Sunday, February 2, 2014

Sunday Best: Actors of All Time #8 - Kevin Kline

photo by Gordon Vaszquez


As You Like It
 The Emperor's Club
 The Ice Storm
 Grand Canyon
 A Fish Called Wanda

I remember I read an interview in Entertainment Weekly where the Kevin Bacon said that every actor wants to have a career like Kevin Kline, who can film slapstick comedy one week and play Hamlet on Broadway the next.  As I said with Jack Lemmon from the previous week, this skill is not to be overlooked.

There are several of Kline's early films that I have not had a chance to see, like Sophie's Choice or The Big Chill.    My first (and I daresay best) experience of Kline's work was in A Fish Called Wanda.  Perhaps I have a short memory, but I cannot recall a time since that performance that someone won an Oscar for doing comedy.   And it is so well deserved.

 I just rewatched his turn as the psychotic pseudo-intellectual Otto.  There is an absolute presence to that role.  Even when he isn't doing anything he's doing so much.  He milked more laughs from the smallest looks than most modern day comedians.  And he used the vulgarity to his advantage.  A lot of raunchy comedy loses its shock value over time, and with that, a good deal of its humor.  But Kline backs up his obscene tirades with a wit and an energy and made his award well deserved.  I can still watch his performance with incredible glee.

He made use of this skill his turn in Soapdish.  While not as intense as A Fish Called Wanda, he chews the scenery like only a great actor playing a bad actor can do.  It was such fun to watch his character, a disgraced former soap star on a comeback, blur the lines between acting and real life.

But if this was all you've seen of Kline, you could mistake him for a hammy, one-note actor.  But he is also capable of incredible subtlety.  In comedy, he brought his big personality way down to great effect in Dave.  But even in ponderous dreck like Grand Canyon, Kline shines as a man of privilege trying to connect to the larger mysteries of life.

This subtlety comes into great effect in his role in The Ice Storm.  He is a adulterous hypocrite who vainly tries to raise moral children.  You can see in his two-faced performance how Kline infuses this infuriating immoral father with humanity.  He knows that his children are going down the wrong path.  But all of his words ring hollow.  And he knows it and we can see that in his eyes.

But one of my favorite performances of Kline's is in The Emperor's Club.  Not only does he transform in age throughout the film, but he captures the frustration of teaching moral truth.  His Mr. Hundert tries to import wisdom and virtue and you can feel his slipping confidence and increasing frustration when students begin to ignore his words.  Kline makes you feel his elation as progress is being made, but he also breaks your heart as you keenly feel his failure.

And Kline can bring both his comedic and dramatic sides together as is evidenced in his performance as Jacques in As You Like It.  He plays his character as a melancholy Hamlet-like thinker who is brought alive by the humor and mirth of a clown.

Watch Kline as he goes through the highs and lows of the scene, channelling his inner Otto, but watch the mirth slowly deflate to a ponderous Mr. Hundert.  And all of it feels as natural as his breath.

Kevin Kline is an actor of incredible skill and adaptability and that is why he has earned this spot in the greatest actors of all time.

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