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ACTOR'S ACTOR: Stockard Channing Moving Target

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Stockard Channing is no stranger to women of a certain class. Though she was indelible as good-time girls Rizzo in the film Grease and Bunny in Broadway's The House of Blue Leaves, and has played working-class roles in films like Smoke and To Wong Foo..., Channing, herself a Radcliffe graduate, is more closely associated with characters who exude sophistication and affluence.

There's her Tony- and Oscar-nominated performance as society darling Ouisa Kittredge in Six Degrees of Separation, her acid-tongued Eleanor in The Lion in Winter, the equally bitter Regina in The Little Foxes, her Emmy-nominated Rachel in The Baby Dance, her tragic Cynthia in The First Wives' Club, and her recurring role as First Lady Abby Bartlet on the NBC hit series The West Wing, to name but a few.

But Florence Maybelle, her role in Isn't She Great, director Andrew Bergman's comedy based on the life of novelist Jacqueline Susann, is a wholly different kind of animal. Channing plays a hard-drinking, narcissistic sexual predator with a Gucci wardrobe in a time when appearance was an art form-the 1960s.

"You know how long it takes to look like that?" asked Channing, laughing at New York's Regency Hotel on a frigid January morning, "Forever! I've been asked what kind of research I did for this role, but basically it was the clothes, hair, and makeup that gave me the character. I spent hours in makeup. Wearing the clothes and all of that stuff on your face just gets you there. It's very different from how we live now."

The film is also a departure for Channing in that it allows her to return to her comedic roots. "It's so rare for me to get a chance to do really broad comedy," she said. "And that's so much where I started from. I'm very happy that I've been doing some really wonderful and worthy things lately, but I sort of yearned to go out there and go for broke."

And go for broke she does. Armed with Julie Weiss' breathtaking wardrobe and author Paul Rudnick's bitchy one-liners, Channing all but steals the film from co-stars Bette Midler and Nathan Lane, who play Susann and her husband/manager, Irving Mansfield.

"I didn't know much about Susann," admitted Channing. "I don't think I've ever read any of her books. To me, the film was more about the period, the time. I remember those kinds of women. During the '60s, there were these sort of scruffy, downtown types and then there were these women from a generation before, in their 50s and 60s. The dressing up, the fa‡ade, the self-involvement, the layers of vanity-that's what it meant to be a woman then. You never walked out of the house unless you were done, done, done. It was really wild and, at the same time, much more formal. It was pre-sexual revolution, but everyone still had sex. They just had it in a different sort of style. There was more formality to it, more sneaking around."

The release of Isn't She Great comes closely on the heels of Channing's acclaimed performances on The West Wing. As First Lady Abby Bartlet, Channing is the embodiment of America's ideal presidential spouse: smart, tough, independent, and in love with her husband.

"The whole thing happened very quickly," recalled Channing of her first appearance on the show. "I was working on a film in Canada and they [The West Wing's producers] changed their schedule to accommodate me. Apparently they had been talking about it for several months but no one told me. I was so frustrated, because I had no preparation time and this is the one show that I'd seen and really wanted to be a part of. The writing and the acting is so good. But I took a leap and I'm glad that I did."

Though Channing and creator /writer Aaron Sorkin have discussed making the First Lady a regular character on the show, Channing's current commitments are making that difficult. "It's very tempting and very hard to walk away from. I felt so much at home there. But because of my other projects, they can only get me when I'm in between. So right now, I'm like Mrs. Clinton: I don't live in the White House."

Among the projects keeping Channing out of Washington are the Lifetime film Jane's Coming Out Party, in which she plays a mother who doesn't react well to her 15-year-old daughter's lesbianism. Then there's a miniseries for Showtime and a new feature, Where the Heart Is.

A self-described "moving target", Channing loves the shape her career has taken. "I'm very lucky," she said. "I always thought that there was something very healthy about the way English actors are able to do all of the media. There's a certain lack of snobbery about whether they're the star or the leading lady. And they're centralized. They don't have all of that geography that reinforces separation. I love film and I love performing onstage. I'm thrilled to have the variety. I started out in theatre and that taught me how to act, which helped me in movies. I think that the more the younger generation gets onstage, the better and more interesting their acting will be."

For those young actors who aren't sold, just consider how interesting Channing's work onstage and screen has been and continues to be.

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