Virginia Madsen talks as though she knew a woman she never met and lived in an era much before her time.

"It was a time of sparkle and gaiety," she said, "with parties at San Simeon that ended with breakfast at 9 in the morning . . . It's hard to imagine all the parties there, with spilled drinks and people flopping on 17th century couches. And there are the stories of the Marx Brothers playing football in a room with precious vases lining the walls -- and Marion in there playing with them."

That's one of the many anecdotes Madsen absorbed as she prepared to play the part of actress Marion Davies opposite Robert Mitchum in "The Hearst and Davies Affair," airing Monday night on ABC.

The part of Davies takes Madsen into the realm of legend, playing the former Ziegfeld-girl-turned-movie-star who shared a life of outrageous luxury with publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst for some 35 years. A parody of their relationship was a subplot of "Citizen Kane." Hearst is portrayed by Mitchum, who's becoming something of a legend himself. It's a big demand for an actress with less than a handful of feature films behind her.

To get into the role, Madsen screened Davies' movies, read books, hunted up a collector of Davies memorabilia and even interviewed the actress' stand-in. She came away from it talking about Davies as if she were describing a favorite aunt.

"She was a lover of life," said Madsen. "That may have been her downfall at the end, because she lived it so fully. A lot of her family died in a short period of time and pieces of her fell away . . . And if people doubt that she loved Hearst, they should look at her after he died. She simply was not the same old Marion."

But of course there was reason to wonder about the relationship between Hearst and Davies. "Hearst put her on billboards, lauding her talent and performances," Madsen recalled. "She could never live up to it. I heard tapes of her discussing acting. At one point she said, 'There was one thing I wished for as an actress -- talent. I never got it.' I thought, 'Oh, Marion.' With Hearst's support, sometimes exaggerated, it was tough for her to get an idea of how good she really was."

In screening Davies' films, Madsen saw a lot of sparkle in the early movies that seemed to flicker in her later efforts. "I saw her talent early on," she said. "Then there was nothing in the later ones. The fire was gone." But when Davies later did "Peg of My Heart," Madsen said, "the fire was back."

An apt description, coming from Madsen. She is a Chicago native, the daughter of a fireman and a writer- filmmaker. She studied acting and dance during her school years and debuted as the daughter of Alan Arkin and Barbara Dana in "A Matter of Principle" for PBS' "American Playhouse."

She studied the cello for a role in a movie called "Electric Dreams," a boy- meets-girl story set to rock video, complicated by a jealous computer. She may look familiar to large-screen habitu,ees -- she plays Princess Irulan in "Dune" and she has a part in "Creator," an upcoming movie with Peter O'Toole and Mariel Hemingway.

And now she's on TV, playing to her biggest audience and opposite Mitchum.

"He was good at teaching me to stop thinking about a scene and to simply go do it," she said. "He's very handsome. He's in great shape," following a visit to the Betty Ford Center in California. "You've heard all the stories about him," she added. "All I know is the time we had together on this film. People are going to be surprised. They're really going to like this film . . .

"I was ready for him to be stoic, to be a star. I know he is a private man," she said. "But he made it possible for us to be friends. He treated me as a leading lady."