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the prime of ms. julie kavner : AMERICA'S MOST LOVABLE SECOND BANANA BREAKS OUT OF THE BUNCH IN HER FIRST STARRING ROLE

January 26, 1992|MARGY ROCHLIN | Margy Rochlin is a contributing editor of this magazine

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."

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.

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.

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