OK, Is He a Big Star Now?

John Clark is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Kevin Kline has a highly developed sense of theater--onstage, on film, in life, on restaurant menus. He's currently questioning a waitress at an Italian restaurant near New York's Lincoln Center on the meaning of "rude vegetables." He makes a face suggesting one possible interpretation, a gastrointestinal one. And then there is the matter of insalata stagione. Does "stagione" mean stationary? A stationary salad?

"Stagione is season," the waitress says.

"So quatro stagione is the four seasons," Kline says.

"There you go," she replies.

In a bit of wordplay, they both try to come up with the composer of the four seasons concertos.

"Vivaldi," she says, beating him to it.

"Very good," he says. "What was his first name?"

"Antonio."

"Antonio Vivaldi. Grazia. Absolutely right. The Red Priest, they called him."

After the waitress leaves, Kline says childishly: "I won that game. She got the name, but I got the Red Priest thing, so I knew more than her. Or I exhibited more completely unnecessary knowledge than she did, so I think I won."

Kline, who turns 50 in October, is nothing if not ironic, although some people don't get the joke. A case in point occurred recently at a press junket in which he endlessly discussed his two coming movies, "The Ice Storm" (about 1970s Connecticut suburbanites awash--drowning, really--in the sexual revolution) and "In & Out," which opens Friday, about a small-town high school teacher who is outed on national television days before his wedding.

"Some guy said, 'You've got "In & Out' and 'L.A. Confidential' and then 'Ice Storm' coming out. How was that different?' " Kline says. "I said, 'Well, they were different, especially 'L.A. Confidential,' because that was the first time I got to actually be another actor playing the role. I got to be Kevin Spacey.' He's just nodding along. Never had a clue, because he wasn't listening."

The media and the public have been listening to, watching and admiring Kevin Kline for the last 20 years, although sparingly, at least on screen. And now, with "The Ice Storm" and "In & Out" being released within a week of each other, they'll get to see and hear plenty of him (as will New Yorkers--he's appearing onstage this fall in a production of Chekhov's "Ivanov"). However, this is not the antic Kevin Kline of "The Pirates of Penzance" and "A Fish Called Wanda." It's more the everyman variety, the kind of guy he played in "Grand Canyon" and "Dave."

In "The Ice Storm," directed by Ang Lee ("Sense and Sensibility") and co-starring Joan Allen, Sigourney Weaver and Christina Ricci, Kline plays a man whose marriage is headed for a train wreck, and whose attempts to be adulterously hip with his neighbor's wife would be laughable if they weren't so sad.

"It's kind of a pathetic role," says Lee, almost snickering. "He has to get away with sympathy. That's asking a lot."

In the view of "Ice Storm" producer-screenwriter James Schamus, Kline's role involves a lot of risks--"emotional, dramaturgical, narrative, generic, ideological, career, all of those things," he says. "I made a big deal about Kevin going to Cannes to support the film, how great that was, and Ang said, 'What's so big a deal about that?' I said, 'Most stars ride horses, shoot guns and get girls. In this movie we have a great star who even the person he's having an affair with doesn't want to have sex with him.' "

Kline, typically, has ambivalent feelings toward the notion of risk-taking--not because it doesn't happen but because the idea has become such a cliche.

"Whenever I hear about 'Very risky, that's a very bold choice,' it's like I never feel bold when I do it," he says. " 'What a daring choice! What a daring step to take in your career!' It's like it's all daring. Every time you get up there it's daring, but it doesn't seem daring. It just seems like your job."

However, when reminded that some actors play it safe after they become successful, he concedes the point, launching into an anecdote a director told him about a movie star who refused to play Othello because he couldn't kill Desdemona.

"On the one hand I totally respect that, if he really felt like he couldn't do it," Kline says. "But it was the director's interpretation when he told me the story--it seemed to reflect a general disillusionment with actors who become movie stars and then become so circumscribed by whatever their image is or self-image is. I would never do that."

Frank Oz's "In & Out," with Joan Cusack and Tom Selleck, is a much lighter--and funnier--demonstration of Kline's philosophy. Straight actors playing gays is not nearly the "What a daring step to take in your career!" it once was, but it's not exactly riding horses, shooting guns and (particularly) getting girls either.

The story's premise is based on the speech that Tom Hanks gave when he won the Oscar for "Philadelphia," in which he thanked his gay high school teacher. "In & Out" uses that moment as an occasion for satire. Though it skewers certain gay stereotypes, it makes a point of not perpetuating others.

"I just said basically be who you are," Oz says. "You don't have to be stereotypically swishy to be gay. It was not about his behavior, it was about who he was inside."

"What makes it relatable is that we're all in denial about some part of our personality, the revealing of which will not make us beloved," Kline says. "I think it strikes something deep within us that we long for, which so much psychiatry is based on, that the truth will set you free."

