Her ‘Hot Lips’ Sing Cabaret
Sally Kellerman calls her new cabaret act “Hot Lips,” after the signature role of her career.
As Maj. Margaret “Hot Lips” O’Houlihan in the 1970 film “MASH,” she was a by-the-book Army nurse, fighting a futile battle to instill military decorum in a gleefully chaotic Korean War surgical unit. For her efforts, Hot Lips became the butt of humiliating slights and memorably mortifying practical jokes engineered by Donald Sutherland’s “Hawkeye” Pierce and Elliott Gould’s “Trapper” John McIntyre. For her efforts, Kellerman earned an Oscar nomination.
The first thing one notices about the erstwhile Hot Lips, 63, is that she still has an amazing mouth. Its expansive width perfectly balances a longish face, giving her a symmetrical, somewhat patrician prettiness. The crinkly dimples around that mouth lend Kellerman a wry look. An ironic tone often undergirds her husky-voiced, quick-paced conversation.
The mouth will be working full time, speaking and singing, in her one-woman show this week at Founders Hall in the Orange County Performing Arts Center.
“The whole theme of the show is a celebration of women, using me as a perfect example of all women,” Kellerman said with a chuckle.
She thinks she qualifies as a “perfect example” because her career, though rewarding, has been far from perfection, with fumbling, stumbling and missed opportunities along with triumphs. In the end, like Hot Lips in “MASH,” Kellerman has found a way to roll with adversity and hang in there.
“I always felt that I was somebody people could identify with,” she said, her tall, slender, barefoot frame perched on a floral-patterned couch in her home in the Hollywood Hills. Kellerman shares her Cape Cod-style clapboard home (with adjoining guest house cum music studio) with her husband, film producer Jonathan Krane, their adopted 11-year-old twins, Hanna and Jack, and three house cats.
Her surroundings are homey and cozy, rather than elegant or ostentatious. Her den, on this rainy afternoon, is dominated by a lighted fireplace, a weather-beaten slab of a wooden coffee table, a black baby grand piano with a beginner’s lesson book on it, and a large painting of a figure curled in a fetal position. Asked if the painting has a title, Kellerman joshes that it might be “Nude Man Not Able to Get Himself Together.”
“I like people, and I live in the world, and I struggle and have great times and less than great times,” Kellerman said--and that, she thinks, makes her accessible to the audience in a cabaret show.
Her show reflects on some of these good and bad times. The program for “Hot Lips,” performed in her husky alto, ranges from Sondheim and Rodgers and Hart to Bonnie Raitt, Annie Lennox, Carole King, Laura Nyro and Tammy Wynette. Its centerpiece is a medley of songs by women, culminating in “America the Beautiful” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
After some false starts and missed opportunities in her younger days, Kellerman sees “Hot Lips” as her bid for the steady singing and recording career she has coveted since she was a small girl roller-skating around her backyard in San Fernando while singing and acting out “You Can’t Get a Man With a Gun” from “Annie Get Your Gun.”
Kellerman’s father ran a small crude-oil company, and her mother taught piano. The family often spent summer vacations renting a house on Balboa Island, but as far as Kellerman can recall, her Founders Hall engagement will be her first performance in Orange County as a singer or actor.
Some homemade demo recordings Kellerman made at age 18 with a piano-playing classmate at Hollywood High reached the head of Verve Records, who signed Kellerman. The signing came to nothing, though, because “I was so neurotic and scared.”
Her entree into acting big time was the “Outer Limits” television series; she was cast in two episodes in 1963. She fondly remembers playing the villainess in “The Bellero Shield” episode, in which she zapped a friendly alien with his own ray gun and stole his force shield--only to be imprisoned inside it. The role taught her to scream--something that would come in handy playing Hot Lips--and established her as a TV actress.
Kellerman said she started out with misgivings about “MASH” because the initial script called for Hot Lips to disappear after her humiliation in what may be the movies’ most famous shower scene after “Psycho.”
In that scene, Hot Lips’ antagonists rig a way to invade her privacy and put her on naked display.
"[Director Robert Altman] left the camera rolling, and I just had this big tirade,” she recalled. “I started to cry and say, ‘My commission,’ ” because Hot Lips’ dignity as a commissioned Army officer, her most precious possession, had evaporated. "[Altman] ran around and said, ‘Now you can stay in the film. You’re vulnerable; you’ve changed.’ So we kind of made up the rest of it,” wherein Hot Lips stops insisting on propriety and learns to play along in this unorthodox unit.
