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Interview with Sally Kellerman

LOS ANGELES - It is a possibility that Sally Kellerman does not own any shirts with buttons above the navel. This thought occurred to me as we sat in the dining room of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel trying to impress each other with how little we were having for lunch. I ordered hearts of palm salad. She topped me with, as I recall, knees of palm salad. Maybe it was fruit salad. Anyway.

"All I ever wanted to be was an actress," she said. "But I was fat. I was always reading about those diets where you can have one ounce of protein every 17 days whether you need it or not."

I'm only going to eat half my hearts of palm, I said.

"Half-hearted," she said.

You talk about your hips in "Foxes," your new movie. I said. You say you hate your hips. It's a wonderful scene. You play Jodie Foster's mother, and she says you don't understand her, and your opinion is that nobody understands divorced mothers in their late 30s who are beginning to realize they are no longer as young as their teen-age daughters. You've gone back to college. You have a great line of dialogue: All those desperate, divorced UCLA undergraduates.

"The character I play is described in some of the reviews as 'neurotic,'" Kellerman said. "She isn't neurotic. She's just unsatisfied. I could identify with the role. I have a daughter who's 15. She doesn't have the problems of the kids in this movie, but she does think she's going to be better than me at everything. That's what she says: I'm gonna be better than you are. A better singer. Better at everything. I asked her one thing: Do you think that'll make you happy? Wait and see if it does. She got real quiet."

This movie "Foxes," I said, is about four teen-age girls growing up in the San Fernando Valley. What were you like as a teenager?

"Tall. I came from the San Fernando Valley. I went to Hollywood High School. It was the era of bobby socks and ponytails, high heels and makeup. I was a bad girl. That meant I smoked, knew how to swear, and sometimes I drank a beer. I was so dumb I had to be taught to swear. They called me Miss Innocent. I didn't smoke grass until I was 27.

"Hollywood High was bizarre. It was run by cliques. There was one bench where, at lunchtime, all the girls sat who were going to be models. I sat down on their bench one day. They talked about me real loud to one another. I guess SOMEBODY'S sitting on our bench. For three months after that, I ate my lunch in the bathroom. I didn't know what bench to sit on."

The first time I remember seeing you in a movie, I said, you won an Academy Award nomination. That was for Hot Lips in Robert Altman's "M*A*S*H."

"I was in several movies before that," she said, "but I'm not surprised you don't remember them. Actually, I started out wanting to be a jazz singer. I had a contract with Verve when I was 18. Nothing came of it. Then I was in a movie called 'Reform School Girls,' with Edd Byrnes. I had one line. My second film was 'Hands of a Stranger.' I had one line and I was killed.

"I was too chicken to go to New York, which in my day was the only way for an actress to get any respect. I worked as an elevator operator, a waitress in a beatnik coffeeshop on Sunset Strip. All actresses start out as waitresses. Bette Midler told me once, The only reason you went into acting was because you wanted to be a waitress.

"I thought I was a real good singer, but it was less scary to get into acting, because you could do that with somebody. Singing you had to do by yourself. Then, four years ago, when I could have been making movies, I made a decision to completely drop my movie career and go on the road as a singer. I was the big main attraction: Spangles, feathers and beads. They called me the Marlene Dietrich of rock. I toured with 11 musicians until my money ran out. Then I cut down to just a music director and a sound and light man.

"It was a humbling experience. I bombed in New Orleans, I bombed several places. Some places I did all right. I thought I was singing very well. I remember being in Ohio, in a Ramada Inn by the freeway, suddenly thinking to myself, By going out on the road like this, I didn't become a better singer . . . I just got out of show business. So I packed it up and came back here to act."

She said she was in a bunch of new movies: "Foxes," "Serial," "Loving Couples:" And she's in love. "His name is Jonathan Krame. He's an international tax lawyer and a brilliant young chap - real, real smart and real, real cute."

She thought for a moment. "I still think I'm a good singer," she said. "I should be. I've spent 18 years trying to get it right. I am so naive. After being nominated for an Oscar for 'M*A*S*H' I thought, Well, that's set. My career would take care of itself. It took me so many years to work my way into the movies, and then I stopped my film career in the middle to be a singer. Was I crazy? I came back fresher."

What happens next?

"I'll keep working. I get a fair amount of offers. I'm one of those bigger-than-life types, they think. Like Mickey Rooney. Hey, Kellerman! Mickey Rooney shouted at me once, You're the only tall blond I never married."'

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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