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Few entertainers have tried—or worn—more outrageous stuff than Cher to wring a laugh from an audience. But it was the laugh that came the easiest that hurt her the most. Cher had hidden herself in a dark L.A. theater for a sneak preview of Silkwood. The controversial film is based on the life of Karen Silk-wood, the nuclear-plant worker whose suspicious death in a car crash in 1974, while apparently on her way to publicize safety abuses, made her a martyr of the antinuke movement.

In the theater the name of Meryl Streep, who's cast in the title role, flashed onscreen. That was followed by "Kurt Russell"—he's Silkwood's boyfriend. Then "Cher." The crowd, which had been hushed and reverent at the start of this heavy-duty epic, sensed a prank. A roar of laughter erupted through the house. Cher, who plays Dolly Pelliker, Silkwood's lesbian co-worker and housemate, stiffened. "I was fried," she recalls. "I said to myself, trying to be strong, 'If this is going to happen every time my name comes onscreen, 600 people breaking into hysterics and ridiculing me, then boy, this can be torture.' "

Mercifully, critical raves for her sweetly affecting, comically vulgar performance as Dolly have earned Cher Sarkisian Bono Allman, 37, the cherished last laugh. "When you take away those wild wigs," the New York Times noted with surprise, "there's an honest, complex screen presence underneath." The film has radically propelled Cher into a new career as a dramatic star—and into an enduring sisterly bond with Streep. And though Cher swears she isn't practicing her speech yet, she figures to be a stiletto-heeled shoo-in for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination.

Hearty support has already come from reigning Best Actress Streep, who, like director Mike Nichols and screenwriter Nora Ephron, first saw Cher's acting prowess two years ago on Broadway in the short-lived Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. "That night Mike came backstage with big tears in his eyes," Cher remembers. "And he said to me, 'I want you to be in my new movie with Meryl Streep.' I think at that moment I lost my hearing first, then my vision. I had busted my butt in L.A. for eight years to get work and no one wanted to know me." The image of a Vegas vamp had stigmatized her as a lightweight. "People's perceptions are so limited," she says. "If Michelangelo painted in Caesars Palace, would that make it any less 'art'?"

Cher as Dolly was "extremely high-risk casting," says Ephron, who co-wrote the film with Alice Arlen. Cher and Streep could hardly embody more disparate cultural artifacts (Caesars Palace and Sophie's Choice), but Cher never felt intimidated. "The first day on location Meryl just came up, threw her arms around me and said, 'I'm so glad you're here,' " Cher says. "She's all communication and warmth and friendship with a great sense of humor." Streep felt the same: "I was already in the mind-set of 'My friend is coming, I have somebody on my side.' " But there were some surprises. "I always thought of Cher as very tall," Streep says, "but there she was, very beautiful and just my size, 5'6", although she says she's 5'8". Maybe if she teases that hair up just a little, it reaches that."

That kind of giddy banter set the tone. Observes Ephron: "It was my impression that Meryl made a very serious attempt to replicate their situation offscreen." During the three-and-a-half-month shooting schedule in Texas, Ephron says, "they were together all the time. I can't overestimate how that friendship made it possible for Cher not to be wildly nervous."

Days off were spent driving to amusement parks (when their kids—Cher's Chastity, 14, and Elijah, 7, and Meryl's son, Henry, 4—were around) or to malls, movies and funky rural barbecue joints. Ephron remembers: "They would do actress shtick, voices, fake fights, jokes. They were hysterically funny together."

Streep, though, recalls being "appalled when we went to Six Flags once and Cher had this pink miniskirt on that was maybe six inches long in the back. And she just blithely walks through the place. I mean, I'd wear a wig, sunglasses and a trench coat. But Cher doesn't mind being the center of attention. It isn't agony for her. It doesn't take away part of her soul."

Despite brief visits from the kids, actor boyfriend Val Kilmer and actress sister Georganne La Piere, the nightlife was dreary for Cher. Meryl was occupied. "That was time for me and Henry," says Streep. "Cher would hole up in her room a lot. She can get very sad and go into black moods. And she'd spend hours on the phone with her kids. She's a good mother and she was miserable without them."

When she did talk with Meryl, Cher says, it wasn't so much about careers, "but about our kids, music, people, where we wanted to live, what I wanted to do when I grew up." The two were not reluctant about offering advice to each other. "Meryl couldn't care less what she wears," Cher says. "I'd tease her about that and she'd tell me to shut up. And she did her own ironing, which drove me insane. She says it keeps her down to earth. I don't know what keeps me down to earth, but it isn't ironing. I send my stuff out."

