These days, she's a darling of brainy film buffs, but for a very brief moment 15 years ago, Hope Davis (search) wanted to be on "Baywatch." (search) She also went up against Christina Applegate (search) for the teen-bimbo role on "Married . . . With Children."

But Hollywood didn't quite get her - the "Baywatch" producers in particular were unimpressed by Davis' pale skin and distinctly non-Pam Anderson-like chest.

Their loss is the indie-film world's gain.

After winning raves in "Next Stop Wonderland" (search) and as Jack Nicholson's daughter in last year's "About Schmidt," (search) Davis, 39, is onscreen this month in two highly praised art movies.

"The Secret Lives of Dentists" is an unflinching family drama with Campbell Scott (search), which opened Aug. 1, and "American Splendor," opening tomorrow, is an inventive film about underground comic legend Harvey Pekar (search) that won this year's Sundance Grand Jury Prize.

"Hope is the reason to see these films," raves her "Splendor" co-star Paul Giamatti. "She's so clean and smart and elegant - I think she deserves an Oscar."

Davis knows from Academy Awards. Growing up in Tenafly, N.J., her best pal was future Oscar-winner Mira Sorvino. Back then, the chums "just ran around and acted crazy," Davis recalls.

But Davis always wanted to be a performer. At first, she dreamed of dancing like Gelsey Kirkland, and even had posters of the prima ballerina in her bedroom.

As a undergraduate actress at Vassar, she looked up to Meryl Streep, who went to the same college about 15 years before.

Davis nearly fainted one day when she was going through a drama department closet and found drawings of a costume the "Sophie's Choice" (search) star wore in a student play.

"My hands were shaking," Davis recalls. "I was totally thrilled to think that she had walked through those halls."

After graduation, Davis paid her dues in a Chicago theater company she formed with nine friends.

"I'd stay up all night rehearsing and painting sets, then go to work in the morning as a waitress," she says. "I was so tired, I'd drop plates of sausage on kids' heads."

But she quickly got her break in a Windy City play directed by Hollywood big Joel Schumacher ("St. Elmo's Fire"), who put Davis in her first movie, 1990's "Flatliners."

Davis eventually moved back to Manhattan, and now she lives in a "small but peaceful" Greenwich Village apartment with her husband, theater actor Jon Patrick Walker (most recently seen in off-Broadway's "Debbie Does Dallas") and their 1-year-old daughter, Georgia.

Personal time usually revolves around Georgia, and Davis says her favorite place to hang out is the new playground in the Hudson River Park.

"It's fantastic," she says. "Everything's made of this rubbery technology so if Georgia goes winging off the play set, she won't be hurt."

It's hardly "Baywatch," but Davis doesn't seem to mind.