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A bottle of scotch with Kris Kristofferson

Kris Kristofferson says he's spent most of his life living out of a suitcase, and he looks it. He's wearing faded Levis and a ravaged leather flight jacket that looks ripped off of James Stewart in "Strategic Air Command" -- and this is his uniform, you understand, for a meeting with Barbra Streisand. He's just come from Barbra. She wanted to talk to him about starring with her in a remake of "A Star Is Born."

Kristofferson uncorks the bottle of Ballantine's Scotch on the table and has a healthy swig. He chases it with Coors beer. One hesitates to ask if he were interviewed for the James Mason role. We're sitting by the side of the pool at the Sunset Marquis, which is the residential motel I'm staying in halfway down the block from Sunset Strip. The California sun is casting late afternoon shadows over the pool, where roadies from the Elton John Band play water polo in astonishing bikinis. Kristofferson does not study them. He is speaking about the craft of acting.

"I never thought of acting as a creative process," he says. "Christ, I used to go to the movies and see Brando talking like he was trying to sell shoes and he was great. I thought anybody could do it. Then I tried it and I got so uptight, I'm limited as to what I can do on film. If I can suck myself into a scene, I'm okay. If I had to go on stage and raise my voice, I'd notice my voice was raised, and then I'd get to where I was thinking about that, and, man, it'd all be over....

"I was on this last picture with Jan-Michael Vincent. He's a nice kid. I'll tell you how nice he is. He's spending all afternoon trying to talk to these 40 foreign journalists who don't know six words of English, and I'm trying to sneak out to a bar. I used to tell him he cared too much. We'd be in an argument about something and I'd say, God, man, look at me. Look me in the face and you can see yourself if you live 10 more years."

Kristofferson let a little more of the Coors trickle into his glass. "He took a good hard look," he said. "I don't know what he decided. Suicide, probably." No, probably not. He would have seen a bearded face with pale blue eyes, and a smile with little surprise in it, as if Kristofferson more or less expected the universe to amuse him. He once wrote a line in one of his songs that went: "Well if you don't like Hank Williams, why you can kiss my ass," and philosophical variations on that theme might comprise the Kristofferson solution to the crises of life.

Kris stretched out at poolside, his cowboy boots crossed, his eyes narrowed against the sun, reflecting, perhaps, on the fates that had led him from a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford to a career as a wandering minstrel ("I played every gas station between Denmark and Morocco") and songwriter ("Help Me Make It Through the Night"), and then to sudden popularity as a country singer, to marriage with Rita Coolidge (who did), and finally to stardom in one of the year's top movies, "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore."

It's his fourth movie, after "Cisco Pike" and "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid" (he was Billy) and "Blume in Love," and by far the most successful. It's even gotten him into hot water with the theoreticians of the Woman's Movement, who argue (and I summarize): What the hell kind of a liberated woman is Alice, anyway, if she strikes out on her own to build a career for herself as a nightclub singer and winds up falling in love with (italics theirs) Kris Kristofferson?

"Hell's fire!" Kristofferson said, leaning forward for another bracing shot of Ballantine's. "Alice wasn't exactly falling into the seat of passion with me. That musta been some Women's libber fan of mine. The guy I played wasn't exactly Mr. Right. She wasn't gettin' no bargain. He was narrow-minded, for starters. The only way I see it their way is if she runs away with Clark Gable, which would have been the way it would have happened except for Marty."

Marty is Martin Scorcsese, the director. "He'll be a great director," Kristofferson said. "He's got the great ego for a great director. People came around, said, where's the director? That's him! Him? Yep! Looked like this little kid who just lost his ball on the mean man's roof. Hey, Marty, we'll get you a new ball! If I could work with Marty all the time everybody'd think I was a great actor."

Kristofferson also worked - on "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid" - with Sam Peckinpah, legendary mean man, master of violence. The studio screwed him so thoroughly on that picture. that he got sick. There were days when he couldn't raise himself up from his chair. I had something to do with talking Bobby Dylan into being in the picture, and Dylan would have been great, take my word for it, except there Sam screwed himself. He got the idea the producers were trying to shove Dylan down his throat. I don't even know if Sam knew who Dylan was.

