In the Bristol Lounge of Boston's stately Four Seasons hotel, the tone is set by buttery oak walls and ceilings, gathered drapes, swirling carpets. A stone's throw from Boston Common and a few blocks from the city's theater district, the bar-restaurant is the kind of place one reasonably might expect to see opera singer Jessye Norman reclining on a plush fireside sofa while a classic mid-February blizzard rages outside.
It isn't the sort of joint you'd imagine that Betty Rubble would pick for dinner. And yet, isn't that her high-pitched, Stone Age cartoon laugh, spilling forth from a corner table?
"Ahnnnn hnnn hnnn. Bamm-Bamm, put that down!"
OK, so the voice isn't coming from someone with bare feet and a cave-woman cocktail dress. But it might as well be.
Rosie O'Donnell--adorned by the same gray sweat pants, navy blue sweat shirt, black high-tops and zero makeup she had on when she left theater rehearsals that day--clearly has about as much respect for the sanctity of her posh surroundings as Dino had for Fred.
The stand-up comic-turned-actress is explaining how she won her role as Betty in the upcoming "Flintstones" movie, and that explanation seems to require a demonstration of "The Laugh." So without hesitation, apparently oblivious to the power-tie and Perrier crowd dining around her, laugh she does. Loudly.
She is one of the fastest rising personalities in the entertainment business--movie offers by the fistful, a starring role in a revival of "Grease" headed for Broadway (May 11, after a stop in Orange County beginning Tuesday), best friend to Madonna--but she's having none of the Terence Trent D'Arby Syndrome that proudly announces newcomer-with-an-attitude.
During this interview, at least, she is candid, nonchalant and altogether real--even stopping mid-sentence at one point to ask her interviewer if that is Jessye Norman across the room, then excusing herself to go meet the diva, like some wide-eyed kid running into Roger Clemens outside Fenway Park.
Between gulps of Coke and bites of gentrified Thai spring rolls and chicken satay, O'Donnell, 32, chats almost nonstop on subjects that range from her own Long Island upbringing to Tonya Harding, movie making and the allegations of pedophilia against Michael Jackson. Nothing, it seems, is off-limits.
The most immediate questions: Why "Grease"? Why now?
Her movie career has been humming along nicely ("Car 54, Where Are You?" notwithstanding) since the success of her debut in "A League of Their Own" in 1992--last year, she did "Sleepless in Seattle" and "Another Stakeout"--so this might not seem the best moment to take a nine-month hiatus. But with "The Flintstones" headed for theaters May 27 and the Garry Marshall-directed "Exit to Eden" targeted for summer release, O'Donnell thinks her timing is just about perfect.
"I'm done with (the 'Grease' tour and Broadway run) by the end of October, so I'll be back making movies by November," she explains. "Besides that, if you do movie after movie, the public gets sick of you." (She's on screen--briefly--in the current "I'll Do Anything," the scrapped musical version of which featured a rap number with her and Woody Harrelson.)
As to why "Grease" specifically: well, because Tommy Tune cast her. The original musical, by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey, debuted on Broadway in 1972; this revival is a Tune production, directed and choreographed by Jeff Calhoun.
"They were looking for a 'name' to be one of the lead roles, and when I said I had wanted to do Rizzo, they thought that would probably work," she said.
Calhoun says he first knew the casting would work when O'Donnell brought a yo-yo to rehearsals one day, lending Rizzo an added dimension.
"I never in a million years would have thought of the yo-yo," the director confessed over the phone from Seattle, where the production was camped earlier this week. "I knew from that moment that we were OK."
O'Donnell has wanted to do just about any role in just about any musical on Broadway since she was old enough to memorize every line and lyric to "Funny Girl" (a talent she retains, and--in Streisand-esque comic voice--uses periodically to punctuate interviews such as this one).
But she is under no delusions that she has Barbra Streisand's vocal chops. Or even Stockard Channing's, who played Rizzo in the movie version.
"I was never really a singer, except for maybe in the shower or something like that. But I always wanted to do it because to me there is nothing like the thrill of going to a Broadway show when the lights go down and you have that orchestra in front of you. I always get goose bumps. It's the reason I went into show business in the first place."
So far, she says, the reception has been warm and forgiving.
"The audiences have been great. Nobody is really expecting me to get up there and be Whitney Houston. They know who I am and what I do, and I think they do expect me to be funny, and hopefully I am funny. Then the rest . . . they think, 'You know, she is all right.' Even the critics have said, 'She's all right; she's not the best singer.' Which is fine. I can take that. It's the truth."
Actually, at least a few critics have been less kind:
Kevin Kelly, Boston Globe: "She has the brazen delivery of Ethel Merman. She snaps one-liners like gum, she burps, she boogies. She has two songs . . . which she sings in an even tone but, often, with the wrong emphasis."