It will be interesting to see what sort of truth will emerge from these two films. For years Kline has been dogged by questions of why he isn't a bigger star. At one point, he was anointed the "American Olivier," winning two Tonys and an Oscar and wowing audiences and critics with his facility in musical comedy, light comedy, farce, tragedy and drama.

"He's the only guy I know who can go from Jerry Lewis to Shakespeare," says Oz. "There's not that many people who can do both, that physical comedy and the most erudite kind of drama."

"I think stardom comes from playing roles that involve monster heroics--either action or highly charged drama--as opposed to the workings of real life, which are subtle," says his director on "Dave," Ivan Reitman.

"His performance was a throwback to the kind of stuff Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant and others were doing in the '40s and early '50s. Cary Grant was always underappreciated as a performer."

Underappreciated as a performer, perhaps, but appreciated as a star.

"I used to be defensive about that," Kline says of the star questions. "Now I take it as flattery. What I infer from that is they think I should be a big star. I would simply pose the question to them. You tell me. Because you don't go to enough of my movies often enough. I don't know. My taste runs from certain mainstream things to other, more eccentric, esoteric things, so I'd guess you'd say it's because of the choices I've made.

"My career is right where I'd want it to be. I mean, every actor wants to be offered everything so that they have a complete choice of everything out there."

In fact, Kline is notorious for agonizing over his choices and ultimately rejecting them, to the extent that he's known as "Kevin D. Kline" (as in decline).

"He turns down everything," Lee says. "He's a very funny guy. He seems to be choosy and very careful about what he does, especially material like this. So both James and I put out our persuasion, including enticing him with 'Sense and Sensibility.' "

"He didn't want to do it originally," Reitman says of "Dave." "I had finally talked Warner Bros. into accepting him as the lead for the movie. They wanted somebody with more proven star power. Then he didn't want to do it. I had [longtime Kline collaborator] Larry Kasdan, who's my neighbor in Los Angeles, call him up and say, 'It's OK to work with Ivan.' Once we started, he got it immediately in terms of what the opportunities were in it."

"Well, my middle initial is D [for Delaney]," Kline says, as in "So what?" "Every actor turns things down. If I do, it's because I go back to the theater. So while I may be absent on the screen, I'm still working."

Of course, in Hollywood, if you're not on screen, you're not working.

"Yeah," he says. "I've been called absurdly selective or lazy. What was it John Cleese said? I'm the one person who makes Hamlet look decisive. But in fact I don't agonize over things. Someone asked me how I arrived at 'In & Out.' The usual way. My agent called me, I read the script. Did I like it? Well, yeah. Did I sign on then? No, I wanted to sit down with [producer] Scott Rudin and [screenwriter] Paul Rudnick and make sure we were all making the same movie. I committed with only one proviso, that the director be approved. Well, certain little provisos. You want to know that someone is not going to go crazy with it. But I don't have more meetings than anyone else or agonize over it more than anyone else."

Kline's decisions have also been affected by family life. His wife, actress Phoebe Cates, works, and they have two young children, a boy and a girl. They live in New York, which is a long way from the industry. At any rate, he thinks he got his reputation when he first arrived on the movie scene, in the early 1980s.

"Right after 'Sophie's Choice' and 'The Big Chill' there was a year that went by where I read nothing that appealed to me and I did 'Henry V' and 'Richard III' and no movies," he says, referring to several celebrated New York Shakespeare Festival productions (he's now artistic associate of the Festival). "Like he's just starting his movie career, now he's turning everything down. What's wrong with him? And I may have been in fact--I was spoiled. You don't read a script like 'Sophie's Choice' every day, or 'The Big Chill.' I remember someone saying, 'You know, you can't apply the same criteria when you're reading screenplays as when you're reading a Shakespeare or a Chekhov play.'

" 'The Ice Storm' is a case inpoint. If you read that, you go, 'What is this? This is weird.' It's like a blueprint, and when you know Ang Lee is the guy who will be building from this blueprint, it changes everything. It's taken me a while to learn that."

The waitress comes by with the dessert menu.

"Do you know where the word 'cappuccino' comes from?" Kline asks her.

"No, I don't."

"I think it comes from the capuchin monks," he says. "I think they made it to stay awake during Mass."

Kline has no idea what he's talking about, although he does have some expertise in the area. Born in St. Louis, he was schooled by Benedictine monks. His father was a nonpracticing Jew, his mother a practicing Catholic. One of his first theatrical experiences, he says, was playing on the football team, where he'd make grandstanding catches.

Initially Kline wanted to become a musician, and he enrolled as a music major at Indiana University before switching to theater. "In & Out" is set in Indiana, and occasionally he had to set the actors straight regarding their characters.

