the prime of ms. julie kavner : AMERICA’S MOST LOVABLE SECOND BANANA BREAKS OUT OF THE BUNCH IN HER FIRST STARRING ROLE
IT HAPPENED ONE DAY IN HOLLYWOOD, sometime after the five-year run of her hit series “Rhoda” had ended but before her string of prestige appearances in five Woody Allen movies, before her supporting role on “The Tracey Ullman Show,” before that indelible voice of hers, creaking like a gate hinge in need of oiling, drifted out of Marge’s cartoon lips on “The Simpsons.” During this somewhat formless stretch in her career, character actor Julie Kavner found herself auditioning to play a prosecuting attorney on the sitcom “Night Court.”
As it turned out, the television powers that be must have been trolling for qualities quite different from Kavner’s slump-shouldered physicality and oddly stylized comedic rhythms--eventually they would cast a blond all-American nose-crinkler named Markie Post.
For the record:
12:00 AM, Feb. 16, 1992 FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Sunday February 16, 1992 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Page 6 Times Magazine Desk 1 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
In “The Prime of Ms. Julie Kavner” ( Jan. 26) Kavner’s age was misstated. She is 41. In the same story, former Beverly Hills High School drama teacher John Ingle’s name was misspelled.
But on this day, the eight assorted executives and assistants didn’t mention that. They just arranged themselves on couches and chairs in a semicircle of power and intimidation around Kavner’s chair and gave her performance the ultimate Hollywood raspberry: silence.
“It was quiet,” she recalls. “ Very , very quiet.” Kavner leaps up to better demonstrate the rest of the scenario. “So I say goodby"--Kavner bends her surprisingly gangly frame and shakes hands with an imaginary chorus line of expressionless bigwigs. “Oh, thank you very much,” she intones with sincerity. “And thank you , and, oh, thank you , and then I leave"--Kavner closes a nearby door--"And then,"--Kavner presses one ear against the wall,which is how she eavesdropped for the unmistakable strains of post-mortem gossip--"I waited three beats.”
To describe this plot twist, Kavner’s hands, which she frequently uses to dramatize and punctuate her conversation, start working through the air. “I counted them out. One. Two. Three. And then, I just flung open the door"--Kavner shows how she poked her head back into the office--"and I screamed, ‘ Surprise !’ ”
Looking satisfied, Kavner sits back down on the fluffy gray couch in the overflowing office of “The Simpsons” creator Matt Groening. In the past, she says, there have been auditions where she was “brought to my knees. I didn’t stand up for myself, I just mumbled something and left .” So it’s not hard to understand why she relishes this small personal triumph: “They were totally shocked,” Kavner says. “I didn’t want the job. They didn’t want me. And I had captured a great moment and called every body on it.”
This is a classic Kavner setup, of course, one that could not have been more perfect had it been scripted and filmed before a live studio audience. It was almost two decades ago that she made her Emmy-award-winning professional debut as the Angst -drenched baby sister on Valerie Harper’s “Mary Tyler Moore” spinoff “Rhoda.” And if Kavner got most of the laughs, it was because she was canny enough to play her character as insecure since birth, someone whose life was informed by the sad-funny notion that she was cosmetically imperfect and socially clumsy. But what made Brenda Morgenstern a secret cult heroine to a generation of tube-watchers was that--just like Kavner with the “Night Court” honchos--she, too, was capable of sudden acts of courage. It was inspiring that this crushable soul had her breaking point.
So winning, in fact, was her portrayal that Kavner could have been easily sentenced to a career of playing Brendas. Yet this not-quite-well-known 42-year-old also went on to become an example of what can be accomplished even with the skimpiest screen time. It’s not just because of the comic realness in her self-doubting wallflowers and all-purpose second bananas. What also comes across is her unshakable professionalism, how she gives each role her absolute best shot so that even carpet-fluff productions such as “Surrender” and “The Revenge of the Stepford Wives” were temporarily uplifted by her appearances. For “Awakenings,” director Penny Marshall made her campaign strenuously for a part so minor it was, by Kavner’s characteristically blunt estimation, “a complete zero on paper.” But she made the most of her heartfelt reaction shots and occasional dialogue scraps so that by the third reel her Nurse Eleanor Costello had moviegoers wishing that Robin Williams’ Dr. Sayer would defrost already and cozy up to her.
