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OK, Is He a Big Star Now?

Kevin Kline, once dubbed the 'American Olivier,' has also been called choosy, even lazy, for his sporadic film output. That may change with "In & Out" and "The Ice Storm."

September 14, 1997|John Clark | John Clark is a frequent contributor to Calendar

NEW YORK — 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.

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