What actress would break her neck to appear on screen as a woman without arms or legs, imprisoned in a box by a love-obsessed doctor? Oddly enough, two major stars did, only to later renege. And each did so four weeks before the slated start of production on Boxing Helena, the first directorial effort of Jennifer Lynch, 24, daughter of David Lynch. Madonna had committed to the role (Entertainment Weekly, 43), then dropped out in December 1990 with no explanation. Kim Basinger took up the slack in February '91, but bagged the role five months later and may be taken to court by the movie's producer as a result because of ''creative differences.'' Now Sherilyn Fenn, a longtime Lynch mobster (Twin Peaks, Wild at Heart), is set to go before the cameras as the limbless lady early next month on a Georgia set. As of yet, there's no domestic distributor, but Lynch hopes to release it in the spring of '93.
Is there a Boxing Helena curse? Not according to young Lynch, who thinks Madonna and Basinger ''couldn't complete the process of making the picture because they hadn't done enough investigating of the little girls inside themselves. Their bravery is not to be lessened, but perhaps they had not anticipated how difficult making this movie would be.'' Neither star will comment.Written by Lynch, from an idea she says that her coproducer Philippe Caland cooked up, and featuring Julian Sands (A Room With a View), Boxing Helena is your typical doctor-meets-girl, invites-girl-to-lunch, loses-girl tale. But he gets her back by retrieving her from a car accident in which her legs are damaged. To keep her with him, he amputates her legs, then her arms.
While it's not quite TV-movie fare, Lynch believes the film ''is a love story with a phenomenal role for a woman. Helena is not horribly mutilated. She is adored and always the stronger of the two.''
Fenn, who read the script five months after Basinger dropped out, agrees. ''This movie is about the amputations that occur emotionally,'' she says. As for the physical amputations, they will fall into the domain of special-effects master and sometime David Copperfield-collaborator John Gaughan, who will be working overtime to create the illusion of missing limbs.
Meanwhile, Basinger may eventually take the witness stand (her June 1 court date was just postponed), defending herself against breach-of-contract charges brought by the movie's producer, Carl Mazzocone, president of Main Line Pictures. According to Mazzocone, Basinger's sudden exit sank foreign sales and financing, cost him his house and car, and diminished the picture's original $9.6 million budget. But Basinger's attorney, Howard Weitzman, says, , ''The direction of the story was not clear, which is especially important when you are dealing with material that is so sensitive.''
If it ever does make it through production and into the can, Boxing Helena will probably spark some lively dialogue among members of the Motion Picture Association of America's ratings board. But then, going to extremes on film is a Lynch tradition. Jennifer was a child when she saw her father's first feature, the freakish Eraserhead, about a couple who give birth to a monster baby. ''I walked out of the theater,'' she remembers, ''and I said, 'Dad, this is definitely not a movie for kids.''' It remains to be seen just who Helena will pull in.