December 28, 1987 12:00 PM

There are signatures, sometimes, that suddenly seem to make a star.

The gauzy, breathless whisper of Monroe in All About Eve when she held the screen as a dizzy and luminescent starlet for approximately two minutes, then forever held our hearts.

The Clint Squint, slow-burning and deadly as he wrinkled that leathery mug in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, in pleasurable anticipation of future days to be made.

And now there’s the grin of Dennis Quaid.

We had glimpsed it, to be sure, in such earlier films as Breaking Away and The Right Stuff—devilish, sassy, too fun-loving (such was its redeeming quality) to ever be truly offensive, But it took his 1987 performance as a makable, on-the-takable New Orleans detective in The Big Easy to make us take notice.

Smooth. Loose. Relaxed and pleasure-loving as a big ole house cat, a fine contrast to Ellen Barkin’s tense and tightly wound district attorney, with her rigid ethics and miserable sensual life. “I’ve never had much luck with sex,” she says, tentatively entering into their first-time flirt. Quaid flashes that grin. “Chère, your luck is about to change,” he drawls—and across America, millions of overworked, overstressed women clutch their type-A hearts.

It’s as if, after a decade of Earn Your Own Money, Be Responsible for Your Own Orgasm and the whole tough, Hardbody Ethic, this guy comes along who’s so confident women don’t have to worry about anything. Quaid says he and Barkin “totally improvised that scene.” There was one drawback: “Ellen and I were angry we had only three hours to film it. We thought we had all day.”

How much of that old Mr. Irresistible Grin is this 33-year-old former Houstonite? Very little, says Quaid. The man co-star Barkin describes as “one sexy guy” calls himself a “slob.” And don’t get excited because Quaid (divorced from actress P.J. Soles) shares his home in the Hollywood Hills with two girls named Maggie and Jessie—they’re a basset hound and a golden retriever.

In high school, a lover-boy he wasn’t. Quaid says he was “a goonball—too small and skinny to make the football team.” As for girls, “I wanted to be a big hit with them, but I was too shy.”

Nor was he an overnight acting success. Preceded to Hollywood by actor brother Randy, three years his senior, the younger Quaid spent a year eating sardines and peanut-butter sandwiches before getting. Then he starred in some notorious tureys—including Jaws 3-D and Caveman.

But even when the box office was bust, you couldn’t miss that megavolt charge. You saw it this year in Innerspace as Quaid succeeded in turning on actress Meg Ryan even while miniaturized and trapped inside the bloodstream of Martin Short. You’ll see it next year with Jessica Lange in Everybody’s All American. Or you can see it now in Suspect, in which he plays a lobbyist who’ll do anything—including seduction—to bag a vote. Cher, as a public defender, sees through his game, but a middle-aged Congress-woman (E. Katherine Kerr) finds herself helpless in the face of The Grin, part molasses, part fraud. She sees what we saw this year: It’s always great fun when Dennis Quaid takes you for a ride.

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