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Catch a Rising Star

Elizabeth Berkley boosts her acting career with a string of solid performances.

by Gail Zimmerman

August 23, 2001 | 8:00 pm

Jilli (Elisabeth Berklety) and Woode Allan in  the comedy "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion".

Jilli (Elisabeth Berklety) and Woode Allan in the comedy "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion".

Elizabeth Berkley's audition with filmmaker Woody Allen for a part in his latest comedy, "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion," resembled a scene out of an "I Love Lucy" episode.

All the actress knew about the highly secretive project was its setting: the 1940s. So, eager to impress Allen and get the part, she had her hair done in a Veronica Lake style for their highly anticipated meeting.

As she walked the few blocks to the director's New York office, a sudden downpour engulfed the streets of Manhattan.

By the time she reached her destination, Berkley was drenched. "It was like I had just come out of a shower," she recalls. "I was that soaked.

Despite the inauspicious beginning, Berkley soon got a call to report for makeup and wardrobe for "The Curse of the Jade Scorpion."

Berkley plays another classic staple of 1940s films: the sexy secretary. "She's the office girl that all the men want," Berkley says, "but she's the one who always goes home alone at night."

Playing the good girl on the big screen is a nice change for the 5-foot-10-inch Berkley, best known for her role as Nomi Malone, a topless Las Vegas stripper/lap dancer, in the NC-17-rated "Showgirls," which launched her feature-film career among a swirl of controversy and poor reviews in 1995. It followed a more than three-year stint as Jessie, the girl-next-door, on the popular Saturday-morning TV sitcom "Saved by the Bell."

Allen also that the actress had a flair for comedy.

"I thought she could be funny, that she had the ability. This is a girl who's got a very sort of perky quality, and she's sexy and she's got a lot of energy, and if she's used correctly, she can be a very funny actress. All she needs is a couple of chances to show that," Allen says.

"I only had a small thing to offer her in this film, but perhaps along the line, I'll have something more substantial for her, and I wouldn't hesitate for a second to cast her because she's got that energy."

Experienced filmmaker that he is, Allen may be fully cognizant of Berkley's acting potential, but it's doubtful he realizes she's Jewish.

"He doesn't know," Berkley admits.

"I still remember the beginning of my Haftorah," says Berkley, who, growing up, attended Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills, Mich. and celebrated her bat mitzvah at Beth Abraham Hillel Moses -- now Congregation Beth Ahm -- in West Bloomfield, both Conservative congregations in the Detroit suburbs.

"People say to me, 'Why is that?' And I say, 'Because I've had to sing it for people to prove to them [I'm Jewish]. I don't know why. It's just a funny thing. That or the Four Questions or 'Dayenu.'"

Berkley now attends the Stephen S. Wise Temple in Los Angeles with her parents, Fred and Jere Berkley, who moved to the West Coast when Berkeley was 15.

"I've taken singing lessons [there] from Cantor Nathan Lam for quite a few years, so that's where we've gone for the High Holidays," Berkley says. "I love the services there."

She's also attended services at Synagogue for the Performing Arts in Los Angeles, where she finds Rabbi Joseph Telushkin "pretty inspiring."

But it was back home in Michigan that Berkley developed her strong family values and a love for Judaism that guided her.

"Not only am I grateful for my family, but there's a real love I have for growing up Jewish, and where I grew up, because there's a foundation that it's given me in these crazy kind of worlds that I might come across," says the actress.

"And I have to say, it doesn't ever leave me. I could be sitting next to someone and be in conversation or see that [the person] has a Jewish star on, and instantly, it's just a comfort. You can go anywhere in the world, and it's an immediate, immediate feeling of home."

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