Steve Daly
December 22, 1995 AT 05:00 AM EST

Having ended her stint as First Lady before MTV arrived, Pat Nixon never had to endure the indignity of a Tabitha Soren-prompted teenager asking ”So, Mrs. Nixon, do you wear a Wonderbra?” But fortunately for Joan Allen, Nixon costume designer Richard Hornung seemed to know just what Pat might have worn next to her respectable Republican skin.

”I had all period brassieres and garters and girdles,” marvels Allen, whose bone-china beauty seems centered in the blue eyes she covered with brown contacts for the movie. ”The stuff from the ’50s was fabric that didn’t have spandex in it,” she explains. ”It was made out of this very non-giving sort of cotton.”

The unyielding wardrobe suited the ”constricted” body language Allen cultivated for the role, yet response has been anything but buttoned-down: Preview audiences began buzzing immediately about Allen’s Best Actress prospects. The plaudits may finally give Allen, 39, as high a profile in movies (she never exactly broke out in Tucker or Searching for Bobby Fischer) as she has had on stage (Burn This, The Heidi Chronicles).

Mrs. Nixon, says Allen, would have been aghast at the attention. She was so reclusive that Allen could locate only a single substantive TV interview, conducted by Barbara Walters in the early ’70s. Allen played it ”over and over and over,” and also plumbed Julie Nixon Eisenhower’s Pat Nixon: The Untold Story.

Imagining Pat’s private conversations was, in Allen’s estimation, the toughest script challenge for director Oliver Stone and his collaborators, and former White House staffer Alexander Butterfield, a personal liaison between Pat and Dick from 1969 to 1973, agrees. ”Who knows what exactly went on in that bedroom?” says Butterfield, now 70. ”Did he sometimes put his head on her shoulder? I’d say so, even though there were plenty of times I saw him just flat ignore her.”

When Stone turned to Allen for dialogue advice, she worried she wasn’t enough help. ”I don’t know how to put words in characters’ mouths,” she shrugs. ”He’d ask, ‘Do you think this is good or bad?’ I wish I could’ve told him more, but I don’t think that way. I have to see what’s on the page and try to make it work.” Good thing she didn’t have to extemporize over an 181/2-minute gap.

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