Mercedes Ruehl doesn’t hold back. Ask her about studying under legendary acting teacher Uta Hagen, and she’ll give you a history of modern American technique. Mention the exploitation of women in movies today, and she really gets going.
She burst into tears on the set of The Fisher King last year when costar Robin Williams had to ad lib a raunchy ditty about brassieres, to the tune of ”Brazil,” for their big scene together. ”I thought, ‘Don’t be some kind of feminist jackass,”’ recalls Ruehl, sitting in the funky-formal Greenwich Village apartment she shares with her 15-year-old cat, Mitzi, ”but I was really starting to be offended by the lyrics. Robin changed the song to something about a penis, so at least it was about him, not me.”
In The Fisher King, Ruehl plays a kooky video-store owner who falls in love with a selfish star deejay (Jeff Bridges) and nurses him back from the edge of suicide; she’s Florence Nightingale with a closet full of spandex. In director Terry Gilliam’s fantasy, Bridges broods and bellows, and Williams cyclones through the scenery as a maniacally cheerful vagrant. But Ruehl makes out best; her desperate, frustrated pleadings to the man who gets away are as devastating as a Billie Holiday album after a bottle of Scotch. The role also calls for Ruehl, who dresses demurely in real life, to wear costumes that could get supporting Oscar nominations for her cleavage. That she didn’t mind: ”I loved being outrageously sexy,” she says.
Until The Fisher King, most audiences knew her only as outrageous. After years of paying dues on the stages of New York and regional theaters, she captivated moviegoers in 1988 as Connie, the memorable bitch-goddess housewife in Jonathan Demme’s Married to the Mob. If her sound and fury hadn’t upstaged stars Matthew Modine and Michelle Pfeiffer, her atomic hairdo could have done the job. But after that, nothing. ”There was this big flash in the pan,” says Ruehl, who admits to being in her late 30s, ”and I thought that this was either my Andy Warhol 15 minutes, or it would lead somewhere.” It led only to more ”Connie-type roles.” Put off by being typecast, she said goodbye to Hollywood, starred in the Off Broadway production of Other People’s Money, then as the emotionally stunted Bella in Neil Simon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Lost in Yonkers on Broadway, a role that earned her a Best-Actress Tony in June.
”I think in all the great roles the character is really hungry,” she says. Ruehl scoots her 5’ 10” frame to the edge of her chintz sofa and gears up for another spiel on acting. ”Juliet, Blanche, Medea. In all great roles, there’s this hunger…” The daughter of an FBI man and a schoolteacher, she fell in love with drama going to Mass in Silver Spring, Md., as a child. ”It was wonderful, it was beautiful, and it would just take your breath away,” she says. After graduating from the College of New Rochelle in New York’s Westchester County, she moved to New York City, studied, waited tables, and slowly moved to center stage in the New York theater scene. Then came her first major movie role, as Tom Hanks’ mother in Big, which opened just two months before Married to the Mob.
Ruehl hoped to star in the film version of Other People’s Money, coming in October with Danny DeVito, but her role as a yuppie lawyer went to younger, blonder Penelope Ann Miller. ”It didn’t really surprise me,” she says. ”I think they were making the film into a different story (about an older man-younger woman relationship), so that makes it a little more palatable.” She’s been wading through movie offers since she left Yonkers last month but hasn’t made any decisions yet. ”Just for a while I don’t want to do any acting. I want to rejuice myself,” she says. She won’t be gone long. After a tangent on the merits of therapy, Ruehl admits: ”There was always some kind of need for pageantry, and for me to be at the center of it.”