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In 1997, Kevin Kline Tried to Find the Extraordinary in Ordinary Guys

Some actors can appeal to general audiences, others are better suited for dark indies. The Oscar-winner did both within the span of a week, proving to be brilliant in ‘In & Out’ and ‘The Ice Storm,’ two very different movies that dissected modern masculinity

2022 marks the 25th anniversary of the year that everything happened — 1997. It was an ear-biting, Pierce Brosnan-loving, comet-obsessed world, and we’re here to relive every minute of it. Twice a week over the next 12 months, we will take you back to the winter of sheep cloning and the summer of Con Air. Come for the Chumbawamba, and stay for the return of the Mack. See all of the stories here.

In 1980, Kevin Kline had already won one Tony and was about to win his second. But when he was asked by Interview, “How do you see the progression of your career?,” his answer was surprising. “I see a steady downward slope toward oblivion over the next three years,” he replied. “I’m pessimistic. Everything that’s happened to me so far has been kind of flukey.” 

It’s hard to know how much false modesty or deadpan humor were in play in his response, but to any objective outside observer, it seemed certain that Kline, then in his early 30s, was destined for greatness. Soon, he’d land his first film role, paired with Meryl Streep in the acclaimed Sophie’s Choice, his focus shifting from stage to screen. Ever since, he’s been nowhere close to oblivion, collecting an Oscar and a third Tony while remaining a beloved institution. Seriously, what person in his right mind doesn’t like Kevin Kline?

But awards aren’t necessarily the best ways to measure genius. Instead, perhaps it’s better to look at what Kline achieved in 1997, being part of one of the year’s best dark dramas as well as a landmark comedy — albeit a comedy that hasn’t aged particularly well, although that can hardly be pinned on him. Even more amazing, though, the two films opened within a week of one another. Some actors could have done The Ice Storm. Others could have handled In & Out. Not many could have been indelible in both.

Growing up in St. Louis, Kline wasn’t necessarily one of those young men who always dreamed of being an actor. In fact, when he went off to college, it was as a music major. “Truth be told, that was a last-minute decision,” he said in 2011. “And it was already too late. I had studied piano since I was 13, but I was surrounded by students who’d been playing since they were five. I realized I was never going to be anything but mediocre.” Once he got interested in theater, he never looked back, later earning a scholarship to Juilliard and eventually proving to be a gifted Shakespearean actor. That aspect of his legacy has now been well-established, although for Kline it was also a little funny. “Remember,” he once said, “when I was a kid, I hated Shakespeare.”

He’d been nervous about playing Nathan, the stormy, troubled lover opposite Streep in Sophie’s Choice. But he was tremendous in the role, thanks in part to his more experienced costar. “Meryl was so generous,” he recalled. “She said, ‘Don’t be intimidated. Improve. Don’t be scared to throw me around.’” Streep won the Oscar, and Kline got to watch his film career flourish, soon after playing Harold, an aging Boomer, in Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill. But in some ways, the role of an unremarkable husband was almost as challenging as what he’d taken on in Sophie’s Choice

“I had my eye on the funnier roles,” Kline later admitted about The Big Chill, an instinct that made sense since his first two Tonys, for On the Twentieth Century and The Pirates of Penzance, were for comedies. “This guy was just so normal. In retrospect, having just done Sophie’s Choice, it was good to play a regular guy. But Larry said, ‘I want you to read Harold for this reading.’ And then he cast me in it. I’d never done anything like it; in theater, my characters were very different. It was hard to play a regular guy.”

It might have been hard, but he made Harold a layered individual, pushing past the character’s midlife-crisis clichés to get at something elemental about getting older and realizing that your youthful optimism went missing somewhere along the way. Still, The Big Chill demonstrated a challenge Kline would face for the rest of his film career: He could portray regular guys  — and he did quite well in films such as Grand Canyon and Dave — but he always found an extra gear when he depicted someone a bit off, someone who wasn’t quite so outwardly ordinary. 