Nights, for sure, tended to keep Cher grounded. "I watched TV, but it was sometimes too lonely to read. There was no social life. It was the first time I'd been alone as a grown-up."

But it was Dolly's look—baggy jeans, men's shirts—and Nichols' insistence on no makeup that most challenged the slinky '70s glamour queen. "Let me tell you, it wasn't my favorite look," Cher wisecracks. "I tried sneaking a little base on but Mike'd always be watching. Finally I said f—-it, he knows what's right. The first day of the shoot Kurt asked me, 'What are you supposed to be?' and I ran into the bathroom and cried. I'd waited my whole life to be in movies and, okay, Meryl's no glamour queen either. This isn't French Lieutenant's Woman, but I looked like I worked in a stable. I am so convincingly ugly. It sure is easy to tear down an image."

By then, Cher knew it was time to let the image go. She hasn't played Vegas in 18 months, though her two-show nights pulled up to $60,000 a week, allowing her to build her spectacular palace high in Benedict Canyon. But then she realized, "I didn't want to work just to support the house."

The mansion, with its asp andirons, sandstone wallpaper, large living-room mirror bordered by carved pythons, fleecy rugs and couches, arched columns and large courtyard, evokes a Moorish atmosphere; indeed, Cher must have known to pray facing east—or at least to Manhattan—for her deliverance. On the piano now is her answer: a framed photo from Silkwood showing her nose-to-nose with Streep and a note from Nichols: "You are a major actress and a great human being. Love, Mike."

Streep remains a trusty ally in her new world. (They now have the same agent, ICM biggie Sam Cohn.) Streep and sculptor husband Don Gummer, both New Yorkers, stayed with Cher for the Oscars last year. And during the week Cher draped her own Sonia Rykiel gown over five-months-pregnant Meryl for a party. "She looked perfect," Cher boasts. Meryl defers to expertise. "I have no approach to clothes. She has every approach."

Cher, who met Val (Slab Boys) Kilmer, 24, at a birthday bash Streep threw for her at New York's Cafe Central, remembers one particularly animated party at Meryl's "where I cooked chili, and we ate ice cream. There was guy talk and girl talk. It was just like The Big Chill, only for real." Cher needlepointed lacy blue and pink pillows and put music boxes inside them for Meryl's baby shower (Mary Willa Gummer, nicknamed Mamie, is now 5½ months old).

Cher has a knack for intimate gift giving that springs, in part, from her random urges to acquire. Streep tells of "walking over to pick up Henry at school. Not a long walk. Four blocks. And Cher spent $200 in four blocks, on a sweater, shoes, something else. I was horrified. I can't listen to her complain about money problems. She doesn't seem to realize that not having enough is the same problem as spending too much."

At home in her bedroom late at night, nestled in a giant black armchair, Cher is reflective. She looks scrawny and tough but can sound wounded and vulnerable. She plowed through 20-plus weeks of Vegas work for years, she says, because "I was always afraid of having no money. I never wanted to give up my fame for art. But I was dying in Vegas, dying. Francis Coppola once said, 'You should do films, you're so talented.' I said, 'Get me a job, find me anyone who'll give me a job.' I love comedy but serious is closer to who I am. I know pain, I really know it."

Certainly the accumulation of tangible trophies was easier to cling to than lasting emotional or domestic joys. There were five "miserable years" before splitting with Sonny Bono. Then the turbulent marriage to Gregg Allman and the birth of Elijah, followed by Allman's drug and alcohol jags and their subsequent divorce; and love affairs, flings, liaisons, whatevers with men as diverse as entertainment mogul David Geffen, Kiss's Gene Simmons, hockey stud Ron Duguay, actor John Heard, L.A. rock guitarist Les Dudek and, most recently, Kilmer.

Her home became the one steady refuge. "I basically live in my bedroom," she says. "Entertaining is too stressful. There's never a TV going or music. I'm the quietest person in the world." Indeed, it is silent, serene, softly lit, immaculate and hypnotic through the house. Perfumed incense wafts through the bedroom. It's the one totally secure place she knows—with a 24-hour armed guard and a trained rottweiler named Bo who prowls the yard at night. But more and more, work, cultural and social connections shifted toward New York. The Los Angeles refuge became insulating, deadening: "Here, I don't feel I have any dealings with anybody, really."

