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Garr gets serious about her image

'I had some guy this morning - I hate questions like this - some guy who said to me, Do you perceive yourself as kind of a ditz? I wanted to bust him in the chops. But I held back. Because being on `Letterman,' people get that idea."

Teri Garr was waving her fist in the air. "I wanted to ask him, Do you think this is going to hold itself back from your teeth? But that's the idea people get. I started out in the 1970s doing the Wife, the Bimbo, and the Ditz, and if I somehow get a serious role, they all wanna know the same thing: When are you going back to comedy?"

Teri Garr is an actress who has been in some of the best films of recent years ("Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "The Black Stallion," "Tootsie," "After Hours") and some big hits ("Mr. Mom") and some cult movies ("One From the Heart"), but she is probably best known for being one of David Letterman's most frequent guests. She is also notable for being one of the few guests who seem perfectly unfazed by Letterman's conversational rapiermanship, and perhaps the only one who can put dents in his aplomb.

The reason she is so often a guest on the Letterman show, Garr said, is that she always says yes when they call her up and need a last-minute replacement, right away, and will she get on the red-eye?

"I went on the Letterman show the first time to plug something, and then I came back as the Fool, the court jester." She said she likes doing the Letterman show, even though it is probably ruining her image and making it harder for her to get serious parts. She likes it because it's fun, and because he's one of the smartest, most innovative men on television.

"Even though he does have an eighth-grade mentality. You know what he likes to do? He likes to embarrass people, and that's why people watch the show. Because it's dangerous. What's he going to say next? Is he going to call a beauty contestant stupid, and ask her how she does her hair? Yet when comebody criticizes him, he's completely stabbed in the heart. He's very innocent and vulnerable. He doesn't like it when somebody gets to him.

"The last time I was on the show, the musicians were in the next room, and part of the ceiling was falling down, and the room was just completely filled with marijuana smoke. I was bombed. I'm not kidding. I'm very susceptible. So I went on, and Dave asked what was happening, and I said I had a complaint. I said everybody in the next dressing room was smoking something funny. Then the director cut to the musicians. Everybody was mad at me. You know, it's OK for them to pick on everybody and embarrass everybody, but I come out and tell the truth about why I'm bombed. Anyway, I thought, that's the last time I'm going to be on that show. They don't like me."

But you'll come back, I said.

"Of course," she said.

Why are we talking so much about Letterman? I said.

"You asked me," she said.

Of course, I said. But now we should talk about your new movie.

"Of course," she said.

Were you watching the other night when he got into it with Shirley MacLaine?

"Yeah. You know what I thought? I thought he clearly picked on her. Whoever did the pre-interview with her, she must have said she didn't want to talk about reincarnation, and she came out, and that's all he asked about. I hear you were a court jester in another life. He doesn't stop. He hears she was this, he hears she was that. Finally, she retaliated. She called him an a- - - - - -. Actually, she said she thought Cher was right when Cher called him an a- - - - - -. So, when someone retaliates against David's stuff, then they become a big burden. I thought she was completely justified. I've felt that way sometimes myself on the show. I mean, you can embarrass people like the beauty contestant, and I guess it's OK, but someone who belives in reincarnation . . . this is like their religion, it's a personal thing, an intimate thing, and you can't make fun of it. He gets out of control sometimes. He's charming and all that, but the truth is . . . "

We were sitting in a hotel dining room, eating the Cobb salad. Garr was talking so fast the salad was more of a prop. She is a piece of work, this woman. She talks with her eyes and her facial expressions, and she plays all the parts, and she falls into roles and dialects and would be able to do "My Dinner with Andre" as a one-character play.

One of the things she is disturbed about these days is that women, who were so brainy and aggressive in the movies of the 1930s, have in recent years turned into meek little worshippers at the throne of the male. She's always trying to add a few details to her roles. Like in "Full Moon in Blue Water," her new movie, where the original screenplay had her working as a waitress and she added a few details, such as that the woman also drives the school bus and is taking computer classes in night school. ("Full Moon in Blue Water" is scheduled to open Nov. 23 in Chicago.)

