Every year it's the same thing. The phone rings at Madeleine Stowe's house sometime in December, she answers it, and a friend says, ''You're riding the donkey again.'' Translation: The Nativity is back on TV, and at that particular moment the Virgin Mary, played by a 19-year-old Stowe, is cruising into Bethlehem. ''I'm sitting on this donkey having labor pains, and I just sort of stare vacuously,'' she explains. ''When we were shooting the birth scene I asked, 'Shouldn't I be in agony?' They said, 'No, no, no, just lay down and have a nice little smile on your face.'''
Sixteen years later, Madeleine Stowe is finally through with nice little smiles, with suffering quietly for the camera, with playing saints and martyrs and women in peril who endure anything for love. At the Hollywood premiere of Blink, which opened nationwide Jan. 26, the actress wore a nice big smile, a radiant ear-to-ear grin, in fact. The week before, the National Society of Film Critics had named her 1993's Best Supporting Actress for her work as Sherri Shepard, the clear-eyed wife of a cheatin' heart in Robert Altman's Short Cuts. And with Blink, her first starring vehicle, Stowe has reviewers riveted by her portrayal of Emma Brody, a blind musician who, recovering the use of her eyes, meets any man's stare with her own unflinching gaze.
Stowe landed both Blink's Emma -- a fiddler in an Irish folk-rock band who gets a blurry look at a serial killer -- and her next lead role, as a pistol-packing madam in the April Western Bad Girls, after playing fiery Cora Munro in 1992's The Last of the Mohicans. As the aristocrat who holds her own in the wild with Daniel Day-Lewis' Hawkeye, she finally made a break from the wimpette brigade. Before Mohicans, it was more usual to see the undeniably beautiful Stowe clinging to, swooning for, or undergoing torture at the hands of Hollywood greats and near-greats -- Kevin Costner and Anthony Quinn in Revenge (1990), Jack Nicholson in The Two Jakes (1990), and Kurt Russell and Ray Liotta in Unlawful Entry (1992).
''Some of my roles had a kind of fragility that's very hard for me to buy,'' she says. ''I feel like I contributed to it -- I never thought of myself as a fragile person at all -- and I really never forgave myself for doing that on film.''
Add China Moon to the list. A noirish thriller she and Ed Harris made in 1990, the film was edited to satisfy test audiences, then shelved when Orion Pictures declared bankruptcy. China Moon will be released this March, but it features the old Stowe, by turns passionate or passive. ''It's a performance I just can't live with,'' she says. ''There's still this depiction of what women can and cannot do, what's allowable behavior. And I am not comfortable with that.''
Perhaps that's why she took to the stage of Late Show recently and -- rather than elaborate, as requested, on her role as a ''prize'' for bachelor Mark Harmon in 1989's Worth Winning -- told David Letterman about how she once drank five long-neck Buds and ended up ''kneeling to the porcelain god.'' When asked for a bit of Nicholson trivia, she recalled him noticing at a Lakers game that she didn't fasten the top three buttons of her jeans. ''It's a little habit of mine,'' she said. ''I don't like to feel confined.'' She was so candid, Dave was left jokeless.
Not bad for someone who kept herself withdrawn as a child. The daughter of an Oregon civil-engineer father and a Costa Rican mother, she grew up in Eagle Rock, a working-class suburb of Los Angeles. Her father fell ill with multiple sclerosis when she was 6, and after she turned 10 she never brought friends home. ''He was pretty far gone by then,'' she says of her dad, who died in 1983, ''and very unpredictable.'' At 10 she also began training for a career as a concert pianist with Sergei Tarnowsky, Vladimir Horowitz's childhood instructor. Stowe loved the piano, and ''practicing for hours every day was an excuse to stay away from other kids.'' When Tarnowsky died in 1976, Stowe quit playing. ''I just felt it was time to not be by myself anymore,'' she says. And so, at 18, she went on her first date.