The house is on the market for $6.4 million. Cher will unload all the outsize furnishings and hunt for a three-bedroom co-op over Central Park, gut it and start creating the same sort of "dramatic space—maybe Art Deco, maybe high tech."

Cher is willful, decisive and dead sure of her instincts. "If I cared about what other people thought I'd have never left Sonny or married Gregg or done any of the things I've done. But I can't have America hold me in its arms and say 'We love you.' " Still, she stops short of self-pity and melancholy. "I've been fulfilled in my relationships. It's taken me a long time to get to this place and it's taken a toll." She cites as "the happiest five weeks of my life" a stay in Hawaii while she was pregnant with Elijah and flat on her back sick. "Gregory was never prized for his smarts but he was the most sensitive man I've ever known when he was straight. He took care of everything then—cooking, cleaning, washing my hair, caring for Chas, giving me three pills every four hours. We were so in love. I never understood why he chose drugs. He considered the drug people scum. They were never allowed in my house."

She is "getting better" on the one-to-one level with men, though it's only since dating Kilmer that she's even imagined the possibility of marriage again. "Val is terrific but sometimes it's just too intense and hot. It's come the closest to working." Kilmer has the four required virtues: "sensitive, artistic, humor and he is a great kisser. My rule of thumb, and it's never failed me, is if a man's a good kisser he's a great f—-."

She and Kilmer, who makes his film debut this June in Top Secret, spent "a week just talking before we kissed. We had a friendship first. I was wondering if something was wrong with him. I don't know what he thought of me. But when we did kiss, I thought my head would shoot right off my body. I had to catch my breath."

Her career has certainly picked up speed. Silkwood "has made a lot of things available that weren't before." She backed out of the female lead in Randal Kleiser's Grandview USA—at a reported fee of $650,000—because a hurried shooting schedule threatened script changes she wanted and the choice of the male lead remained uncertain. "I won't do anything for just money [she earned less than $ 150,000 for Silkwood], only if I can bring something to it."

The one dependable anchor remains her children. Chastity "doesn't make a big point of her rebelliousness, but she'll do what she wants even though she listens to what you say," observes Cher. "Sonny sees her in L.A. and keeps in touch with her all the time. Being a teenager, it's really up to her; she doesn't spend that much time with me either." Chastity worked as a busboy last summer in Bono's L.A. restaurant and that "made them closer."

Elijah, with dazzlingly alert blue eyes, is "such an incredible ham. He won't stop once you ask him to play guitar." He's hooked on MTV (his favorite flick is Risky Business), and he can spend hours in his room or on his mom's bed deciding the fate of his Masters of the Universe figures, Skeleton Panthor and Tryclops. His mom's energy for make-believe is a close match for his own. To account for the fact that Allman has seen Elijah only three times, Cher for years explained to the boy that his dad was too busy. Recently, Elijah snapped, "Mother, he's not too busy to pick up the telephone." Cher says, "That really blew me away, that he could say that."

Cher seems finally, after her own 20-year battle, to have gained a decisive edge over the masters of her own universe. "She's at the top of her act now," says Streep admiringly, "maybe because she's not dependent on any man. She's brave with her ideas in a way women are often not. That's her savvy and smarts."

It's also good-humored self-confidence. "I know whatever is best for me will happen," she says. "I've virtually had to disappear to lay a new groundwork for myself. But I feel I'm really one of God's favorite children."

Cher recently saw the depressing film Star 80 and afterward drove through Beverly Hills, mostly in silence. The streets were deserted and the night air seemed hollowed out—it wasn't even 11 p.m. One of God's favorite children wanted to pull over for some ice cream. Down the Beverly Drive sidewalk a lone paparazzo lurked outside a restaurant. He spotted Cher with her gelato, dashed over and frantically readied his camera. "Who are you waiting for?" Cher asked. "I think Loretta Swit's in there," he said. Cher shrugged, more sympathetic than annoyed. A strobe flashed in the dark. Cher never flinched; the photographer thanked her, then scampered back for his M*A*S*H-star stakeout. Streep is right. None of this takes any part of Cher's soul away. If it did, there surely wouldn't be any left by now. Besides, her soul wasn't really anywhere in that frame, frozen in the empty night. It had already flown ahead—to a new home, a new life.