Pamela Sommers, Washington Post: "The part of Rizzo . . . is no stretch for the pasty-faced, tough-talking O'Donnell, but the less said about her off-key, blaring singing, the better."
One of the things that critics really have landed on is something that O'Donnell herself has problems with. While she thinks the show is less about the '50s than it is "about kids wanting to fit in, and the awkwardness of love and loving and sexuality and allegiance to your friends," she concedes that some of the trappings of the era unfortunately come through, including sexism, crass humor and naivete:
"The line I hate the most . . . I go through this hard scene about how (Rizzo) thinks she is pregnant, and she's so upset and she cries, and then she does this song with her friends. And then five seconds later she goes, 'Good thing I got my Friend, phew!' Like the whole thing is resolved because she's not pregnant, all the issues. Every night that I go out and I have to do that I think, 'Oh, God.' I hate what I have to say."
Director Calhoun defends that passage of the play, and others, pointing out that five seconds in the theater can represent days and what may seem like too-quick resolution of complex issues could be just necessary editing. Plus, he says, there is a certain intention here to appear naive.
"That's sort of the point of doing this show," he says. "It's about a simpler time with simpler issues."
Even if some parts of the show hold up better than others, O'Donnell thinks the package works pretty well, especially with such cast members as Sam Harris and Billy Porter around to lend some show-stopping vocals. The camaraderie among the actors, despite grueling all-day rehearsals that have continued through the pre-Broadway tour, is unlike anything she has come to expect on movie sets.
"I'm really having a great time on this show. Because on a movie you get to be friends with other actors, but you don't get to spend every day with them. . . . This is like high school to me. You get to have friends and buddies and go out after the show for a drink, and it's very nice."
Despite a film career that invariably has seen her cast as the Everybuddy, O'Donnell professes to have mostly missed out on that sort of thing in her youth.
At about age 18, she left her home in Commack, N.Y., to hit the stand-up comedy circuit. Her mother died of cancer when Rosie was 10 and, even with a sister and three brothers around, there wasn't much levity on the home front as she remembers it ("very Irish Catholic sort of repressed family").
Her career had gotten off to a now-infamous start. At 16, she walked into a local club and delivered a killer routine lifted--verbatim--from an up-and-coming young comic named Jerry Seinfeld. After the other comics on the bill nearly had her dismembered for the infraction, she met with a far scarier realization: This comedy thing was going to require her to create her own jokes.
"I was like 'Holy ----, that's horrible. How am I going to write material? I'm not a writer.' I was so mad."
Still, she stuck with it. In 1984, she won several episodes of "Star Search" (though not the coveted grand prize), moved to Los Angeles and two years later found herself on the NBC series "Gimme a Break." Then came emcee duties on VH-1's "Stand-Up Spotlight," which capitalized on the comedy boom and perhaps even precipitated its bust, allowing in-home access to some of the same routines that comics were peddling in clubs around the nation.
Her leap to feature films came when she was cast as best friend and teammate to Madonna's character in "A League of Their Own." The friendship ultimately extended into real life and, both confirm, it continues today.
Being a mega-star's pal has shown her something of the price of fame. "Coming to know (Madonna) and love her as a human being brought me to a different awareness of what that kind of media image does to someone," O'Donnell says. Superstardom is now far from something she aspires to, though she admires her friend's attempts to live somewhat normally in spite of it.
"She is recognized, but she does go places," O'Donnell insists. "I mean, we go the mall; we go to the movies."
Madonna goes to the mall?
"Yeah, we've been to the mall. It's not easy always, but on the whole people leave her alone in some capacity.
"It's scary, though. She's very, very famous."
And what does Madonna have to say about her pal, Rosie?
"My friendship with Rosie has nothing to do with image," the pop diva commented earlier this week. "I cannot explain the mystery of what happens when you become best friends with someone. I can only say that we are tortured by the same things, we laugh at the same things, and I love her madly!"
Curiously, neither Rosie's own celebrity status nor that of her famous friend has soured Rosie on the media, even the tabloid variety. She is a huge fan of court TV, "Hard Copy," "A Current Affair" and Connie Chung interviews with plea-bargaining skaters.
"I'm obsessed with all those tabloidy things. Like the Michael Jackson thing and the Menendez brothers. I was glued to court TV. Absolutely glued."
And, like the tabloid media, her convictions sometimes are influenced by popular opinion and circumstantial evidence. For instance, she stands squarely behind most professed victims of abuse--Lorena Bobbitt, Erik and Lyle Menendez, Michael Jackson's accusers--no matter what their own crimes may be, but has no sympathy for Harding, who also reportedly was abused as a child.
"I totally love Nancy Kerrigan, I totally cannot stand Tonya Harding. And everyone says, 'Oh, that's not fair; you don't know that she is guilty' . . . I don't care. I'm totally a victim of the media, and I think that (Harding) is a horrible person.
