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GRIFFITH, MELANIE: Crazy in Alabama

JIMMY THOMSON meets Melanie Griffith and husband Antonio Banderas at the Venice Film Festival, after the world premiere of their first baby, Crazy in Alabama - he directs, she stars.

Melanie Griffith says she has the best marriage to the most perfect man in the world, but still she just couldn't resist playing a woman trapped in a loveless relationship who's persistently abused by her husband.

"a strong sense of justice and anger at injustice"

So when she first read the book, Crazy In Alabama, she was desperate to buy the rights. By the time the film was ready to be made, she felt she had to play the role.

And why? The contrast, for one thing. For another, a strong sense of justice and anger at injustice in the world. "I feel so much for any person held down and abused and not allowed to follow their dream," she says of the eccentric Deep South belle who ends up cutting off her husband's head and heading off to Hollywood to be a TV star.

"It's the freedom issue, the issue of being an abused wife and being mad as hell and saying, `I'm not going to take it any more!' I could imagine doing that (cutting off a husband's head), you know. But it's a metaphor in the movie, we're not saying: Go out and do this if your husband abuses you.

"But I just like characters who try a new road after trying the same one over and over again."

"come through it all with her heart intact"

This is a passionate woman. Dressed comfortably for the Venice heat in a loose top and figure hugging skirt, she looked thinner than maybe she ought to be and older off-screen than you expect. But Melanie Griffith is utterly charming. The slings and arrows of a tabloid life give some stars a bitter toughness. She seems to have come through it all with her heart intact.

She sipped occasionally at a mineral water as she explained that she felt just as passionately about the movie's second theme: racism in the southern states in the '60s. "I've never understood why any white person thought they were better than any black person," she says. "In my deepest soul, I don't understand how any human being can think they're better than anyone else.

"So I thought Crazy In Alabama was a beautiful story and a beautiful way of saying something. Maybe, I thought, we could make a difference."

As well as the story behind the movie, however, there was also another attraction to being the star of the film: husband Antonio Banderas agreed to make his directorial debut on the project. So while Melanie acted and co-produced the movie, Banderas directed and their kids stayed close by, even making a family appearance in the film.

It could have been disastrous, but Melanie, 42, says it was a divine experience.

"He's so special"

"He was so great," she coos of Banderas, as she sits in Venice hotel room after the recent Film Festival premiere. "He's so special. It was a mutual endeavour and a very humbling experience for both of us. He's fabulous, and his movies will only get better and better.

"He's made 54 movies himself, so he knows how to deal with actors. He gets so much out of them in such an easy way, you don't even realise you're giving. It's very easy."

Certainly, it's likely to be another high point for them both in careers that have taken very different paths. For Melanie, the daughter of Hitchcock actor Tippi Hedren who started in Hollywood at just 17, Crazy was a wonderful chance to play both drama and comedy in a movie where she could lurch as close to the edge as she wished.

"I can't wait!"

That performance is often in stark contrast to more controlled outings in films like Working Girl, Pacific Heights and Celebrity. It's also given her the confidence to go for more grueling roles in later projects. In her next film, Loving Lulu, for instance, she plays a paranoid schizophrenic. In the one after that, John Waters' Cecil B. Demented, she's set to play a Hollywood vixen kidnapped by underground film-makers who's forced to make an alternative movie. "It's going to be great fun!" she squeals. "I can't wait!"

For both Melanie and her man, winning studio backing for making Crazy In Alabama as the first project of their fledgling production company Green Moon was a huge coup. The script was much longer than usual, Banderas was a first-time director and Melanie, well, she might not be an obvious choice for this kind of film. Yet the pair managed to secure a $16 million go-ahead, a tiny amount in truth for a movie of this breadth and scope.

"It's really not much for making a film that's set in the '60s," says Melanie, smiling. "In the end, it was just 42 days of fucking hard work. I couldn't take a 12-hour turnaround because I was a producer too. I'd have had to apply to myself.

"But it wasn't about making money or making a hit. It was about making something worthwhile, about achieving a dream. All the feelings and struggling we went through for two years, was all suddenly worth it at the premiere when they gave us a 12-minute ovation. It was all paid off in that 12 minutes."

Another pay-off might have been the headlines in an Italian newspaper after the premiere that said Banderas was no longer just a Latin lover. For Melanie, the challenge is often similar: proving that she's not a dumb blonde. "Those jokes drive me crazy," she says.

"what I'm doing tomorrow, rather than what I did yesterday"

"But I don't usually like to read what papers say anyway, and I don't like to watch myself. I just find it difficult. It's different with this one, because we'd shoot all day, then come back all together and watch the dailies. Normally I don't do that because I think I should be thinking about what I'm doing tomorrow, rather than what I did yesterday."

Yet sometimes she can't help being affected by the gossip that follows her. She first became a target during her two marriages to fellow actor Don Johnson, again for her affair with Banderas, and is always suffering from comments about her looks, her penchant for cosmetic surgery and her age.

While she'll do almost anything for a movie, then, there are limits she's imposed precisely because of the publicity she knows will follow her. "Do I have limits? Yes," she says, slowly. "I did put on weight for Lolita and I'll never do it again because I hated it so much.

"The problem was that it wasn't like everyone knew I'd done that for Lolita. It was more everyone just went, `Wow! She's FAT!' and `Look at the weight she's gained!' I went to London one day to visit Antonio who was putting down the recording for Evita. I was 10lb heavier, and all anyone did was comment on my weight. It was horrible."

She shrugs and smiles. Her only weapon is to laugh it off - and keep on savouring the happiness in her private life. The happier she is there, the better work she does career-wise anyway, and the better choices she always ends up making.

"Life is far too important for that"

"I just try to do my best and do things that I can take responsibility for," says Melanie, huskily. "And never turn into a woman doing gratuitous stuff like taking my clothes off. Life is far too important for that."

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