Kellerman said the film’s success set her up for other prominent roles--which she turned down because “I wanted to be Janis Joplin at that point.”
She Answered Call of Road
She made more movies during the early 1970s, including “Brewster McCloud,” “Slither” and “Last of the Red Hot Lovers,” but said she turned down other leading parts, including in “The Poseidon Adventure,” in favor of going on the road as a blues-rock singer.
“It was the end of the ‘60s; you went with your heart and your feelings,” she said. “It’s not a choice I regret, but I was kind of moronic in the way I built or did not build my career.” She landed a record deal and put out an album, “Roll With the Feeling.” But she was too busy making movies when the LP came out to promote it effectively. “I could easily have done both the movies and music,” she said. “I just didn’t have any sense of business.”
She doesn’t regret not carrying on with the “MASH” franchise when it moved to television for an 11-year run. Only Gary Burghoff as “Radar” O’Reilly, among the main players, made the transition from big screen to small; Loretta Swit played Hot Lips on television.
Still, Kellerman has worked steadily in film and television. She said she has made 63 movies, and she gets regular work doing voice-overs for TV commercials. Although baby boomers know her as Hot Lips, younger fans tend also to remember her for playing Jody Foster’s mom in “Foxes,” a 1980 film about alienated teens in the San Fernando Valley, and Rodney Dangerfield’s love interest in the 1986 comedy “Back to School.” Kellerman also prizes her work as narrator of Ken Burns’ 1999 PBS documentary, “Not for Ourselves Alone: the Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.”
Although her career could have gone better, she considers herself lucky in love, having met husband Krane, who is John Travolta’s longtime manager, in group therapy 22 years ago.
“I got my money’s worth” out of those sessions, she said wryly. “We got to work out a lot of stuff at the beginning. Neither of us had ever had a really successful relationship when we met. I don’t think we would have ever made it past the first year” without the weekly group sessions as a forum for the problems of a budding relationship.
Road Led Home and Onstage
Kellerman has a grown adopted daughter, Claire, who works as an assistant to actress Nancy Cartwright (the voice of Bart on “The Simpsons”). For most of the past decade, with the twins at home, Kellerman has limited her out-of-town work to no more than 10 days at a time.
But that changed last month when she took her cabaret show to New York City for a three-week engagement. She had fun, and the kids had no problems with the separation.
“I don’t think I’ve ever shown them a movie I’ve made,” Kellerman said. “I didn’t want them to be confused when they were little or have a false sense” of who she is, she said.
But Kellerman said family life and show biz intersected when she debuted her “Hot Lips” show in August at the El Portal Center in North Hollywood with her crony Altman--who has cast her in several of his films--as the evening’s host. Daughter Hanna gave her pink lipstick to match her pantsuit, and a candle and glass figurine to bring onstage. Son Jack wrote her a note saying: “Dear Mom, you’re the best mom because you’ve reached your goal.”
Kellerman is still refining her goals, figuring out just where she will take her show. She is taking a far more considered approach than she did 30 years ago when her first big opportunity to bridge acting and singing fizzled. She said her original intention was to take “Hot Lips” to Broadway; she said she is undaunted by a New York Times review by Stephen Holden that dismissed her recent Manhattan engagement as belonging to “a Hollywood subgenre of cabaret in which stars of marginal vocal talent . . . imagine that the spectacle of their own celebrity can compensate for any lack of musical ability.”
“I’ll overcome anything,” she vows, then whisks over to her music studio to have an assistant run off a copy of Rex Reed’s rave from the New York Observer: ". . . lands the audience in her curvaceous lap and makes converts of the most jaded cynics.”
Kellerman said she went over well last month singing at a songwriters’ tribute at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles-- and that discussions of other musical opportunities have sprung from her performance that night of “Is That All There Is?,” the Peggy Lee hit written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.
“I hope to make some good albums,” she said. “Right now the thing that’s important for me is to keep singing and keep performing, because I love it and I love the audiences. My husband said, ‘Honey, you’ve been practicing for 30 years. It’s time to hit a home run.”’
Sally Kellerman, Founders Hall, Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Thursday and Friday, 7:30 p.m., Saturday, 7:30 and 9:30 p.m., Sunday, 1 p.m. $45-$49. (714) 556-2787.