How else to explain his legendary turn in the 1988 farce A Fish Called Wanda, where he played Otto, the bumbling, deluded American who swears he used to be in the CIA? Otto was a brilliantly conceived egomaniacal moron who Kline elevated through his utter commitment to the guy’s stupidity. Not bad considering that the actor struggled to figure out who the hell this dolt was. 

“I never understood the character,” Kline later told Vanity Fair. “I kept saying, ‘Who is this guy?’ [Screenwriter and costar] John [Cleese] actually had a T-shirt printed that said, ‘Who is this guy?’ Because he was such an amalgam of contradictions. He seemed to be a buffoon and idiot, but he’s a good shot and he’s got some physical strength. But I learned something from it: That, actually, not understanding the character is sort of all right. I realized it was a tribute to John’s writing. Because well-written characters are inconsistent, are contradictory, and trying to reconcile the contradictions is maybe a fool’s errand at the end of the day.”

That Kline crafted such an inspired, funny performance was one thing — that he took home Best Supporting Actor for the role was even more impressive, the rare Oscar given to a comedic role. It probably helped that, in the minds of Academy voters, Kline wasn’t thought of as “just” a funny actor — after all, he was a Tony-winning thespian. Still, A Fish Called Wanda argued that Kline was perhaps best when he portrayed men who went to extremes — or, at the very least, wasn’t the guy you’d imagine (or want) for your next-door neighbor.

Maybe that’s why Kline’s twin 1997 successes were so welcome. That year, he played two painfully ordinary individuals, in the process exploring how such men have interior lives that are far more complicated than their placid surface suggests. 

In & Out happened thanks to Tom Hanks. When he won the Oscar for Philadelphia, one of the people he thanked from the podium was Rawley Farnsworth, Hanks’ old high school drama teacher, whom he called one of the two “finest gay Americans, two wonderful men that I had the good fortune to be associated with, to fall under their inspiration at such a young age.” 

Farnsworth was aware that Hanks was going to mention him — Hanks had phoned him ahead of time to ask if it was okay — but the idea of an inspirational teacher being outed on national television gave high-powered Hollywood producer Scott Rudin an idea: What if the teacher hadn’t come out before that big moment? Or what if, in fact, the people around him (and maybe even he himself) didn’t know he was gay? 

“I was especially eager to do a coming-out story that was in no way tragic,” In & Out screenwriter Paul Rudnick later said. “I thought even while there are stories about people facing terrible rejections from their families and communities — and those are entirely valid — I wanted to try something that was more along the lines of using coming out as a romantic-comedy device.”

It’s important to keep in mind how risqué it was in 1997 for a straight actor of Kline’s pedigree to portray Howard, a closeted gay teacher in a small Heartland town who’s about to get married to his beloved (Joan Cusack). In & Out plays like farce, with his former student (Matt Dillon) winning an Oscar and thanking Howard — adding at the end, “And he’s gay.” That’s news to Howard, and everyone in town, sending him into a panic to reassert to the community (and most importantly himself) that he’s straight.

When it was released, In & Out got mostly good reviews, with Kline being praised for playing a sweet, sensitive guy who’s never felt especially masculine suddenly having his sexuality questioned. (At the time, it was a big deal that the actor kissed Tom Selleck, who plays a gay reporter trying to help him accept who he is.) But with contemporary eyes, the movie is fairly tame and timid, milking tired gay tropes while being fearful of letting Howard actually be gay. Although well-intentioned, In & Out ends up reinforcing some pretty harmful negative stereotypes about homosexuality. 

As critic Joe Reid put it in a 2016 piece at Decider, “[The character’s] gayness only ever feels skin deep. It’s like he caught gayness on an airplane flight, or was cursed by a gay gypsy and woke up mincing. After Howard comes out to his family and friends, he’s kvetching about his situation to Tom Selleck’s cheerfully opportunistic gay TV reporter; he looks down at his hand, which is emoting limp-wristedly as if operating independently from his body. They say it starts in the hands.”

