Pop star ready to play tough

NEW YORK — Petula Clark has strayed far from downtown.

In Sunset Boulevard, she's one of the nastiest Norma Desmonds of them all, playing the faded silent-film star not with the glamour Desmond wants people to perceive, but with all of the more realistic, lowborn, spoiled-rotten qualities that make Desmond Hollywood's own Dorian Gray portrait. So much for Clark's image as a brainless British songbird.

"I didn't like Norma much at first," Clark admits. "She's totally out of tune with the rest of the world. But as the months went by, I could feel everything she must've been feeling. That's not easy. Until then, I'd always been cast as a nice lady."

Change is hardly alien to Clark: By some counts, this is her fourth show-business incarnation. Unlike most child stars who get stuck doing what first made them famous, Clark redefined herself because of life circumstances, as when she became a French singing sensation and film star after moving there to be with her longtime husband, Claude Wolff.

"I found out very quickly that in France, neither I nor they wanted those cute tricks I'd learned as a child," she recalls. "And there were a lot of French performers who sang with their hearts and souls and guts, singing about life and death and madness. I'd never seen that before."

The big Downtown career was so tiring, she was almost glad to be rid of it: "I had two small children. I was living in Europe and trying to work in the States as well. I really thought I could do it all. Sorry, ladies, it's almost impossible. I used to tear myself apart. I'd have a contract to go to Vegas and it was so wrenching to say goodbye that I'd leave at the very last minute, get to Vegas the night before I opened.

"When I'd finish, I'd go to L.A. to do The Dean Martin Show and there'd be a helicopter in the studio parking lot to take me to the airport so I could catch my plane home. I wasn't making friends. Just do the work and go. It was very hard. On both sides."

Though her children seem to have only fun memories of it all, one casualty was her marriage. Though there's been no divorce, Clark says, with restrained sadness, "Claude has his life and I have mine."

She retired briefly in the 1970s, but finds the physical act of singing and acting irresistible. It takes on mystical dimensions for her, particularly when playing Norma Desmond: "I'd put on the makeup, and I'd see her face coming out at me through the mirror. And when the show closed . . . the person I missed the most was Norma. She really can get to you!"

By David Patrick Stearns, USA TODAY