"Granted, they're playing the stereotypical idiots who don't know what a homosexual looks like or does," he says. "But sometimes when they [the filmmakers] were talking to the extras, they'd say, 'Now remember, you're in Indiana, you're not sophisticated New Yorkers.' And I went, 'Excuse me. I went to school in Indiana for four years. They had TVs, you know. There are idiots everywhere. But they all didn't convene in Indiana.' "

After graduation, Kline went to New York in 1970. He became amember of Juilliard's new drama department and toured with its repertory company. His first big break was in 1978, when he was cast as a narcissistic third-rate actor in "On the Twentieth Century," which earned him a Tony Award. He earned another Tony in 1980 playing the hammy Pirate King in the "The Pirates of Penzance," which eventually became a movie (1983). Before that was released, however, he made his film debut in "Sophie's Choice" as Nathan Landau, a paranoid schizophrenic who kills himself and his English-impaired lover, played by Meryl Streep.

It was on his next film, "The Big Chill," the seminal yuppie ensemble piece, that Kline began his long association with Lawrence Kasdan (they've since worked together on "Silverado," "I Love You to Death," "Grand Canyon," and "French Kiss"). They had actually met earlier when Kline had auditioned for the William Hurt role in "Body Heat." For years Kline has bludgeoned Kasdan over the head with that casting decision.

"We amuse each other," Kline says of their relationship. "I think we push each other in creative ways. The best thing about it is we know each other so well that we can say anything to each other. And also we love teasing and being teased, so we make fun of each other. It's all from love--we love each other."

Aware of how this sounds, Kline says it ironically. But he cheerfully admits that a sense of irony and the ability to dish it out as well as take it are qualities he values in his colleagues. ("Just winding you up, mate," he says, adopting the British expression for this pastime.) He puts Sigourney Weaver ("Dave," "The Ice Storm") in this camp, as well as Tracey Ullman ("I Love You to Death") and John Cleese ("Silverado," "A Fish Called Wanda," "Fierce Creatures").

"He loves kidding around," Oz says. "Like most talented actors, he will kid around and kid around, but he also knows that that's the only way he can be loose shooting the scene."

"He is fairly easy on the set," says Reitman, who'd heard of occasions when he was not. "I'd love to do an [all-out] comedy with him. He is so light on his feet."

Ironically, Kline says that for years after "Sophie's Choice" no one would think to offer him a comedic role--except Cleese, who actually thought parts of "Sophie's Choice" were funny. When Cleese conceived "A Fish Called Wanda" (1988), he initially thought of Otto, Kline's character, as a sort of criminal mastermind version of Nathan Landau. (Asked what the difference between the two is, Kline replies, "Nathan is a paranoid schizophrenic, and Otto is a . . . paranoid schizophrenic.") But the longer they worked on him, the stupider he got. What emerged was a crass, moronic, narcissistic American assassin who eats co-star Michael Palin's beloved pet fish and is run over by a steamroller. It won Kline a best supporting actor Oscar.

Another actor might have played variations on this theme for the rest of his career. But Kline returned to the stage to play Hamlet--for the second time--and made a series of films in various genres, from the screwball ("I Love You to Death") to the sober ("Grand Canyon"), that nobody went to. Even in his most successful picture of this period, "Dave" (1993), a presidential variation on "The Prisoner of Zenda," he and Reitman resisted the impulse to put "Otto in the White House." In fact, Kline initially turned Reitman down because he was afraid that's what the director wanted.

However, at the behest of Cleese, Kline did revisit Otto when they made "Fierce Creatures." As he is the first to admit, the results show the dangers of going to the well once too often. "I always hated the title," Kline says. "That's what I'll blame. Brilliantly written, beautifully directed, brilliantly realized, just a bad title. It'll find its audience somewhere. How's the video? Must be breaking records."

The waitress has been vanquished (well, actually, she went home). After four hours, in which he's consumed insalata stagione, half a pizza, a peach upside-down cake, a cappuccino and three cigarettes (he picked up smoking again while in France shooting "French Kiss"), Kline is discussing his obsession with curtain calls. It's yet another thing that appeals to his love of theater and his irresistible urge to lampoon it at the same time. In a way, curtain calls are the rude vegetables of the stage.

"I am fascinated by curtain calls," he says. "I bow, which is to say, 'You, it's all for you. I'm just a lowly humble conduit of the playwright's words to your ears. If I marred them or obstructed them in any way, I apologize, please.' Like Puck at the end of 'Midsummer Night's Dream': 'If we shadows have offended, think but this and all is mended.' Or as we used to say in acting school, 'If we shadows have offended, tough.' "

Kline gets up, shouldering his bag and extending his hand. He says, "I'll see you around."

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