Actress Tess Harper welcomes today's meatier roles for women

What's it like to share the screen with three of today's most popular actresses? That's what Tess Harper found out when she took a key supporting role in ``Crimes of the Heart,'' the popular movie based on Beth Henley's prize-winning play.

Another actress might have been daunted by the idea of holding her own in the triple-threat company of Sissy Spacek, Diane Keaton, and Jessica Lange. But not Harper, who's best known for her gentle portrayal of Rosalee Sledge in ``Tender Mercies,'' also directed by ``Crimes of the Heart'' filmmaker Bruce Beresford.

In fact, Ms. Harper had a ball with her latest picture, where she plays the snoopy neighbor of three eccentric sisters - one of whom has just shot her husband for reasons she herself can't figure out.

``If the people who see this film enjoy it anywhere near the way we enjoyed making it,'' she told me during a recent visit here, ``it will be a tremendous success. I've never been on a set full of such camaraderie, enjoyment of each other, and regard for each other. It was a joy to go to work every morning.''

These friendly feelings were especially welcome, Harper says in her feisty Southern accent, because they contradicted the idea that women in show business are prone to competitiveness and envy - a notion she has run into uncomfortably often. ``There's a terrible myth in this country that women don't like each other,'' Harper says. ``A myth that women can't get along with each other, that there's some sort of rivalry.''

This, she maintains, is simply not true. ``Women together can get a lot of things done. They can have regard for each other, and caring, while not excluding the men in their lives. ... There's an interesting chemistry that happens as we get to have regard and respect for each other's work and who we are as people.''

That defined the atmosphere on the ``Crimes of the Heart'' set, Harper adds. ``It was almost like being back in the dorm in college.'' Harper feels women are on the move in the entertainment world, despite years of male dominance.

``More women writers are being produced,'' she points out, citing Beth Henley as Exhibit A in her case. ``There are more women directing and producing. As those numbers rise, I think the good roles will rise. This has been a very good year for solid women's roles. I'm very excited.''

Harper adds that men are helping, too. She notes that while ``Hannah and Her Sisters'' was written and directed by Woody Allen, it deals with ``women who are whole human beings. They're not just there so the male characters can forward their plot. Their lives are interesting, not one-dimensional.''

Moviegoers who remember Tess Harper as the soft-spoken Rosalee in ``Tender Mercies'' may take a while to recognize her in ``Crimes of the Heart,'' where she plays a shrill character called Chick the Stick - who spends her time spying on and complaining about the private lives of her neighbors. Harper enjoyed the leap between these very different roles.

``Rosalee was familiar,'' she says. ``There were people in my life who I recognized in her. I could step into that character like a pair of shoes that you've known and worn forever. I knew exactly who she was, and that she was nonjudgmental, and that she watched the world go by with a certain amount of quiet wisdom.

``The woman I'm playing now has no wisdom at all! And she certainly doesn't watch quietly by. She has a comment on everything. ... Still, in many ways, Chick the Stick is the same. They're people from my childhood and people that I know. It was just a matter of stepping into their shoes for a while.''

With its bittersweet blend of sad and happy situations, ``Crimes of the Heart'' hovers between comedy and drama without quite settling on either. Harper has no problem relating to this ambiguity.

``I think Beth realizes that in comedy there's great pain,'' says the actress. ``If you can't laugh and learn something about your pain - if you can't put it in a perspective where at least you can smile about it - we couldn't exist.''

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