Most of her colleagues observe that audiences respond to her because of her facility for naturalistic acting. “She just bleeds right over into the part,” says actor Taylor Negron, who co-starred with her in a feature predictively titled “Bad Medicine.” “When the film is rolling, it’s basically like being with her. That’s why people think they know her.” Yet Kavner’s horror of playing herself prevents any discussion of her definitive technique. “Are you telling me that all of my characters are exactly the same ?” she asks, sounding alarmed.
Years before their formal introduction, journalist-turned-screenwriter Nora Ephron easily qualified for membership in Kavner’s unofficial support group. “When I saw her in ‘Hannah and Her Sisters,’ ” says Ephron, “my heart just leapt because I loved her so much. I was so happy to see her in that movie.” In fact, when Ephron first began co-writing her latest film script, “This Is My Life,” with sister Delia Ephron, the pair penciled in Kavner for the small role of a chain-smoking agent. It makes sense that they couldn’t picture her as the central figure: In their early drafts, the pivotal character was a singer.
The film, which will be released Feb. 21 and will mark Nora Ephron’s directorial debut, is based on Meg Wolitzer’s novel “This Is Your Life.” The book tracked the lives of two emotionally isolated daughters and their mother, Dottie Ingels, an oversized up-and-coming comedian. The Ephrons ditched the self-deprecating blubber jokes and reconfigured the story into a semiautobiographical meditation on celebrity moms and fame’s effect on their children. (The title was subtly overhauled when Ralph Edwards refused to allow use of the name of his cheese-ball reunion show.)
Kavner didn’t surface as a candidate for the lead until after the script had floated from Columbia Pictures to 20th Century Fox. Left behind was Jon Peters and Peter Guber’s platinum-plated suggestion list of bankable lead actresses--Cher, Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler; Roseanne Barr was considered, as were Goldie Hawn and Michelle Pfeiffer. Such high-profile stars “would have loaded (the story) too much anyway--you would know from the beginning that (the lead character) was eventually going to become a star,” says Lynda Obst, who produced “This Is My Life.”
Then 20th Century Fox’s studio chief, Joe Roth, came up with the life-imitates-art game plan of giving the Big Break to someone lesser known. That way, the actress’s career might soar along with Dottie Ingels’. Ephron suggested Kavner. “Done,” said Roth. “To Nora,” says Obst, “this was a dream come true because Julie is Dottie--this person who is incredibly talented, but somehow she’s always in the background.”
Uncovering star potential is an activity as old as Hollywood. Still, Kavner’s move toward center stage is not necessarily something that would have happened in the ‘30s and ‘40s--the Golden Age of character actors. Back then, there was power and importance afforded to such team players as Walter Brennan and William Demarest. In fact, directors such as John Ford or Preston Sturges would probably have worked hard to keep Kavner in supporting roles, believing that she would have been better used setting off bigger stars than commanding the screen herself.
Today, however, the conventional show-biz wisdom is that only names that run above the title matter. And months before “This Is My Life” was to be released, columnist Liz Smith was already kicking Kavner upstairs, predicting that the movie will “turn Julie Kavner into a star.”
But, on this afternoon, it’s hard to imagine Kavner giving lip-smacking air kisses or making self-congratulatory chitchat like most new inductees into the entertainment upper classes. “What was different about being the star of a movie?” Kavner says. She stares thoughtfully at the nubby carpet for several long minutes. “Well,” she offers helpfully, “I did have to learn a lot more lines.”
IT IS MONTHS EARLIER: ON THE THIRD FLOOR OF STUDIO ASIS, THE concrete complex in Toronto where “This Is My Life” is filming, is a living-room set, spilling over with claw-footed furniture, fringy shawls, yellow tulips and china figurines. This is where co-star Samantha Mathis is curled up in an overstuffed chair, rehearsing a long-distance telephone conversation with Kavner. In this scene, Kavner’s character will comfort her cold-ridden eldest daughter, Erica (Mathis).
For this particular shot, Kavner will only be making an aural appearance; the camera is trained on Mathis. Yet four hours after her exhaustingly full day of filming is completed, Kavner is donating her downtime to help Mathis through her scene. This kind of collaborative gesture isn’t unheard of, but it’s not required either. “Her attitude really perfumes everything,” says Nora Ephron. “It would never cross Julie’s mind to go home now. And when someone is so hard-working and has no interest in making waves, it spreads its own kind of calm.”
