By Steven Lang
December 08, 1997 12:00 PM

Stardom seemed finally within actress Diane Venora’s grasp. For her portrayal of jazz giant Charlie Parker’s girlfriend in 1988’s Bird, she was voted best supporting actress by the New York Film Critics Circle. She had just signed a three-picture, million-dollar deal and was scheduled to fly to Paris to star opposite Hugh Grant and Emma Thompson in the George Sand biopic Impromptu. Then Venora’s daughter put her foot down. “I’m not going with you. You’re selfish,” scolded the then-8-year-old Madzia, who is partially deaf from a degenerative nerve condition and was subject to panic attacks. The next day, Venora told her agent she was quitting show business. “I couldn’t weigh the cost of my kid’s life and health against my need to be somebody,” she says.

Happily, as it turns out, Venora, 45, has managed to have it both ways. Forsaking the screen in 1989, she devoted the next five years to caring for her child. After two years of full-time mothering, Madzia’s emotional problems had eased, and Venora took a teaching job in Brooklyn that paid $250 a week (thousands less per week than she had been making). By 1994, Venora, confident her daughter was nearly self-sufficient, began her second run at a life in pictures. Roles in ABC’s ill-fated Thunder Alley led to parts as Al Pacino’s estranged wife in Heat and Claire Danes‘s mother in William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. Which has led to the biggest payoff yet: a meaty role as a battle-scarred Russian intelligence officer opposite Bruce Willis and Richard Gere in The Jackal. “She put the other actors to shame with her preparation,” says director Michael Caton-Jones. More important, says Mandy Patinkin, a friend since their Juilliard School days in the early ’70s, she remained true to both her loves—Madzia and acting. “She made that choice, to be with her daughter first and her career second,” says Patinkin. “I’m just thrilled she’s back.”

Venora had no such high ambitions early on. One of six children born to the late Robert Venora, who owned a dry-cleaning business with his wife, Marie, the young Venora had her heart set on being a hairdresser when she graduated from high school in Hartford, Conn. Her parents insisted she attend college, so she enrolled in the Boston Conservatory of Music. Within two years she had won a scholarship to Juilliard. “First you were just struck by her phenomenal beauty,” says Patinkin, who confesses to being spurned when he tried to kiss her.

After graduating in 1977, she worked in film, landing a small part in The Cotton Club (1984). While making a commercial for Head & Shoulders shampoo in 1979, she met Andrzej Bartkowiak, the Polish director of photography on the shoot. After one date, she says, “I was mad about him—he was so charming.” Within a year they were married, and a year after that Madzia arrived.

Though the couple split in ’89 and he remarried, Bartkowiak urged Venora to return to acting, inviting her and Madzia to stay with him and his new family in Los Angeles while she auditioned for parts. She accepted, moving west in 1994. Once the paychecks began arriving, Venora rented a three-bedroom, Craftsman-style home in Los Angeles, where she and Madzia now care for their two black Labs Bucky and River. For the moment there’s no special partner. “Either you can have somebody you’re really comfortable with that you have no passion for, or you have all this passion for someone but you can’t live with them,” she says. “I don’t know what the balance is. I have to go to therapy to find out how to deal with men.”


TOM CUNNEFF in Los Angeles