Ally Oops

Ethereal Calista Flockhart braves the rough-and-tumble of Hollywood

In the middle of a frenetic Hollywood dog park, Calista Flockhart appears as a caricature of Dickensian beauty: huge eyes, wide mouth, tiny nose, drowned in overalls and a baseball cap, and accompanied by her small gray mutt, Webster, a stray plucked out of a New York City trash bin seven years ago. A slight woman whose alabaster skin is seemingly all that stands between the wind and her bones, Flockhart looks fragile and exhuasted. She worked the previous night until 4 A.M. As a black Lab and a Dalmatian barrel toward us in a play fight, I'm seized with the impulse to usher her to safety. If Flockhart, the star of David E. Kelley's Fox TV series Ally McBeal, doesn't have to struggle to make her temperamental character likable, she has her inherent vulnerability to thank: For all Ally's tantrums, in Flockhart's hands she's a character you want to protect more than judge, the way you protect the weakness in yourself. When ally trips a woman in the grocery aisle over the last can of Pringles or demands that her childhood sweetheart detail his wife's flaws, you don't think, What a bitch! You think, Of course she reacts that way. Who wouldn't? A graduate of Rutgers' Mason Gross School of the Arts, Flockhart landed on Broadway as Laura in The Glass Menagerie and thereafter tackled nearly every plum ingenue in the canon, from Emily in Our Town to Natasha in Chekhov's The Three Sisters, a character whose self-obsession makes Ally's neuroses seem trivial. Not that she has a predisposition for playing disturbed young women; the only eccentricities evident in Flockhart are shyness and a need for solitude: "On weekends," she says, floating dreamily thought the conversation, " I tend to get hermetically sealed." Only an occasional hint suggests this quiet woman might relate to the anxiety of the young Boston lawyer she lives on screen. She describes Courtney Thorne-Smith, who playss the wife of Ally's ex, as " funny, beautiful, and nice, " adding ally-style, "definitely the kind of woman you'd wanna ." And she betrays the sense that, at times, like Ally, she doubts her choices: "You go though ife making decisions and hope and pray you've made the best one. But sometimes you think, Well, what if I had done that?" Though she's a woman who'd rather read Tolstory than watch TV Flockhart isn't doubting her move from stage to small screen. Life in L.A. is another matter: "I don't know who I am anymore," she complains "I'm driving around in this big Ford Explorer with a cell phone hanging off my face, thinking, What is this?"

- Judith Lewis