FRANCES FISHER HAD A DILEMMA THAT would make any leading lady's day. Should she audition for the heart-wrenching role of Delilah, a frontier harlot whose face is slashed by a cretinous cowboy in the opening scene of Clint Eastwood's gritty, acclaimed new western, Unforgiven? Or should the strawberry-blond character actress try out instead for the part of another prostitute, the gutsy, defiant Strawberry Alice? Alice's outrage over Delilah's mutilation sets in motion the movie's bloody revenge plot.

"As Delilah," Fisher reasoned, "I'd have to play a victim. But I'd get to play a scene with Clint [who directed and stars as an ex-outlaw turned bounty hunter]. What actress wouldn't want to do that?"

Finally, says Fisher, reflecting over coffee and blueberries in the cozy kitchenette of her one-bedroom West Los Angeles apartment, she realized that "Strawberry Alice's feistiness was so much more in line with my temperament. I really felt the same way she did in the movie."

Besides, Fisher, 40, already shares plenty of time offscreen with Eastwood, 62, at his homes in Los Angeles and Carmel, Calif., and Sun Valley, Idaho. The two have been an item since 1989, a year after Clint cast Frances in a small role in his comedy caper Pink Cadillac. But unlike his previous love, actress-director Sondra (Impulse) Locke, 45, whose 13-year relationship with him included roles in six Eastwood movies (and ended badly in 1989 when Locke brought a palimony suit against Eastwood), Fisher insists, "I'm not looking to attach myself to his wagon.

A 14-year stage veteran with more than 30 plays to her credit, as well as memorable movie and TV roles (as spooky SLA terrorist Emily Harris in 1988's Patty Hearst and as Lucille Ball in last year's Lucy & Desi: Before the Laughter), Fisher insisted on auditioning to play Alice. Eastwood, who viewed her screen test on tape, says he picked Fisher because "her feeling for the part enabled her to inspire the other women in the cast."

Eastwood's own feelings about Fisher did not make her role easier. If anything, says Saul Rubinek, who co-stars as a dime-store western novelist, "Clint was probably more critical of her than he was of anyone else, because he has a lot of respect for her." The respect is mutual. Despite a grueling seven weeks of location filming in Alberta, Canada, Clint, she says, "is the most relaxed director I've ever seen. There's never any yelling."

The laid-back Eastwood can also get "extremely silly," she says, and she has the home-video proof: Clint kissing his character Will Munny's horse on the lips and cuddling in the mud with his hogs. But Clint's relationship with her, says Frances, is "steady, it's serious, and we have a lot of fun." Indeed, thanks to her "health-conscious" beau, Fisher runs, works out with weights, learned to ski and has taken up golf. Clint gave her a set of clubs for Christmas. "Isn't that romantic," she says, arching a strawberry eyebrow.

It's a good thing she stays fit since, along with Clint's digs and her apartment, Fisher shares a beach house with her younger brother, Bill, 34, who owns a computer-software company. "I buy three of everything—the same shorts, the same shoes—one for each place, so I don't have to carry a huge suitcase," she says. "I can't imagine putting down roots in one place. I probably never will."

That may be because Fisher, who was born in England, grew up globe-hopping. Her father, Bill Sr., a now retired construction superintendent, took Frances. Bill Jr., their sister, Carol, and their mom, Olga, a home-maker, along with him to job sites as diverse as Bogotá, Milan and Rio de Janeiro before settling in Orange, Texas, where Frances attended high school. Moving to New York City, she wed at 19 (a union she won't elaborate on) and divorced two years later. Odd jobs and small stage roles followed. Then in 1976, Fisher landed the role of spoiled rich girl Deborah Saxon on The Edge of Night. Twelve years later she moved to L.A. to pursue a film career. At a kickoff party for Pink Cadillac, she got her first close look at Eastwood, "and my first impression was, 'He doesn't look so tough.' He's got such a gentle bearing in real life. We had a very good connection right away."

Clint, she adds, "wants me to move forward," and Fisher is avidly pursuing her own projects (she stars opposite Bryan Brown in Devlin, a Showtime police drama scheduled for next month). She is inundated with screenplays, but most, she says, come with notes that read, "Oh, congratulations, Frances. I didn't know about you and Clint. By the way, I've got this great script..." Still, she observes with a shrug and a smile, "you never know where a good script is going to come from."

MICHAEL A. LIPTON
KRISTINA JOHNSON in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Kristina Johnson.