"The atmosphere on that picture was so incredibly macho, they even had me claiming I wanted to do my own stunts. I didn't want a stunt man to do a stunt, and he wanted to do it, and everybody was strutting around getting knocked out and having concussions to prove nothing to nobody. It was real self-destructive. And to see the picture, you'd never know Bob Dylan did a great job in it."

He shook his head and took another swig of Ballantine's and popped the top of a Coors and allowed that one of the hardest things in the music business these days was following Dylan.

"Hell, even Dylan can't be Dylan, the legend's so big. That's John Prine's single biggest problem. Prine is so good . . . I remember this night the first time I heard him. Steve Goodman brought me over to this Club in Chicago, the Earl of Old Town. I had heard Stevie, who was great, and now Stevie insisted we get there about the crack of dawn and here's Prine sleeping on the goddam floor.

"I mean, I was so embarrassed. I didn't want to hear anybody. They kick Prine awake and he stumbles to the mike to perform for the so-called stars, and I'm drowning my embarrassment in bourbon, and about halfway through the first song something catches my attention. And then his next song was 'Donald and Lydia.' And Goodman says that ain't nothing, wait'll I hear 'Sam Stone'." Prine, said Kristofferson, is the next singer who ought to try movies. "The guy's so funny, he tickles himself. Like the other day he's laying around the house with Rita and me, and he's reading the National Enquirer, and suddenly he starts reading us this story about some guy down in Tennessee who has himself a 60-second memory. He can only remember what happened for the last 60 seconds. Prine starts figurin' what the guy's problems would be. Like, he's in the sack, and not only does he forget who he's in the sack with, he forgets why.

Kristofferson let out a belly laugh. "Johnny's working on that song right now, bet you a million," he said. "That's how his mind works. There's a word for him -- bemused. Anyway, thank God for the National Enquirer" and thank God too, I say, for Jackie and Cher and the other poor mopes who get maligned every single day of their lives to take the heat off the rest of us."

The shadows were growing chilly now, and the water polo game was over, and the level of the Ballantine's bottle had fallen to such a point that, had it contained seasoned pepper, there would have been a line reminding us to reorder. Kristofferson sighed, divided the remaining Scotch between two glasses, and toyed with his.

"If there's one thing I've learned in this town," he said, "it's this -- if you don't know nobody, you ain't goin' nowhere. All the rest adds up to, freedom's just another word for Datsun."

The poolside was deserted now. Suddenly a couple appeared. They were perhaps in their mid-50s. They wore expensive white tennis clothes and Adidas shoes and carried rackets.

"I say," said the man, immediately perceived to be British. "Can you direct us to the courts?"

There were no courts. Only rooms surrounding the pool. "Try lobbing one into the pool," Kristofferson advised.

"And get these good balls wet?" the man said. "But you know...I do know you. You're married to....

"Rita Coolidge."

"That's right. And didn't we see you on...."


"I thought so," said the man, leaving with his friend.

Kristofferson finished the last of the Scotch. "He came closer than most," he said. "He almost knew who he was talking to. He thought Bobby Rydell. That ain't too far off."

Another silence fell. Through it, from the far shadows, another man appeared: Swarthy, imposing, an earring in one ear, maybe in his middle 50s. It was Jose Ferrer, on his way to the ice machine.

"I remember you," Kristofferson said. "You were in that great comedy about a man and a something-or-other."

"I'm afraid I was largely in tragedies," Jose Ferrer said.

"I remember it" Kristofferson said. "You were in it with Rosemary Clooney!"

"I was married to Rosemary Clooney," Jose Ferrer said, "but I never did a movie with her. You can't have everything, you know."

He smiled philosophically and filled a bucket with ice and disappeared back into the shadows. Kristofferson turned his glass upside down and found, as he expected that it was empty.

"Anybody with a ring in his ear is lying," he said. "I've never forgotten a single record I cut or a song I wrote. I admire the guy's spirit but he's wrong." A long pause. "I'm sure the sneaky S.O.B. was in that movie." A longer pause. "And," said Kris Kristofferson brightening visibly, "he was good in it, too."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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