Like "G.I. Jane," director Ridley Scott likes a good stogie, firing that big boy up, sucking in the hot nicotine, rolling it in his fingers and tapping off the ash. It's not the smoke that matters, it's the ritual with all its potent symbolism.

A cigar is never just a cigar, it's a totem of power, wealth, the willingness to cause a stink. And Jane, played by dogged Demi Moore, certainly does just that as the first woman to tackle the grueling Navy Seals training program.

The military brass are confident she'll fail, but they don't know that Jane (actually Lt. Jordan O'Neil) is essentially Sly Stallone with ovaries. Even more telling, O'Neil can trace her movie ancestry back to another memorable character created by Scott: Warrant Officer Ripley, the only survivor of "Alien."

Scott, who was in Washington for a screening of "G.I. Jane," is probably the only male director in Hollywood whose best work is his most overtly feminist. In addition to his other credits, he was the force behind the exhilarating road movie "Thelma & Louise," in which Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis play a waitress and a housewife choking on the limitations of their female roles when they set out for a weekend fling that turns into a freewheeling seminar on empowerment.

Along with the actresses and screenwriter Callie Khouri, Scott received a 1991 Academy Award nomination, his first, for direction. While he didn't win, for the first time in his career he was applauded for something other than visual genius -- and it felt good.

"I enjoyed making that film more than any I'd done since my first movie," says the 58-year-old Englishman. Women were only beautiful scenery in his 1977 debut, "The Duellists," but he subsequently became a generous director of actresses.

"I've never had a problem with strong women," declares Scott, who was reared by his mother, now 92. "My father was away because he was in the British army, and my most formative years were the years during World War II. So she was the boss, a real disciplinarian, and my two brothers and I danced to her tune. She taught us that you work for it and you get it. There's a reward system and you've got to persevere."

Though critics have complained that his movies aren't about anything, that the stories lack meaning and the characters are thin, at their core they reiterate Mum's beliefs. "G.I. Jane," despite its camouflage of political currency, is a parable of perseverance, discipline and the work ethic. The same can be said of "The Duellists," which chronicles an ongoing feud between French officers during the Napoleonic War.

Even Scott's worst efforts -- the unicorn quest "The Legend" and the Columbus bio "1492: Conquest of Paradise" -- celebrate plain old pigheadedness. So did the magnificent Apple Computer commercial that ran during the 1984 Super Bowl.

Scott, who has directed more than 2,000 commercials, still owns one of the world's most prestigious ad houses, as well as music video, film and television production companies with his filmmaker brother, Tony ("Top Gun," "Crimson Tide").

A confirmed workaholic, Scott loves the business end of moviemaking as much as the filming itself. "My work is my living and my living is my work," says the multimillionaire. "I love being on the edge. Can we get this ready on time? Holy God, what's it going to cost? Oh my God, the deal's off. I get that little shot of adrenaline and then I feel I'm living. That's why I hate holidays."

He also likes to keep audiences on the edge -- of their seats -- as he did in his 1979 horror classic, "Alien." Just when the danger seems to have passed, John Hurt goes into labor in Nostromo's mess, and while the crew tries to hold him down, an alien bursts through his chest. "People got so frightened that I began to wonder if the reaction was entirely healthy. I began to think maybe I had been irresponsible," Scott recalls.

The movie featured other breakthroughs: Unlike the antiseptic craft and personnel of "Star Trek" and "2001: A Space Odyssey," the Nostromo was a dilapidated freighter manned by a crew of sweat-stained proles. And though the role of Lt. Ripley was written for a man, Scott cast Sigourney Weaver.

"Actually Alien' was a B-movie with a man. Sigourney gave it subtext, which made the story both more interesting and more sophisticated," observes Scott.

It's been suggested, however, that along with gender roles, rebirth and reproduction, the film deals with cancer. "I was horrified when that first came up, because that's such a horrific subject," says Scott, who recently walked out of a Bergman film on the topic. "I actually couldn't take it anymore. I thought: Why am I sitting here getting depressed and miserable?"

Bergman is nevertheless one of Scott's favorite directors. He draws inspiration from Bergman's early work along with such Kurosawa classics as "Rashomon" and "The Seven Samurai." The great Japanese director "always used to have it raining. I really like that," says Scott, whose passion for gloomy backdrops dates back to his art school days at West Hartlepool in Northern England.

"At that moment, the style was social realism: factories, pubs, industrial landscapes. And the art school was in a similar environment. To reach the beach, you crossed this long, raised walkway above the steelworks. At night it was incredible, fires blazing. It was like walking across Hades," he says.

"Blade Runner," his cyberpunk film noir about the nature of life and playing God, bespeaks West Hartlepudlian malaise. The eyeball-popping 1982 thriller was a box office disappointment, disdained by audiences appalled by Scott's glowering, smoggy portrait of Los Angeles as it might be in 2019: crowded, polluted, clangorous and damp.

Harrison Ford, a detective who specializes in tracking down and destroying replicants who attempt to pass for human, is pressed into duty by his former boss when four take over the space shuttle and return to Earth. During the chase he meets and falls in love with a beautiful woman (Sean Young), who isn't really a woman at all.

Critics condemned Ford's droning narration (added against Scott's and Ford's wishes) and the upbeat Hollywood ending (actually leftover footage from Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining"), both of which Scott added at the studio's request. "Audiences were so confused at the previews," recalls Scott, "I thought, Oh my God, I'm way off beam here.' So I started to question everything and I went along with the studio changes, that ridiculous ending."

Scott, who knew Kubrick's reputation for excess, called Kubrick and, like a neighbor short of sugar, asked to borrow a little landscape footage. "I said, Stanley, I can't just cut on any old landscape. And I know that you must have so much beautiful helicopter footage of Montana. I know you just didn't go up there and do a day's shoot. Right?' In a nutshell, I needed a couple of shots and he sent me 17 hours of footage."

Rereleased in 1991 without the narration or the happy ending, "Blade Runner" now ends as Ford steps into an elevator with Young, whom he now knows is a replicant. "He's seized by paranoia," says Scott. "In his mind, it's My God, am I a replicant as well?' "

Scott hopes to make a "Blade Runner" sequel someday, but right now he's working on a third film version of Richard Matheson's post-apocalyptic thriller, "I Am Legend," with Arnold Schwarzenegger in the role previously played by Vincent Price and Charlton Heston. Is the third time a charm or something?

"There are only seven stories in the world. It's our job, the writer, the director, the actor, everybody involved, to make them different. When I read a script I can see pictures, so I start to see the movie very quickly and if I see areas that are too familiar, we change them."

He's already got a twist in mind for "I Am Legend." Schwarzenegger, as the last man on Earth, and his loyal dog are besieged by a race of zombies, humans mutated by germ warfare. Scott decided to give the dog's role to a woman. More subtext. Less slobber.

Somebody give the man another cigar. CAPTION: "I've never had a problem with strong women," says Ridley Scott, who has directed "Alien," "Thelma & Louise" and the new "G.I. Jane." CAPTION: Ridley Scott directs Demi Moore in "G.I. Jane," latest in his feminist-leaning movies. CAPTION: Scott: "I love being on the edge. . . . I get that little shot of adrenaline and then I feel I'm living. That's why I hate holidays." CAPTION: Scott's films include the futuristic "Blade Runner" with Harrison Ford, above, and "Alien" with Tom Skerritt, below, and the feminist "Thelma & Louise" with Geena Davis, left.