Those massive limitations with the film are self-evident and disappointing. And it’s abundantly fair to lament that a straight actor played the role. (Later in Kline’s career he played another gay man, Cole Porter in De-Lovely, and was asked if it was “hard playing gay,” to which he somewhat flippantly responded, “No. I just think of all the men as women.”) And you can wish the film wasn’t so sitcom-y, so willing to make fun of homosexuality by dredging up the tiredest stereotypes. (Har har, Howard likes Barbra Streisand.) And yet, Kline is often quite lovely and very funny in In & Out, bringing Howard’s anguish to life and turning his eventual realization that he’s gay into a touching moment. In the process, the actor made the idea of a gay man who looked like him palatable to a mainstream audience that was still, at that point, squeamish about the subject. 

And, as GQ’s Jaya Saxena points out, Kline’s ability to explore the pressure to be macho in our society remains one of the film’s saving graces. “[H]owever many strides we’ve made with LGBTQ acceptance,” Saxena writes, “we still enforce just one model of masculinity. Anyone outside of it is cause for panic.” What’s moving about In & Out is Howard’s fervent desire to be a regular guy — to not be gay so that he doesn’t stick out in his conservative community — and as such it finds Kline subtly subverting the whole idea of what exactly is “a regular guy.” It’s a shame that the movie opened in 1997 because you wonder how much more incisive it would be now — certainly Kline could have done the part justice. Of course, though, you could just as easily argue that we’ve now evolved enough as a society that In & Out’s shallow observations no longer are necessary or earth-shattering.

Then, a week after In & Out’s release, Kline was back in theaters with a very different story of a seeming regular guy. The part came his way when he had decided he’d done too much comedy lately and wanted to go dark. “I called my agent one day and said, ‘I’d like to do something bleak and depressing,’” Kline later recalled, “and he called back and said, ‘I’ve found it! It’s the bleakest, darkest script I’ve ever read,’ and that was The Ice Storm.” 

In that Ang Lee-directed stunner, based on Rick Moody’s novel, he played Ben, a married family man who’s fairly miserable. He feels nothing for his wife Elena (Joan Allen), he’s involved in a going-nowhere affair with a married friend (Sigourney Weaver), and his life seems devoid of purpose or pleasure. But he’s trying mightily to keep up appearances, hoping to maintain the image of the perfect suburban man who’s got everything. 

The film, set in Connecticut in the early 1970s, dissected the hypocrisies of the Me Generation, whose rampant selfishness and desire for sexual liberation left them reeling, not emancipated. It was an era in which the floundering Ben is ill-equipped. “He’s searching,” Kline once said of Ben. “What I like about the character is that he’s conscious of this dilemma. And he is sort of formal. There’s something kind of patriarchal — whether it’s pretentious or not, he sort of fancies himself as a solid kind of patrician tradition — and now he’s like, ‘Oh no, I can be an adolescent again.’ Sexual permissiveness. He’s lost his moorings and is trying to find himself.” 

The Ice Storm was a stately, often despairing drama, but underneath that was an acidic comic streak — a sense that all these unhappy people knew how unhappy they were, slowly carving each other up as a way to feel something. Kline isn’t as overtly funny as he was in A Fish Called Wanda — interestingly enough, that cast reunited for a kinda/sorta follow-up in 1997, the less-well-received Fierce Creatures — but his natural comedic rhythms gave Ben’s malaise extra bite. The late 1990s through the mid-2000s was a robust period for movies about the rot at the heart of suburbia — American Beauty, Little Children — but no actor of the era better examined the fundamental disillusionment of the All-American dad than Kline in The Ice Storm. In a way not entirely dissimilar from the previous week’s In & Out, he was chronicling (and critiquing) the pressures on men to conform in a world that feels alien to them — men who look as poised as Kevin Kline but inside are slowly dying.

