Not just in the comedy camp

Interview: Kevin Kline

Kevin Kline looms large on cinema screens this month, in Ang Lee's The Ice Storm and Frank Oz's In and Out. The films, as Minty Clinch writes, illustrate his assured approach to drama and his relish for comedy.

Some actors are showmen, some have showbusiness thrust upon them, and it doesn't take long to place Kevin Kline in the second category.

When he bowed to the inevitable by becoming a movie star in Sophie's Choice, Hollywood noted his pencil moustache and saturnine allure and branded him the next Errol Flynn.

Fifteen years later, it would be difficult to draw any kind of parallel with the legendary swashbuckler. While Flynn declined into alcoholism and died in middle age, Kline, who celebrated his 50th birthday last year, is getting more and more assured.

Over the next two weeks he opens in films that illustrate his ability to switch between drama, which he intellectualises, and comedy, which he loves.

"We need comedy because it shows us how foolish we are but, by letting us laugh at ourselves, it lets us off the hook," he says. "As a tragic hero, I can appear noble, but as a jester, I can tell the truth."

Nobility is not really the name of the game in Ang Lee's The Ice Storm, a film set in 1973, a year of shame for the United States as the Vietnam War was lost and the Watergate scandal broke.

In an affluent community in Connecticut, the citizens are more preoccupied with the ripple effect of the sexual revolution as it invades their middle- class homes than with affairs of state. Kline plays Ben Hood, a first- time adulterer who is also a crashing bore, as his neighbour and short- term lover, Sigourney Weaver, notes when he bangs on about golf in a moment of post-coital calm.

Although he is caught between a neurotic partner and a contemptuous mistress, Hood maintains a smug complacency until he is broken by the embarrassment of a wife-swapping party and the tragedy of an untimely death.

"I was young in the Seventies so I enjoyed the sexual revolution," Kline says. "In fact, I had a wonderful time, but Ben is 20 years older than me so he was faced with something that went against all the conventions he'd accepted as a family man. Like him, I paid a high price for my sexual freedom, but of a very different kind. Suddenly we had this licence to sow our wild oats wherever we could, but in the process sex became a quick fix, a short cut to intimacy, rather than a passage to deeper love.

"As sex was a purely narcissistic act, I had to re-learn what real intimacy is before I could build a real relationship."

Although he appreciated the intellectual challenge of working with Lee, it is easy to believe he had a better time with Frank Oz on the comedy, In and Out. He is Howard Brackett, a popular Indiana high-school teacher whose marriage plans are thrown into disarray when he is outed as gay by a former pupil. Kline, a self-confessed heterosexual philanderer over two decades, wallows in camp. There's the mincing walk, the high voice, the willingness to choose his fiancee's frock - and he loves it all.

"Sometimes you have to forget appearing foolish. That's one of the therapeutic indulgences actors are allowed," he says. "Taste, judgement, self-consciousness for certain scenes - you have to check them all at the door."

Howard is a fairly direct descendant of Otto, the manic worrier in the John Cleese farce, A Fish Called Wanda, who won Kline an Oscar for best supporting actor. Kline is not overtly manic, but he claims to be a chronic worrier, a useful attribute for a comedian.

"I'm famous for it," he tells me with a hint of self-mockery in his brown eyes, "or so everyone tells me, which gives me carte blanche to worry about worrying.

"Then I laugh at myself for worrying so much and make a performance out of it, stomp around, tear out my hair and talk up a storm. Quite Pythonesque really. I'd have loved to be a founder Python, but I was lucky to join up without having to make the long-term commitment. I'm an honorary member after Wanda and Fierce Creatures, and recognised as such, especially in France where most people assume I'm English."

In his forties Kline abandoned kiss-me-quick romance for that elusive "real relationship" with the actress Phoebe Cates, now his wife and the mother of his two young children. His successful marriage is rooted in a conventionally happy childhood in St Louis, Missouri, where his German Jewish father ran a record store as an outlet for a lifelong passion for music.

His Irish Catholic mother insisted on educating him in a high school run by Benedictine monks. "We were middle-class and suburban so showing emotion was strictly taboo," Kline recalls. "My parents took me to concerts, but there wasn't much theatre in St Louis so my role models were movie stars, James Dean, Marlon Brando and Paul Newman, alienated and cool."

When he went to Indiana State, he switched from music to theatre after a brief appearance in a college production as the wounded sergeant in Macbeth. "Acting was a release, a licence to show emotion. For the first time, I dared to feel vulnerable. I was hooked."

When he left, he was invited to become a founding member of John Houseman's Acting Company, which performed the classics nationwide. His Broadway debut in the Hal Prince musical On the Twentieth Century won him his first Tony Award in 1978. His second, for the Pirate King in the Joseph Papp production of The Pirates of Penzance, came two years later.

The first he heard of Sophie's Choice was from a friend who said, "There's a great part in it for you, Kevin, but you needn't bother to go for it because they'll give it to a movie star." Too right, if the studio had had its way, but director Alan Pakula insisted that Pacino lacked Jewishness, De Niro lacked humour and Hoffman lacked the ability to project sado-masochism.

No doubt it helped that Meryl Streep, who was to play the lead, pleaded for Kline, the former long-term lover of her friend, Mary Beth Hurt. "We'd met because our social circles touched at the edges, but we'd never worked together," he says. "She made it easy for me by telling me from the start that she approved of me and it only took me a couple of days to realise what a wonderful, generous, non-threatening performer she is."

Shortly before the film made him bankable, he lost out to William Hurt to play the dupe opposite Kathleen Turner in Lawrence Kasdan's debut sizzler, Body Heat, but the director made up for it by casting Kline as Glenn Close's Mr Nice Guy husband in The Big Chill in 1983.

It was the start of a rewarding partnership that continued in Silverado, I Love You to Death and French Kiss.

"After all this time, Larry and I have a shorthand that makes it very easy," Kline says. "We don't have to bother with diplomacy because we're such good friends. We're like-minded so we're not afraid to shoot each other down. It's good healthy argument, frank and teasing. What I really mean is I'm not going to take any flak from him."

`The Ice Storm' (15) opens today; `In and Out' (15) opens next Friday.

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