"I wanted to fly to Lillehammer just so I could be in the Boo Tonya Festival."
Tongue still in cheek, she adds that because she's followed the case so closely, she deserves a part in whatever movie of the week comes out of it. Her role of choice? Harding's former bodyguard, burly Shawn Eckardt, who is suspected of arranging the attack on Kerrigan.
As for Jackson's troubles, O'Donnell--who says she met the singer some months ago when he accompanied Elizabeth Taylor to the set of "The Flintstones" (Taylor is playing Wilma Flintstone's mother)--expresses sympathy but does not entirely dismiss accusations of child molestation.
"It's such a tragedy in so many ways," she says. "It forces people to look at the issue of child abuse and the ramifications and the implications of what happens generationally if it's not treated. And also what happens when someone is so famous that the people around him lose their perspective on right and wrong, and allow or condone or hide or enable behavior that ultimately kills the person. Whether it is Elvis Presley with drugs or Michael Jackson with whatever his demons are that he is struggling with, it's really unnerving."
To those who say Jackson never could be guilty of such behavior, O'Donnell replies somewhat indignantly: "You know, they say that about priests; they say that about people's fathers and their brothers and the elementary schoolteacher and the soccer coach. They say it about every man who is accused of (child molestation). 'He would never . . . ' Well, guess what? The statistics show that one out of four girls and one out five boys in the United States is molested before the age of 18. Wake up."
Prone to such candid comments, O'Donnell is a press agent's nightmare. And she knows it.
"It's very difficult, because my publicist (Susan Geller in L.A.) will say, 'You know, you don't have to tell everyone the truth.' Because somebody asked (early on during the 'Grease' tour), 'How is it to work with Tommy Tune?' and I said, 'I haven't worked with Tommy Tune; he was there only three days.' Susan goes, 'Well, look at how it looks.' Well, it's the truth. What do you expect me to say? 'It's great to work with Tommy! The thing about Tommy is . . . ' You know, because I don't know!"
Such honesty might rattle cages in Hollywood and New York, but it also tends to endear O'Donnell to the press, which, again, she professes to resent only minimally, despite the national affinity for media-bashing. She even is philosophic about the occasional misquote, unflattering photo or outright lie that pops up in stories about her.
"You don't get away unscathed," she says flatly. "They're going to print something. And I've been really lucky because the press has been really nice to me. And I'll stop wherever I am--even if I look like crap--I say, 'Go ahead and take the picture,' because they are trying to get the job done and it's part of the game, in my opinion."
Next up in the game, movie-wise, is the release of "The Flintstones," a Steven Spielberg production that O'Donnell hopes has blockbuster written all over it. But even if it bombs at the box office, she's already realized a dream as a result of the project:
She is a Happy Meal figurine.
OK, it's actually Betty Rubble's likeness that is poised to become a prize in McDonald's fast-food version of the Cracker Jacks box. But O'Donnell, who long has been a collector of Happy Meal toys herself ("I have like hundreds"), is thrilled to be even this close to immortalization.
Following "The Flintstones," O'Donnell's screen image will take a dramatic turn--she goes from fleshing out a cartoon to showing more of her own flesh than we've ever seen before. In "Exit to Eden," based on the Anne Rice novel, she plays an undercover cop who goes to an adult-themed fantasy island to solve a drug-smuggling caper. The role, reportedly turned down by Sharon Stone, includes a semi-nude scene.
"I'm nearly nude," O'Donnell reports. "Nude enough to scare people.
"I'm in S & M sort of clothing, and it's really not that much different from wearing a one-piece bathing suit, but I have enough problems wearing a one-piece bathing suit at family parties, nevermind in front of all of America in a film. So I took it in a way to get over my own problems about my body image and to try to face the things that I fear."
Weight control always has been something of a demon for O'Donnell, but it hasn't stopped her from cultivating a love of athletics. The baseball skills she brought to "A League of Their Own" were genuine. And now, she says, she has a movie in development at Disney about a former basketball star who gave up her college scholarship when she became pregnant, but comes back to the game years later as coach of a high school girls' team. The film, "Girl Hoops," which she wrote and would star in, is expected to begin shooting early next year.
Until then, the only athletic skills she is mastering are yo-yo-ing, bubble-blowing, Hula-Hooping, hand-clapping and smooching, all of which she does often and enthusiastically in "Grease."
She says that one day she might like to do a Letterman-esque type talk show.
This could be the perfect training.
What: "Grease," starring Rosie O'Donnell.
When: Tuesday, March 29 through April 3. Performances are at 8 p.m. Tuesday, March 29, through April 1; at 2 and 8 p.m. April 2; and at 2 and 7:30 p.m. April 3.
Where: The Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.
Whereabouts: San Diego Freeway to Bristol Avenue exit north, turn right onto Town Center Drive.
Wherewithal: $19 to $45.
Where to call: (714) 556-2787.