Cover Story

Changing Course

The new Goldie Hawn -- With her new thriller ''Deceived,'' the actress gambles on trading ditziness for drama

At 24, Goldie Hawn was dubbed ''television's dumbest and most delectable bonbon'' by Look magazine. Eight weeks from her 46th birthday, she remains delectable. Wearing a clingy sweater and pants that show off her dancer's physique, and striding across a meadow to her trailer on a Massachusetts movie set, she could, for a moment, be mistaken for a woman half her age.

But dumb she's not. Never has been. Inside the trailer, Hawn flashes a look of exasperation at the question of how well her public image of lovable helplessness really fits her. ''I couldn't be more not that person,'' she says. ''I've been a worker bee since I was 17 and running my own dance-teaching business in D.C.'' Off camera, her voice is startling, so much lower and steadier than the helium giggle we know from the movies and TV's Laugh-In in the '60s. ''When I auditioned for Laugh-In, I misread the cue card, so I started to laugh,'' she recalls. ''And I got sillier and sillier with each take.'' That giggle was gold, and it became Goldie — and she wound up ''shackled'' to her tittery image. ''When the red light on the camera went on, I knew what my job was: I had to make that laugh happen. It's mine; I own it, and it's never gone away. What do I do? That was the jackpot, that was craps. And sometimes it's hard to walk away from the table.''

The golden giggle also propelled a major movie career, which peaked in 1980 when Private Benjamin grossed a remarkable $110 million. After that, the '80s were downhill: Swing Shift (1984), Protocol (1984), Wildcats (1986), and Overboard (1987) were all disappointments. ''For years I carried movies by myself,'' she says, ''and some I carried well and others I just collapsed under. You're just a product, basically, a commodity — they eat you until you have nothing left. It's the beast in the jungle and we're fair game.'' With the conspicuous assistance of Mel Gibson, 1990's Bird on a Wire earned a healthy $70 million, but it still left many critics and audiences feeling that Goldie's adorable airhead routine was running on air.

Hawn cracks an Evian and lolls across the couch, her sprawl the only sign that the 12-hour days she's been working have gotten to her. Changing an image that has become entrenched over more than 20 years is hard work, and for the past year Hawn has labored almost nonstop on projects she hopes will banish the cutes forever. Deceived, a taut thriller that's the first and riskiest of these, has just hit theaters. Later in the fall will come Alone Together, a drama about a stripper and her son. And at the moment, she is four miles from Thoreau's Walden Pond, on the set of Housesitter, a rather dark, off-center comedy she's shooting with Steve Martin and Dana Delany, to come out next year.

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