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.