"I have a movie coming out where I kill my husband," she said with quiet satisfaction. "He's a butcher. I put him in the freezer. Then I kill his partner. Why? Because I'm just p- - - - - off. I hate all these movies that hate it when a woman has any initiative. Look at `Fatal Attraction,' about an independent woman who has a career, so, of course, she can't have a relationship with a man. Or `Baby Boom,' there was another one, she was a corporate executive, she stuck it out to become the equal of men, and so you give her a baby and, of course, she doesn't know what to do with it.

"This new movie, `Full Moon in Blue Water,' I loved the idea of working with Gene Hackman, who is a great actor, but when I read the script, I threw it right into the trash can, because I didn't like this woman. She was just a doormat. She took all this guff from everybody, but I kind of liked her anyway, so when I met with them, they said they could rewrite her, they could make her do other things. See, it never occurred to them she could be more than she was. She was a lower-middle-class girl who lived in a trailer in Texas, and I thought maybe she had heard about feminism and thought maybe she could have some goals. Just some tiny little things. She drives the bus, and takes the lessons, and she's going to try to make something of herself. She's got plans for that cafe. She's going to rebuild it, and I like that about her." The cafe in the movie is on a shabby island off the coast of Texas, and it's run by the Gene Hackman character, who is in mourning for his wife, who has been missing for a year and is surely dead. He should get on with his life and marry the Garr character, but instead he plays the same home movies of the missing wife over and over, while the cafe goes to hell.

"In the original script," Garr said, "the character didn't have any goals or aims. She was just completely enamored of these men who treated her indifferently, and they finally let me add a line where, after he agrees to let me be his partner, I tell him I want this, and I want that, and he can't do this, and he can't do that, and you have to say you love me sometimes. Because otherwise she's a total sch- - - -, she's just there as a convenience to the plot."

Garr said she was not surprised that two of the most successful movies she has been in, "Tootsie" (1982) and "Mr. Mom" (1983), were about sexual role reversal, about breaking the stereotypes of appropriate male and female behavior.

"People are ready for that. I resent it when they write the part of a woman who's just a sexy femme fatale who seduces people to ger her way, perpetrating the myth that that's how woman have to operate, instead of using their brains or their wit. Men keep writing those parts. Look at Letterman. He's kind of an idiot in some ways. He was doing this thing once about being in a comedy club, and some guy came up to him and made a jerk out of himself, and the guy was with a good-looking girl, and for Letterman the point of the whole thing was, What's a guy like that doing with a beautiful girl?

"You know what I wanted to do? I wanted to take Letterman by the collar and say, Do you think because she's pretty, she's smart? Just because she's beautiful she shouldn't be with a jerk? What's that got to do with it? Because secretly, down deep inside, men believe that any beautiful woman with brains would be with them."

Garr said beauty is a barrier that actresses have to leap over if they want to go anywhere with their careers.

"You know, years ago, when I worked on `The Sonny & Cher Show,' she had no idea she was going to be a star from here on in. She went from this Vegas Woman with feathers and sequins, to an actress. I knew she was talented. But she wasn't going to be taken seriously, because she was just a Vegas entertainer, until she did this, did that, got the attention of Mike Nichols for `Silkwood' . . . the big turning point was `Mask.' "She was originally more concerned with the becoming-a-star thing than being concerned with her art, or doing her play. When I worked on that show, here I was trying to be an actress, with a workshop, with an acting class, and working on their show was like being a cocktail waitress, a job to pay the rent. I would do the sketches, and one time they gave me a scene with her in a Laundromat, and she didn't want to rehearse, she wanted to go spend the money, and drive her car. I went into her dressing room and told her she had to read the lines with me at least once. It wasn't that she was bad. She had no discipline." How's it going for you these days? I asked.

"I'm pretty happy. I mean, I'm happier now than I've ever been before, in terms of being able to deal with stuff. The older I get, the better I feel about things. When I was younger, I'd get so p- - - - - off by what people said, or a bad review. As you get older, you figure, that's their problem. I make a serious movie, it doesn't work, it's back to the comedy, honey. But I'm going to hang in there, and keep tapping them on the shoulder. Maybe I'll get a chance to do other stuff, and maybe I won't. You have to want to be an actor, and not just a movie star. You have to be satisfied if you just do roles, and go as far as you can, because becoming a movie star is like winning the lottery. It's a big joke. You have to be in the right place at the right time. There are really talented people I've been in classes with, and where are they? It's a luck thing."

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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