But the evening is wearing on, and Kavner’s ad-libbed maternal queries (“Do you have mucus?” “Don’t breathe on your sister.” “Do you have a fever?”) are getting sort of out there. Suddenly she’s bleating theatrically to Mathis, “Whatever it is that you do, don’t look in the mirror, " an improvisation that has such ominous voodoo undertones that it draws a blast of confused laughter from the younger star. But Kavner just giggles off an explanation (“That’s so you don’t get depressed about how you look”) and keeps up her hard-driven pace.
What screenwriter-director-producer James L. Brooks likes to say about Kavner is “if good acting is about losing self-consciousness, then Julie’s lost it before she gets to work. She will try anything with the exact same spirit.”
Brooks has worked with Kavner since 1974, when he was executive producer of “Rhoda,” and says she was “great right out of the box.” There are many versions of how Kavner ended up on the show, but the true story begins with Rose Schulter-Donaldson, a friend of Kavner’s mother, who called up some industry acquaintances and told them that she knew of someone who was “catchy and attractive.”
Of course, Schulter-Donaldson had never actually seen Kavner act, although she had probably been informed of Kavner’s extensive training, which began with a seventh-grade summer-school drama class and continued through high school. It is somehow telling that what her Beverly Hills High School drama coach John Engels remembers about the bashful teen-ager is--not much: “Um, I have anecdotes about Nick Cage or Barbara Hershey or Rick Dreyfuss, but not her,” Engels offers apologetically. “She merged into the group.”
Four years as a drama major at San Diego State and an award-winning term at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre still left her parents--Dave, a furniture distributor, and Rose, a marriage and family counselor--expressing doubts about their second daughter’s future. It wasn’t that they weren’t supportive, Kavner says, “but there was always the old ‘maybe you should have something else to fall back on’ thing.”
It was Kavner’s luck that on that long-ago afternoon, Schulter-Donaldson, who Kavner says “considers herself a little bit psychic,” allowed her intuitive powers to guide her. One of the acquaintances she contacted was David Davis, who lunched with Kavner, hired her a year later when he was co-producing “Rhoda” and has been her boyfriend for the last 15 years (“A twofer! " Schulter-Donaldson kvells).
For her move from “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” to “Rhoda,” Valerie Harper’s zaftig wisecracker was retooled into a skinny urban babe. And the natural foil for this turned out to be a slow-speed, unworldly reinvention of the old Rhoda, with the same Size 14 problems. Emotionally, for Kavner, this wasn’t exactly foreign territory, and sometimes she’d excavate personal experiences to enrich an otherwise blah scene. Says Harper: "(The director) would say, ‘Can anyone think of something?’ and Julie would say, ‘Valerie? Valerie, have you ever taken a Sara Lee from the freezer, and it’s not thawed?’ So the activity under the scene was me taking out a cake and hacking and struggling with the knife so that we could eat.” Kavner tends to downplay her own input (“It was the writing that people related to”), but she likes to praise Brenda’s finely detailed complexities: “She was not the first-ever character to have a tough time with weight or be shy. But she did always have sex. Like one of her boyfriends had a foot fetish, which is pretty wild for TV.”
By the show’s second season, critics were hailing Kavner with double-edged compliments, such as, “She is one of the few plain-looking people with a major and sympathetic role.” But what the home audience might have picked up on was an increasingly happier-looking ingenue who had dropped 30 pounds. “Maybe I was in love” is all Kavner says about this transformation. But since then, she has been inseparable from Davis, the now semi-retired television writer-producer with whom she shares two beachfront apartments (in Malibu and on New York’s Shelter Island).
After “Rhoda’s” demise in 1978, Kavner popped up in the occasional TV movie of the week. In one, “No Other Love,” her critically acclaimed portrayal of a marginally retarded woman won her an Emmy nomination. Otherwise, she instinctively veered away from television offers, most of which involved playing Brenda-esque characters anyway. Taking them, she says, would have been pointless because “there’s no great thrill in doing something you’ve already done.”
In 1987, Kavner’s old friend Brooks signed her up for “The Tracey Ullman Show,” which would eventually win her several Emmy nominations. The weekly comedy-sketch program required Kavner to portray up to three exceptionally diverse characters. Not just sensitive mousy types, but bizarrely poisonous individuals as well--a wicked ballet doyenne in a motorized wheelchair or a sadistic traffic cop with an unusual amount of facial hair. “The great thing about Julie,” says Brooks, “is that no matter what she does, something in you is going to like and approve of her. Yet she loves perversity in character; she has the desire to go into those tricky, weird places.”
