a part? Independence, she says, someone who isn't just an appendage to another person. That may have kept her from appearing in more films, but the actress is willing to be flexible, even dreaming of roles George Sand would have been proud to take on.
"I've had to fight the urge to play male roles all my life!" Davis laughed, squeezing the word "fight" and quickly gaining intensity.
"I played Hamlet in Australia. All the young girls were choosing Ophelia, and I chose Hamlet. You know the closet scene with his mother?" Davis snaps her fingers. "Great scene! Let's face it, Shakespeare gave the best parts to men. Who wants to play Lady Macbeth? I want to play Macbeth!"