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No Slip-Sliding Away With This Guy : Kevin Kline is constantly asking himself, ‘Should I do this or that?’ But there’s never any doubt in his mind about the art of acting

<i> Lawrence Christon writes about the arts for The Times. </i>

Of the several ways to assess what an actor means to a movie, one would be to consider what the movie would be like if the actor weren’t in it at all; that is, if someone else were doing the part.

“Soapdish,” the Michael Hoffman comedy, written by Robert Harling and Andrew Bergman, deals with the behind-the-scenes machinations of a daytime TV soap opera cast, each of whom is angling for prominent position on the show, either sexual or political--sometimes both. Sally Field plays the queen of the ratings whose tiara is noticeably slipping (Whoopi Goldberg plays her writer who must double as den mother). Elisabeth Shue portrays an ingenue with eyes for the big time. Cathy Moriarty is a predatory bit player who’ll do anything to move center stage, and Robert Downey Jr. plays the quisling line producer whose instincts are exquisitely fluffed up to accommodate whichever way the wind is blowing.

“Soapdish” could easily acquiesce to the crude energies of mere skulduggery--except for the grace note delivered by Kevin Kline. Kline plays Jeffrey Anderson, a “serious” actor hauled out of the mothball circuit of Florida dinner theater to strut his newly minted hour on camera as Dr. Rod Randall, the handsome, eminent surgeon, who at one point is called on to perform a brain transplant in a restaurant with only a large kitchen knife and a soup strainer (for purposes of anesthesia) at his disposal.

The role is a lark for Kline, who brings the kind of stylized dash to the screen that recalls early Errol Flynn and John Barrymore in his antic prime, yet doesn’t seem anachronistic or out of place (Kline’s precision is an excellent counterpoint to Field’s eager galumphery as well). It’s an extremely clever and comical reading of an actor’s impregnable self-consciousness, in which every surrounding manifestation of behavior and event is measured against his ego and his appearance, as opposed to just trying to figure out what’s going on.

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“It’s the easiest role I ever had to research,” Kline said. (Early in his career he had a small part in “Search For Tomorrow.”) “All I had to do was show up. It’s about the specific weirdness of the actor’s life, the time-honored look at the vain, self-absorbed child who’s allowed to capriciously indulge each emotional impulse as it comes along. I liken it to a ‘30s screwball comedy. I loved those movies with Carole Lombard and Barrymore. Have you ever seen the Lunts do Molnar’s ‘The Guardsman’? He plays an actor in it, she plays an actress, and it’s hysterical.”

Those allusions reveal how well-read Kline is in the vocabulary of style and his performance shows how that knowledge has been filtered into gesture. At 43, he’s one of the rare screen actors who has total command of his body--Randall’s suave composure as he steps out of his dressing room in that spiffy vanilla white suit is frantically shattered in several directions at once. Like Richard Dreyfuss in “Moon Over Parador” and Peter O’Toole in “My Favorite Year"--two comedies in which actors portray actors--Kline displays the split consciousness of the actor playing his moment and observing it at the same time.

In “Soapdish"--which opens Friday--he adds a third element, a quiet sympathy that in this instance goes a long way towards smoothing the movie’s aggressive edges. There is a tender heart at the center of this character, not a narcissistic black hole in which the light of everyone else’s interest is forever trapped. Where another actor in his silent moments might simply wait his cue, Kline’s character displays a capacity for forgetting himself while sensitively observing other people in extremis .

“I’m aware that ‘Soapdish’ could easily have been a mean-spirited movie,” he said. “It’s like ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ with a Machiavellian undertone. But Michael Hoffman stressed that there was a love story going on that in the end out-balanced everything else.”

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A good number of serious movie- and theater-goers will argue that Kline is the best American actor of his generation at work right now. An Academy Award (for “A Fish Called Wanda”) and two Tony awards (for “On the Twentieth Century” and “The Pirates of Penzance”), plus two Obies and a Drama Desk Award (for “Pirates” and “Hamlet”) help beef up the claim. So would the second annual William Shakespeare Award for Classical Theater, which he won in 1989 for his numerous Shakespearan roles, including “Richard III,” and as Benedick in “Much Ado About Nothing.” (“Did they mention ‘Henry V’?” he reportedly asked, on hearing of the prize.)

Still, however well-regarded he is by acting purists, he won’t carry a movie on the strength of his name. Any Kevin Kline vehicle will guarantee class and first-rate intelligence, but it won’t run on the alchemical fuel of star quality. He’s not that kind of artist; he prefers to hide his tracks under the protective coloration of technique.

