Given her contrast-laden background, it's not surprising that Shue portrays both goody-goody and baddy-baddy with equal aplomb. On the one hand, she comes from a well-heeled Northeastern family, descended from Mayflower passengers and educated in the Ivy League for generations; on the other, Shue's parents split up when she was in fourth grade and, since both worked long hours, their children found ample time for trouble of the suburban adolescent variety-driving without a license, recreational drug use, and so on. After high school, Shue enrolled at Wellesley College, an all-women school where she says she appreciated the scholastic isolation from booze and boys.
By her junior year, Shue was looking for a way to supplement her income and social life, so she followed a friend's example and pursued work as a actress in television commercials. At her first audition, Shue's athletic skills impressed the producers, who hired her to plug a Florida theme park by doing cartwheels and flips. Shue followed with ads for Burger King, DeBeers diamonds, and Hellmann's mayonnaise-an unexpected acting career had been launched. In 1984, Shue snagged both her first feature film role, as Ralph Macchio's girlfriend in The Karate Kid, and her first television role, as the teenage daughter of a military family in a short-lived ABC series, Call to Glory. Shue also acquired an acting coach and transferred to Harvard, where she worked on a degree in political science. (Shue still pursues her studies on and off.) She continued acting with impressive girl-next-door performances in Adventures in Babysitting (1987), Cocktail (1988), the final two installments of the waning Back to the Future franchise (1989, 1990), Soapdish (1991), and The Marrying Man (1991). Shue's on-screen presence was consistently engaging, but her roles did not afford much depth of character.
Shue was languishing on Hollywood's third tier-not a good place to be for an actress passing thirty. To make matters worse, baby brother Andrew landed a studly starring role on TV's Melrose Place, and quickly eclipsed Elisabeth's fame. Her luck changed, however, when director Mike Figgis, whose previous projects included the stylish downer Stormy Monday (1988), was looking to cast his new project, the gritty Leaving Las Vegas. Figgis remembered Shue from her 1988 audition for a movie he ended up not making , and for his new film, he wanted her in the role of Sera, a prostitute engaged in a tragic love affair with a suicidal alcoholic.
The low-budget, high-risk project paid off for all involved. The movie won numerous critics awards, and Shue's lightweight image disappeared behind her gutsy performance. At Oscar time, the Academy recognized her with a Best Actress nomination. Shue followed up her searing Leaving Las Vegas turn with a role as the scientist love interest of Val Kilmer's super-spy in Paramount's significantly bigger-budgeted ($40 million) cinematic adaptation of the sixties TV show The Saint; with the role of Woody Allen' s inamorata in Deconstructing Harry; and with a turn as the scheming, adultery-minded wife of a millionaire in the mystery thriller Palmetto. Next up, Shue conspired with a malevolent Jessica Lange in director Des McAnuff's adaptation of the Honor頤e Balzac novel Cousin Bette. She has signed to play opposite Dustin Hoffman in an adaptation of Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth.