Olive Oyl and the return of the funny women

Shelley Duvall just had to play Olive Oyl. According to Hollywood scuttlebutt, Lily Tomlin originally had the part before dropping out the Popeye production. But if you think about it -- or see the movie -- it's clear that Miss Duvall was born to play Miss Oyl, Popeye's girlfriend and all- around femme fatale of Sweethaven.

"Popeye" itself is an odd duck of a movie. Its visual ideas are often unappealing, and a lot of its jokes fall flat. Still, it has enormous energy, and it's fascinating to see the adventurous Robert Altman try his hand at an old- fashioned Christmastime entertainment. Then again, maybe this is the biggest adventure of his career -- since old-fashioned musicals have become a lost art, more at home on late-night TV than at the movies.

It's just as adventurous for Miss Duvall, who has never before appeared in a musical-comedy role. But she couldn't resist, especially since the part fit right in with her view of the current film scene. "Funny women are coming back!" she says, with the enthusiasm of a movie star who is also a movie fan.

And she's right. The biggest smash of the season is "Private Benjamin," with Goldie Hawn as a pampered "princess" on the rocky road to liberation. Other films for this winter include "Nine to Five" with Jane Fonda, Dolly parton, and Miss Tomlin; and "The Incredible Shrinking Woman," also featuring the busy Lily.

Unlike such contemporaries as Miss Tomlin and Miss Hawn, Miss Duvall doesn't see herself as a laugh rito. "I don't do comedy," she told me the other day. "I play humurousm parts. I like to do things subtly."

Surprisingly, that subtle humor comes through in "Popeye," which is generally a boisterous picture. In the title role, Robin Williams issues up a stew of muttered oneliners and slapstick outbursts. By contrast, Olive is a queenly figure -- a siren with brown eyes, a stand-up pigtail, and legs that can't quite walk a straight. line.

Often-wounded dignity and all, she's the backbone of the film -- especially when she stopes the show with a song-and-dance so hilariously deadpan that you'd never guess it was Miss Duvall's very first. The secret to mastering a new trick like this is "confidence," the actress says. That confidence was bolstered in "Popeye" by the fact that Robert Altman was the director. He originally "discovered" Miss Duvall -- at a party in her Texas town -- and cast her in "Brewster McCloud," even though she had never acted in her life.

Since then, her quiet humor and unusual looks have graced a long list of Altman films, including "Nashville" and "3 Women," as well as Joan Micklin Silver's "Bernice Bobs Her Hair" and Stanley Kubrick's recent "The Shining." Though she usually likes her work and admires the pictures she is in, she didn't enjoy making "The Shining" at all, complaining that "Jack Nicholson had to be mad all the time, and I had cry all the time, and that went on for 11 months. I won't be in another horror film for a good long time."

Miss Duvall originally planned to be a scientist of some sort, and studied the sciences in high scholl and college. She takes a loose and flexible approach to her acting career, with little formal training and lots of intuition. But she sees no contradition between her freewhelling artistic methods and her long-standing scientific inclinations. "My intuition is a part of me," she says, "as much as any other part. There's nothing risky or unpredictable about using it. It's a valuable tool."

though she sees herself as less a comedience than Goldie Hawn and Lily Tomlin , Miss Duvall is like them in one important respect: She isn't content with just acting. She wants to join the production end of filmaking as well, "to make sure the right kind of pictures get made."

What are the right kind? "Enlightening, uplifting, thoughtful, and entertaining" are some of the adjectives she comes up with. Right now, she's at work on a package of fairy-tale projects -- based on her own fascination with folk tales and myths -- that she plans to offer to the Disney people. All this, and the perfect Olive Oyl, too! An unusual talent to be sure.

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