Sally Kirkland

Sally from "Felicity"

Mustang Sally: 'Felicity's' Sally Kirkland
On Feminism, Spirituality, Silicone Implants And Paul Newman's Eyes

"Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale 
Her infinite variety."
-William Shakespeare, "Antony and Cleopatra"

Fresh Off The Court

Sally Kirkland pushes a wisp of blond hair away from her famous face and laughs. We're sitting at a corner table in the Manhattan Won Ton Factory, a sleek eatery in West Hollywood. She's fresh from her performance in Frank Strausser's "The Powder Room Suite" at the Court Theater right around the corner.

Apparently, I've just said something that struck her as funny. Kirkland grabs my hand and holds it. She leans in close and looks me right in the eyes.

Kirkland has an uncanny way of making you feel like you are the only one in the room. And although the restaurant buzzes with the cast and crew of the play, we share a quiet few moments reminiscing about her leading men (
Paul Newman, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Robert DeNiro, James Coburn, James Earl Jones, Gene Hackman and Kevin Costner), her childhood (she's the daughter of another Sally Kirkland -- the former fashion editor of Vogue and Life magazines) and the one thing missing from her life: true love.

Screen Queen
We know her as Matthew McConaughey's mom in Ron Howard's ultra-hip "EdTV" and as Professor Sherman on the WB's hit "Felicity," but Kirkland is a veteran actress of stage, screen and television who has the ability to be both a big-screen star and an accessible champion of women's health issues. "My friend (Tony Award-winning playwright) Terrence McNally gave me my stardom in 1968 with 'Sweet Eros' and 'Witness,'" Kirkland tells me. Kirkland also credits Oscar-winning actresses Geraldine Page and Shelly Winters as women who influenced her own work on the stage.

"Geraldine Page set a level for me," she says. "I would go to the Broadway shows she was in and say, 'That's what I want to do.' "Shelley Winters was my mentor. She put me in three plays -- one she wrote for me and Bobby DeNiro called 'One Night Stand of A Noisy Passenger.'" It was DeNiro's second play, but his first substantial role. For Kirkland, more than 80 plays, 70 feature films and numerous television appearances were to follow that stage performance. In 1987, Kirkland garnered a best actress Oscar nomination for her work as an aging Czech film star in the critically acclaimed "Anna." For the same role, Kirkland was awarded the prestigious Golden Globe for best actress in a dramatic movie.

Show Stopping

Eighty plays or not, her role as the feminist instructor in Strausser's "Powder Room Suite" is clearly a milestone for her. Although she has performed recently on the New York stage, Kirkland tells me, "I haven't put myself -- except for once in L.A. -- in a position to be reviewed" since the 1970s. Her reviews for "Powder Room" have been stellar. The Los Angeles Times notes that Kirkland delivered an "emotionally honest performance." Industry trade newspaper Variety says that she "gives a ferociously focused performance that dominates the evening." So why has she been absent from the Los Angeles stage? Last year, Kirkland made a very public media tour discussing the dangers of silicone breast implants.

"To be completely honest, I had silicone in me from 1986 until about a year ago and it messed with my memory cells," she says. She says that at the time, her trouble with memory affected her ability to recall lines. "When I was doing a one-woman show about four years ago I tried to get off book (memorize) with 70 pages," Kirkland says. "It was almost impossible because of the amount of toxicity all over my system. "The silicone is out of me now. And I wanted to do a play to test my brain." Based on a real incident, "Powder Room" is about a women's studies course at a major university that is thrown into turmoil when a man enrolls in the course and stays there, to the chagrin of the previously all-female class. Kirkland plays the feminist instructor who lashes out at the student in a flurry of emotional and empirical verbal attacks. By its very nature, "Powder Room" risked becoming bitter and divisive. However, with Kirkland at the helm and Strausser's careful writing, we are treated to a rare and authentic experience.

Kirkland's character is spirited, truthful and achingly vulnerable.
If Kirkland had trouble with her memory in the past, that problem is now gone. When I saw her performance, she never missed a beat.
Designing Woman

"My mom was fashion editor of Vogue for 10 years and Life for 25 years and her name was Sally Kirkland," Kirkland says. "I had nowhere to go but to figure out a way with my own name Sally Kirkland -- to do something that would be even more public. "(My mother) had this very famous byline. She and Diana Vreeland were the fashion group. So I grew up with Christian Dior, Chanel and Helena Rubenstein. (Mother would) be making fashion stars ... introducing me to Andy Warhol. She was a genius and she wasn't any housewife." Kirkland's mother was also the first woman to be made a senior editor by famed publisher Henry Luce. Kirkland's father was from a prominent Philadelphia family and was promptly disinherited for marrying a "working woman."

The Higher Life

"Like everyone in the '60s, I got involved in drugs and I went off the deep end," Kirkland says. "It's a sheer miracle that I'm alive today." But since 1969, Kirkland has followed a spiritual path. In fact, Kirkland has become somewhat of a spiritual guru in Hollywood.
"By giving myself a spiritual path, it gave me a reason to get high on people, rather than on substance abuse," she says. Kirkland glows when she describes the spiritual leaders who have influenced her life. An ordained minister in the Church of the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness, she looks to church leaders John-Roger and John Morton as spiritual role models.

Leading Man

From stage to screen, Kirkland has entertained and delighted us for years. She has played leading lady to Hollywood's most dashing leading men. I ask who she considers her favorites. Kirkland pauses for a moment. There have been so many. Finally, she says, "'Bobbi' DeNiro on stage. It's a tossup for (movie) leading men. Redford in 'The Sting' and Costner in 'Revenge.' Because I was melting; I was so divested by their sexiness that I couldn't move." When I ask about working with Redford, she lights up.
"I was like, 'Hello,'" Kikland says. "I mean, Redford sitting there with those eyes. I played the stripper (in 'The Sting'). And I say to him, 'Did you get me this job?' Because I had information that he did. And he says, 'I thought you might enjoy it.'

"And I thought, 'Oh, my God. Robert Redford got me this job in 'The Sting.' He's so sexy and he's looking at you with those baby blues, I couldn't even meet his gaze." But what about love offscreen? I ask her if she is happy. Her answer catches me a bit off-guard.
"Yes, but I want a husband, Steve," she tells me sincerely. Though surrounded by numerous friends, Kirkland still seeks that special someone. Here is Kirkland, the grand actress showing me a slice of her humanity. This is the secret of her amazing gift. With each performance and in every conversation, Kirkland reaches down, pulls out her heart, shows it to us and asks us to respond. It is an act of grace and courage. Perhaps that's why we love her so much. She reminds us of ourselves. What's Next for Kirkland?
"The Powder Room Suite" runs through Feb. 20 at the The Court Theater in West Hollywood. You don't want to miss Kirkland in this performance. Her run ends soon and another cast will pick up the story.

Diane Ladd, who attended the opening night of "Powder Room," was also cast in Winter's production with Kirkland and DeNiro those many years ago. Ladd and Kirkland remain good friends. In fact, Kirkland says, "She's going to direct me playing (Ladd's daughter) Laura Dern's mom in an upcoming project." Kirkland just finished shooting the feature film "Wish You Were Dead" in Toronto, co-starring Mary Steenburgen and Christopher Lloyd. She also co-stars in CBS' "Perfect Murder, Perfect Town," the JonBenet Ramsey story. Kirkland plays Judith Phillips, a friend of the Ramsey family.

Published on   Januaray 2000
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