“When you start out in an acting career, the idea of fame is always there,” he said. “You think of being famous, rich and weird. I’ve thought about that rigorously, but what I want first is to be an artist. I’ve realized that the only way to maintain an ongoing career is to maintain your ability to do good work. That goes into the criteria for whatever I decide to do next. I’m always asking, ‘Will this lead to other work, or will it end my career? Shall I go to the Guthrie Theater for four years, or to New York, Broadway, Off Broadway or Off Off Broadway, or shall I just wait?’ ”

Kline’s reticence runs to interviews themselves. While he’s in Los Angeles for the filming of Lawrence Kasdan’s “Grand Canyon,” he gave up a recent weekend to meet the press as it descended on his hotel en masse in batteries of TV cameras, microphone clusters, still photographers and interviewers, all eager to know what he had to say about “Soapdish.” Rather than feeling drained by two days of round-robin interrogation, he took it in comfortable stride.

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“When it’s just five minutes, you get the same questions, so you tend to make automatic responses,” he said during a lunch break. “An ‘E.T.’ mentality has crept into the interview process, but I’m grateful that you don’t get the depth. I’m terrified of the in-depth interview, where you expose things you’d prefer the audience not know. I like to keep the mystery and the magic for the next performance.”

Kline had come up to his room for a hamburger and a glass of iced tea. At a touch over six feet tall, he has a light athletic build and a graceful deportment. His pale, semi-translucent skin can never hide an incipient five o’clock shadow, though his face looked youthful and sleepworn. Shorn of his mustache, he seemed shorn of his on-screen panache as well. His eyes are a hard slate-blue color, but they contain an appreciative humor and intelligence. He looks like he would’ve made a memorable schoolteacher, a Midwestern Mr. Chips (he was born and raised in St. Louis).

Although Kline would prefer to discuss performance (he was one of the original members of John Houseman’s Acting Company at Juilliard), what he hears most are questions about career. Of the first, he says, “You hear about the difficulty stage-trained actors have when they get in front of a camera, where your energy is restricted from the neck up. It’s taken me a while to realize that scale is a personal thing, and that you can play big. Olivier, O’Toole and Brando are just a few of the actors who have taken big chances. One of the differences I think is that if you take a big chance on screen and fail, the medium is more unforgiving.

“I try never to make a decision based on fear of failure, but by the same token I’m always unnerved by questions of career--I get them all the time. At the risk of sounding pretentious, I’d like every movie I make to be popular, but that’s different than being successful. Of course you want all the elements of a movie to come together so that it’s both, but if you set out to do something on the basis of hoping everyone will love it, I don’t think you’re making a good start.”

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Although “The Big Chill” and “A Fish Called Wanda” are among his most popular movies, he considers “Sophie’s Choice” and “Silverado” successful just the same. Of “Cry Freedom” (the story of South African black activist Steve Biko), Kline said, “It was a difficult shoot but a great experience. I was surprised that the American public was uninterested in South Africa--Universal (Studios) did a poll that revealed only 6% of the American population knew what apartheid was. But Donald Woods (the South African journalist played by Kline) impressed upon me the sheer beauty of the land. The movie gave us a base that was informational. It was seen all over the world, including black and white audiences in South Africa, and I think it helped people understand the conditions there.”

Of “I Love You to Death,” he said, “I have a great appreciation for Larry (Kasdan’s) vision and the way he resists falling into farce. He lingered with character, but he also deals with violence and a group of people who have no respect for life. I’m always heartened when something of quality is received as such and is popular at the same time. There are a lot of inane, revolting, spirit-numbing, life-degrading movies that’re popular, and it’s hugely depressing to me. But Hollywood can still come through with movies that’re personal and have a point of view. They let Coppola do ‘The Conversation,’ for example.”

Kline is uncertain about his plans after he finishes “Grand Canyon,” except that he will return home to New York, where he and his wife Phoebe Cates will await their first child. (Cates is currently appearing in “The Three Sisters” at the La Jolla Playhouse.) “I don’t know if it’s humanly possible to grow up in New York, but she’s living proof that it is. I’m beginning to wonder if the theater won’t become extinct in our lifetime, like vaudeville, and someday I’ll be telling my kid ‘I worked in the theat-ah .’ The city itself is a permanent nightmare.”

As for future roles, “I’d like to do good romantic comedy that has wit and style. I’d love to do something like ‘The Thin Man,’ and play part of a married couple that engages in a lot of repartee. I’d like to see more American movies try the classics as well--why should we leave that up to the English, the French and the Russians?” Besides, that would give Kline plenty to do as well.

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“I would love to play Don Quixote,” he said. The publicist entered the room to usher him onto his next appointed publicity round. Kline rose to full height, chin up, chest swollen to stentorian breadth, and hands crooked into the classic “Alas, poor Yorick” tragedian’s pose. “I just realized--I have ended on a quixotic note,” he said with comic bravado. It was an actor’s moment, and he played it with brief, extravagant pleasure.


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