'Underrated' Sandra Bullock Crackles in Congeniality

It might seem like a show-business cliché, but Sandra Bullock really is loved by everyone. Frequently hailed as the most down-to-earth, grounded — and just plain nice — star working today, Bullock can easily lay claim to the title of Miss Congeniality.

Which just happens to be the name of her new film, a comedy that writer Marc Lawrence describes as "Lethal Weapon at a beauty pageant — and Sandy is Mel Gibson."

In a Golden Globe-nominated role, the 36-year-old actress plays Gracie Hart, a dedicated FBI employee who's somewhat lacking in the social and cosmetic arts. When a terrorist targets the (fictional) Miss United States pageant, Gracie must go undercover as one of the contestants, necessitating a drastic makeover for the style-challenged, tomboy agent.

Like macho Mel in his current movie, What Women Want, Sandra's character tries to figure out the mysteries of women's beauty products, from waxing (a tried-and-true laugh-getter in both films) to enhanced cleavage.

And as co-star Candice Bergen, who plays a former Miss United States-turned-pageant-organizer, notes, "women love transformation movies."

Nature vs. Nurture Since Gracie is, to put it kindly, no natural beauty, special attention was needed for her pre-makeover look. "The [early] Gracie Hart took half an hour to make up, only for the laying in the eyebrows," says Bullock. "We basically modeled her after my junior high school picture. I loved the way [she] looked." Agrees writer Lawrence, "I think Sandy uglies up pretty well."

"The end result is the Barbie doll, and it's something that requires many hours of construction on makeup and hair," says the actress, whose on-screen Gracie finally catches leading man Benjamin Bratt's eye after getting the glamour treatment. In her real life, says Bullock, "I prefer men to prefer the pre-makeover look."

Bullock, who didn't watch much TV as a child, saw her first beauty pageant in junior high. "I was fascinated by it, that there were creatures that looked that good," she says. "When I met some of them [to research the movie], I thought, 'Please be stupid,' but when they weren't, it pissed me off.

"You're jealous. You always want what you can't have. But I wouldn't change [myself] for the world. I wouldn't make my thighs smaller. I wouldn't get liposuction. Right now, I'm super-comfortable with who I am."

Undergoing the transformation was grueling for both character and star, but Bullock says she made it as tough as possible for herself on purpose. "We would choose clothing that would make me awkward, where I would have to run in a pageant dress in a certain way," she says, "We really set me up for failure every time I got into a dress," says Bullock, who sports a skin-tight, bandage-style dress in one scene and totters — and falls — in high heels time and time again.

Slapstick Sandy That led to a lot of pratfalls in the movie. "She has a great love for Lucille Ball-type comedy, and she has a great capacity for doing it. … It looks easy to fall, but it's about the hardest thing to do without looking forced," says Lawrence, who also wrote Forces of Nature for Bullock.

"And those were not padded floors she was falling on," adds director Donald Petrie.

But if her cast and crew had anything to say about it, Bullock would not only win the Miss Congeniality title, but maybe take the tiara too. "I think Sandy would win so fast and easily," says Lawrence. "You cannot underestimate how incredibly charming Sandy is and how she is with people," he says, citing an incident in which the actress accepted a cell phone from a complete stranger in the middle of a shoot — and chatted with the man's wife on the other end.

Adds Lawrence, "Sandy's the most underrated actress in Hollywood. It doesn't always look like the 'Look at me, Ma' acting school."

Jokes Bratt, "The woman's positively out of her mind! On some level, that's pretty emancipating. She's fearless — she's not afraid to make herself look silly or be foolish."

"Everyone's congenial when they want something," says Bullock, which begs the question: What does Sandra Bullock want?

"Well, there's a jewelry store right on Rodeo …," she says in jest. "No, you know what? I want to have a really good time. I want to make things that I'm really proud of and always take a risk and not be ashamed. Even if the general public [doesn't go for it] or it's not reviewer-friendly, I'd like to know that when I did something, I did the best job that I could. Sounds cheesy … but this film is an opportunity to do exactly what I wanted to do."