The show expanded her range as an actress. “They had me doing things that I’d never done before, that no one will ever ask me to do again,” she says. She performed in dance numbers (choreographed by Paula Abdul), pulling off intricate pas de deux . She was expected to sing, which she considers her No. 1 on-camera phobia. “Anything with snakes and scuba diving” is also on her short list. Nude love scenes might also qualify, but, says Kavner, “I don’t think it’s ever going to come up. They’re not exactly lining up outside my door going, ‘Oooh, boy. We really want to see her naked.’ ”
It was Ullman who introduced her to micro-impressions, to using “somebody in the news that she’d seen” to speedily fortify a character’s persona. “It could be a woman with a lisp,” says Kavner, “or one who had a certain way of moving. It really opened me up to explore different kinds of speech patterns and body language. I couldn’t just be myself.”
KAVNER IS DRIVING THROUGH THE WOODED, SERPENTINE SECTION of Beverly Glen in her lemon-colored Jeep Cherokee, an automobile chosen, she says, for utility and for its inconspicuousness. This is just a single component of her regular disguise, one that she alludes to with the somberness of someone staging her own witness-protection program. The other part is a multilayered outfit: a chartreuse floral-print dress, a rust-colored hooded sweat shirt, beaded suede Indian moccasins, inky-dark sunglasses and a lavender baseball cap with the bill pulled so low over the bridge of her nose that it throws a shadow over three-quarters of her face.
Her love of concealment hasn’t gone unnoticed by journalists. Despite her years in film and television, she’s left behind an almost nonexistent paper trail. The few profiles of her read like lessons in conversational brevity. One article contained this pouty footnote: “Before agreeing to this meeting, she set conditions galore.”
During interviews, it’s apparent that Kavner wants to be cooperative, that she’s just struggling gamely to locate her comfort zone. Unlike actresses who praise everyone but say nothing, Kavner tends to be candid when it comes to her profession. “Very rarely do I get (the parts) that I go up for,” she admits easily. “I wanted to be in (Mel Brooks’) ‘Life Stinks’ very badly. The script was better than the movie.” But her extreme discomfort toward the media extends to thumbing through a reporter’s notebook when the reporter leaves the room.
And if you ask her about her inclusion in Woody Allen’s free-floating stock company, she’ll stop and start. “The focus is the work,” she reports. “We’ll chat sometimes. This last time we talked about Lyme disease.” A nervous pause. “He’s really nice. I’m not trying to indicate that he isn’t. I’m just very shy with certain people. Most people.” Her personal autobiography goes something like, “Normal family. Very loving. Not religious. Grew up in Burbank. Toward the hills.” The subject of her parents is quickly dispensed with. “Leave them alone,” she requests.
“The truth is,” Nora Ephron says, “that she’s a very private human being who leads a very simple life. She’s had a long time as a performer with a kind of privacy that is enjoyed by almost no one. It wasn’t until ‘Awakenings’ that she found she could not walk into Bloomingdale’s without somebody recognizing her. (Fame) is not one of life’s great treats. It takes some getting used to.”
Kavner couldn’t have known, back in 1987, that for all of her best efforts at camouflage, it would be her own vocal cords that would finally betray her. How could they not? The hyper-extended vowel sounds, the bitten-off consonants, that East Coast whine that she inherited from her New York parents--when Kavner’s friends quote her, they can’t help but impersonate her wholly original accent.
When the Simpsons were just characters in three-minute animated bumpers on “The Tracey Ullman Show,” Kavner and “Ullman” co-star Dan Castellaneta were chosen to be Marge and Homer’s mouthpieces because “we were there. You know, cheaper.” But since the landmark success of “The Simpsons,” her voice has become so identifiable that Kavner can’t dial 411 without having telephone operators give her the “Aren’t-you-Marge?” routine. “It’s what I call ‘recognize-a-rama,’ ” says Kavner, glumly. “If I’m alone, like at a gas station, it’s difficult. If I want to remain anonymous, I have to keep my mouth shut.” In fact, some say this phenomenon--of being an actress whose timbre is far more familiar than her face--might cause her other problems as well. Kavner’s croaky “This Is My Life” voice-overs may provide some bewildering moments for Marge-lovers.
