Joan Allen jumped onto movie-lovers' radar almost 20 years ago in one of the most sensuous and berserk scenes ever filmed. In Manhunter (1986), she played a blind woman stroking the fur, muzzle and fangs of a drugged but semiconscious tiger, feeling its warm breath on her flesh and pressing her ear to its pounding heart. Her wholesome, direct features lit up with excitement and delight. For seconds, she became a red-hot beauty.

That didn't happen often for the next decade and a half. She began to get cast (and win acclaim) for the whitest of white-bread roles, such as Pat Nixon in Nixon (1995) and the repressed suburban housewife in The Ice Storm (1997). But she's been upending expectations thoroughly and (let's hope) for good with two image-cracking performances that can be seen in theaters now, in The Upside of Anger and Off the Map. And come June, she'll be featured in another sensual story titled Yes.

"Oh, my God," she exclaims, "they're such great parts!"

Even over the phone from New York City, Allen radiates pleasure. She "loves" her directors, adores her co-stars and can't wait for people to see her next movie. "Oh, my God" is her favorite interview expression, and it's catching. Oh, my God, you think, she's terrific.

She vents an alcohol-fueled, eros-based fury as an abandoned upper-middle-class housewife and mother of four girls in The Upside of Anger (playing nationwide), an uproarious domestic and romantic comedy. And she embodies the rooted but mystical allure of a take-charge Southwestern earth goddess in Off the Map (at art houses, including the Charles), an often funny, always affecting and offbeat family drama.

"The icing on the cake," she says proudly, lightly - wait, could she be giggling? - "is Sally Potter's film, Yes, about a love affair between a Western woman and a Middle Eastern man, written in verse. It's an astonishing film, and, after 9/11, a healing and amazing story."

Voted Most Likely to Succeed at her high school in Rochelle, Ill., where she was born in 1956, Allen has often suggested the gal at the head of the class who seems merely smart, pleasant and nice - until a flash of anger or ardor reveals the passion within.

She got to strut her stuff on stage as an early member of Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company, with the likes of John Malkovich and Gary Sinise. Yet, until now, too few movie directors exploited her range or ignited her performing fire. The closest she came to rapture was as the all-American TV mom in the stylized black-and-white town of Pleasantville (1998) whose vibes set a tree ablaze, in color, when she gave in to sexual pleasure.

In 2005, Allen has achieved a transformation from mousiness or steeliness to sexiness rare for anyone in American films - and even rarer for a 48-year-old, and even rarer for a 48-year-old woman. And she went right after it. When starring as the likely first female vice president in The Contender (2000), she knew that Mike Binder, part of the ensemble, had been a standup comic and a writer-director. Curious about why he dashed off the set between camera setups, she found him editing a movie in his trailer. One of Binder's earlier films, The Sex Monster (1999), particularly tickled her - Binder played a husband who coaxed his wife into a threesome only to discover that she preferred women. ("Funnier than it has any right to be," confessed Todd McCarthy in Variety.)

The Sex Monster inspired Allen to let Binder know, "I'd love to do a comedy sometime. A lot of people don't associate me with that. Then Mike wrote me this amazing character, Terry, in The Upside of Anger - and it's been fabulous."

This refreshingly anti-moralistic movie depicts Terry's alcoholism as something easy to fall into: self-medication for a rancorous depression. Allen says it was challenging, disreputable fun to portray "many degrees of drunkenness. Sometimes I'd be surprised to show up for a morning scene and have Mike call for props to get me a drink." She and Binder measure Terry's intoxication so specifically, it helps viewers trace the ebb and flow of her mental fog as she becomes a different, potentially richer person with her unlikely slacker lover (Kevin Costner) than she was with her husband. Allen, now a New Yorker living in "a very PC, very 'therapized' environment," says it was "freeing" to play Terry and "do things like rip up a closet or stop a car in the middle of an intersection," or blurt out to the family of her oldest daughter's fiance that they're obviously "not Jews" when she finds out he's a David Junior.

