Jess Cagle
July 19, 1991 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Judy Davis’ critically cherished debut in the Australian film My Brilliant Career (1979) sneaked by most American audiences. And the funny and self-effacing Davis isn’t one to stump for attention. She lives outside Hollywood, in her native Australia. That’s okay — her work speaks for itself. As footloose Lilli in 1987’s High Tide, she pitted pride against maternal guilt; the next year, as Miss Quested in A Passage to India, she stared down the sins and repression of the British Empire, but her performance was awash in sensuality. In the recent Impromptu, she gave her most powerful performance yet as author George Sand, pining for the weak-willed composer Franz Liszt.

Blessed with the subtle expressiveness of Vanessa Redgrave and the knowing delivery of Bette Davis, this actress has built her career playing tough women who shatter social mores, but what she really wants to do, she says, is comedy. ”People, in their incredible imagination, keep sending me those same kinds of parts,” says Davis, who is married to her High Tide costar, Colin Friels (they have a son, Jack, 3). She recently filmed the British comedy Where Angels Fear to Tread, with Helena Bonham Carter. ”I play a woman who obeys every social protocol,” says Davis, savoring that idea like a guilty pleasure, ”with disastrous results.”

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