Kline was once asked if there’s something more satisfying about doing a drama like The Ice Storm than a comedy. “It’s satisfying in a different way,” Kline remarked. “It’s not as much fun on a day-to-day basis. But when you get to see [the final film] … it’s very satisfying. It’s a different kind of satisfaction than, for example, reducing an audience to hysterical laughter and making them feel good. But in a way, it’s great to see an audience [react to The Ice Storm]. … It’s a very emotional experience and to be part of a film that moves an audience, it’s as satisfying in a different way.”

Other actors have to worry about hits, playing the Hollywood game in order to stay bankable and relevant. But what’s always been refreshing about Kline is that, at least outwardly, he’s felt no need to worry. Of course, his reticence to sign up for new projects has helped earn him the nickname Kevin Decline — in fact, he’d initially even turned down Sophie’s Choice. “In hindsight, it looks like I have called the shots but, in fact, there are longueurs, or gaps,” Kline told the Los Angeles Times in 2010 about the perception that he says no to everything, later explaining away one particular two-year gap between films as “I just didn’t read anything that interested me and I was lucky that I could afford it. And during that time, I got better about having unstructured time.”  

His reputation for passing on projects makes whatever film he appears in look more intriguing as a result — if Kline actually says yes to something, the movie must be a corker. But he’s got some outright duds, which means I’m now contractually obligated to mention Wild Wild West, his infamous 1999 debacle. 

It was one of the rare times he couldn’t generate hysterical laughter or an emotional experience for an audience — and, perhaps not coincidentally, it was a rare appearance by him in a summer blockbuster. The film’s director, Men in Black helmer Barry Sonnenfeld, later blamed Wild Wild West’s failure in part on Kline and Will Smith being unable to duplicate that previous movie’s comedic rapport. “I never felt that the chemistry between Will and Kevin Kline was similar to the energy and personal chemistry between Will and Tommy Lee Jones,” Sonnenfeld told MEL. “I couldn’t convince Kevin, hard as I tried, to be the straight man. He wanted to be funny.” 

Kline doesn’t talk much about Wild Wild West since the movie’s release. It was once mentioned to him that he did a string of smaller movies afterward — was that intentional? “You know, unconsciously I might have,” he admitted. A separate interviewer noted that Kline’s frequent collaborator Lawrence Kasdan had written several Star Wars films — was he surprised he was never asked to be part of that franchise? “I think he knows that I probably wouldn’t want to be in one,” Kline said. “I don’t think so. What would I do?”

You can see his point. In his distinguished career, Kevin Kline has radiated refinement, no matter the role. (Even when he’s being terribly silly, there’s a precision that suggests careful craft, such as with his ongoing voice work for Bob’s Burgers, where he plays the wonderfully peculiar Mr. Fischoeder.) As much as he’s talked about not always feeling comfortable embodying regular guys, the truth is there’s a grounded, dignified quality to his performances that elevates the everyman roles he tackles. (You could argue that even Otto is actually incredibly ordinary — which is why he puts on such airs to try to impress those around him, always unsuccessfully.) 

But in 1997, he got to essay two men uncomfortable in their own skin who, in their own way, were speaking to the times. In & Out, no matter how weakly, was trying to strike a blow for inclusiveness, wondering how a thoughtful, unassuming gay man could finally accept his truth in a changing society. The Ice Storm looked back to the 1970s to tell a very contemporary story about, among other things, the growing men’s movement of the 1990s, which grappled with the rise of gender equality and the anxiety it stirred in men who no longer felt like alphas. (After all, Kline’s Ben is an ineffectual father and husband, a patriarch who’s lost his way.) But whether in In & Out or The Ice Storm, farce or drama — actually, both films combine the two genres — Kline embodied uncertainties about masculinity that still echo today. 

Other Kline performances are splashier, other films more renowned, but within the span of a week he showed us what range and empathy looked like. It’s easy to overlook what seemed so effortless with both characters. In 2011, Kline gave a talk where he discussed rising to the challenge of tackling potentially difficult roles. “Why are we here if not to do the hard parts?” he asked. But hard doesn’t always mean showy — it doesn’t always mean Shakespeare. Sometimes, it means playing ordinary, and discovering what’s remarkable and true about that.