Terry, who "hardly knows herself" and is a terrible mother, acts with magnetic "boldness."

So does Allen - but she would have lacked the confidence to go all out as Terry had she not previously done Arlene in Off the Map. And Allen initially resisted it. She thought that playing Arlene, the wife of a depressed husband (Sam Elliott) and the mother of a precocious, dissatisfied young daughter (Valentina de Angelis), would take her into familiar emotional terrain. Yet the family's circumstances in Off the Map are anything but commonplace: It's 1974, and they're living "off the map" outside of Taos, N.M., without cash or public services, getting by on their own skill at mechanics, agriculture, canning and bartering.

Director Campbell Scott never scratched Allen from his wish list, and doing a role in New Mexico eventually seemed just right to her, perhaps because she'd been sunning and putting herself in fighting trim back in New York. Once she arrived on location, she found it "mesmerizing. The shooting came at a time when I'd been in the city for a long time. I absorbed the whole atmosphere a couple of weeks before filming and just thought, 'Oh, my God, this place is astounding.'"

Allen loves Arlene for knowing "how to fix cars and drive a pickup truck and rescue goods from a dump. ... She's in tune with herself and with nature." She's a wonderful mother, too: "One of my favorite moments comes when Arlene puts a hand on her daughter's head and tugs her ponytail," says Allen, herself the mother of one daughter. "I just believed I was her mom at that instant."

But Arlene's solid earthiness is also otherworldly. As she gardens in the nude she mentally connects with the wild creatures around her, including an improbably gorgeous coyote. Thanks to Allen's power and Scott's tact, her eyes dominate the scene as much as her naked body.

Allen's Arlene has such a sure sense of herself that when a stranger, an IRS agent, falls for her at that dazzling first sight, she responds with disarming matter-of-factness. "New Mexico is a very powerful place," Arlene tells him. "You can stay with us until you get your bearings." Among many unusual, moving elements, Off the Map demonstrates the catalytic force of unrequited love. Allen thought Arlene and the IRS man "should almost kiss: It would have made her a little more human that with a spouse suffering from depression and things seeming to fall apart, she needed someone to lean on." Scott convinced her it would be wrong, and she grew to agree: "This way the guy loves her, and she lets him do that, and it gets him going."

Was working with actor-directors like Scott and Binder crucial to Allen in this breakthrough year? "There is something about actor-directors," she says. "They know how vulnerable you have to make yourself to act and pull off these moments on film, and there may be some additional support." However, when Allen played an espionage chief in last summer's smash The Bourne Supremacy, she thought, "Oh, my God, there could not be a director who thought more about his actors than Paul Greengrass. Bourne was harder to do than either of these films, because the dialogue was so technical. Paul told me to relax, not be upset, get as comfortable with it as I could and he would take care of the rest with quick cuts. There could not be a gentler or a kinder man."

Still, it was Off the Map, says Allen, that "got me to another level: prepared me in a good way to do other things that fascinated me."

Her fellow Steppenwolf grads achieved big-screen stardom first. But at a time when Sinise has retreated into television and Malkovich into specialized projects, Allen has come into her own as a thinking man's sex symbol.

Joan Allen

Born: Aug. 20, 1956, Rochelle, Ill.

Education: Rochelle Township High School; Theatre Arts at Eastern Illinois University (1974-1976) and Northern Illinois University (1976-1978)

Theater highlights: Member since 1977 of Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company; Broadway productions of Lanford Wilson's Burn This (1988) and Wendy Wasserstein's The Heidi Chronicles (1989)

Awards: Tony for best actress in Burn This; Tony nomination for best actress in The Heidi Chronicles; Oscar nominations for best supporting actress in Nixon (1995) and The Crucible (1996); Oscar nomination for best actress in The Contender (2000)

Family: Husband, actor Peter Friedman, married 1990; daughter, Sadie, born 1994

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