It took Kavner’s input to make Bart Simpson’s bubble-eyed mother so believable as the family’s moral core. Through her seismic grumbles and fractured high notes, she somehow conveys the touching image of a bright housewife with three children, too many discarded ambitions and a dumb husband whom she loves and despairs for. To achieve that, Kavner developed her own resolute beliefs about the Simpson brood. “Homer is very good in bed,” she’ll say, only half-jokingly. And the show’s nearly all-male writing staff has come to expect that Kavner will apply her point of view to even the most minute details.
“It’s not like I demand rewrites or anything,” says Kavner. “They are open to discussion, so I bring things up.” During a recent voice-taping session, for example, Kavner, dismayed by the discovery that a group of homeless characters were all scripted as men, offered to pitch in and make things co-ed.
“Why not have one of the homeless people be a woman?” Kavner asks. “The secondary characters are always men, which is a bit sexist to my mind. But they told me that a woman being a homeless person is not funny. I told them, ‘Oh, as in Imogene Coca or Carol Burnett?’ which I thought was a pretty good point. But sometimes I get things in and sometimes I don’t.” Then she tries to brainstorm an alternative argument: “What I should have mentioned was Lily Tomlin ,” she says. “She played the all-time greatest homeless person ever.”
Acting as Marge’s mortal spokesperson is one of Kavner’s sticking points. It is written into her contract that she will never be required to promote herself on camera as the voice of Marge. “Why destroy the illusion for children?” she asks. “Why tell them Bart’s a girl? (Nancy Cartwright) wants the publicity, which I can understand. But I don’t want (Marge’s) voice to ever come out of this face. Ever. “
She proudly assumes full credit for the somewhat unconventional “Simpsons” videotape press kit: She persuaded the cast members to conduct their mini-interviews as she did, with faces obscured by plastic Groucho noses over furry black mustaches. Though the rest of the actors were ultimately wooed into striking cute poses alongside their corresponding characters for the back cover of “The Simpsons Sing the Blues” album, Kavner budged only slightly. She and Marge appear in their publicity snapshot with their eyes hidden by twin movie-star sunglasses.
It is this intractability that some of those affiliated with “The Simpsons” quietly sigh over. But Brooks sees it as merely part of Kavner’s ethical code. “She is very specific about everything she does. She won’t let work or the quest for work alter or invade her life. If she and Dave have plans to spend a month in Shelter Island,” he says, “there has to pretty much be an earthquake to get them to change their plans.”
TWO INEXPLICABLY dour-looking employees stand in the entrance area at the Gracie Films office on the 20th Century Fox lot. Gracie is the production headquarters for, among other things, “The Simpsons,” and thus, technically speaking, it is Kavner’s domain. Yet, today, as she enters in search of coffee, these women answer her cheerful hello with cool glances and identically impersonal shrugs. It’s of small import that their pointed unfriendliness seems born of boredom and frustration; even misdirected rudeness can sting. And one can’t help but check to see if Kavner is injured by this slight.
Confusing her with her soft-shelled characters is something Kavner must have tired of long ago. It’s just that Brenda Morgenstern’s air of fragility and mournfulness seemed too genuine to be an actor’s creation. But these days, Kavner will tell you that her happiness factor “hovers around an eight. I have a pretty great life,” she says. “And when I’m depressed, I don’t understand why.”
“This Is My Life” is receiving good advance word-of-mouth. “The Simpsons” has just wrapped its third season. Woody Allen’s latest film, “Shadows and Fog,” will be opening March 20, and it contains Kavner’s “funniest, best character work I’ve ever done in my life. I mean, I hope.” Recently, she participated in a taped workshop of Brooks’ latest, still-untitled movie script, in which she performed a sex scene, a bit about the breakup of a relationship, and a dance by renowned choreographer Twyla Tharp. “I feel that you reach a certain age,” she says, philosophically, “and then things start to jell. My sense of self is stronger. I’m getting bolder in my old age. After I hit 40, you couldn’t mess around with me so much anymore.”
Improved defense machinery or not, there is no calculating how Kavner is reacting to these two women in the Gracie lobby, who are throwing off attitude like heat waves. She wanders silently into the employees’ lounge before wondering aloud, “What was that about?” While she pours herself a paper cup of muddy brew, she appears to be deep in thought, carefully weighing what her appropriate emotional response should be. Turning to face the blank wall that separates her from her unpleasant welcoming committee, she lifts one hand and briskly makes the universal gesture for shooing something away. “Oh, forget them, " she decides.