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Kim Basinger: Nobody’s Fool

Think twice about stereotyping the star of ‘Fool for Love’ and ‘9-1/2 Weeks’

Kim Basinger

Kim Basinger in 1985.

Ron Galella/WireImage

Fourteen years ago, when she was 17, Kim Basinger arrived at New York’s LaGuardia Airport carrying a suitcase and a miniature Bible in which her father had inscribed, “God will always be your copilot.” She was the winner of the Athens, Georgia, Junior Miss contest, the Miss America Breck shampoo girl and a newly signed Ford model under the thrall of a fantasy nurtured since childhood: to become a movie star. Today Basinger, 31, is one of the most interesting actresses in films and seems poised to join the pantheon of enduring stars. She has just signed to costar in a new movie with Richard Gere. She’s also played opposite Sean Connery (Never Say Never Again), Burt Reynolds (The Man Who Loved Women). Robert Redford (The Natural), Sam Shepard (Fool for Love) and Mickey Rourke (9-1/2 Weeks, due out this month). When Robert Altman cast her in his film adaptation of Shepard’s acclaimed play Fool for Love, he moved her career into the arena of serious, some might say highbrow, drama. He dismissed the cliché that she is the next Marilyn Monroe: “She’s the next Meryl Streep.”

Even so, as she stands before a flight of blackened stone steps leading down to a dingy courtyard off Spring Street in SoHo, her father’s confidence in her divine guardianship seems unfounded. The actress has declared the gray New York afternoon “colder than a polar bear’s ass.” Miniature gold handcuffs dangle from a studded cat collar that functions as her bracelet. She wears a thermal underwear shirt, baby-blue sweat pants, Converse high-top sneakers and the oversize tweed coat she wore in 9-1/2 Weeks, an outfit in which she couldn’t be more self-effacing.

She is betrayed by her beautiful mouth and extraordinary bone structure, the latter of which must have something to do with her part-Cherokee ancestry. Strangers gaze at her curiously, as if she might be somebody. She wears no makeup, and her blond hair is falling out of its halfhearted ponytail; loose strands hang alongside her fair, unlined face. It’s pure Basinger: her efforts toward primness dissolve into appealing disarray, no matter what. She’s a cheerleader unable to meet the team’s neatness standards, a wholesome kid on the edge of a bottomless sensuality. “Hi!” a trucker is yelling. “Hello,” she responds, then shrugs sheepishly. “Why ruin his day?”

This is her first visit to SoHo since filming on 9-1/2 Weeks ceased over a year ago. The movie, which survived a dozen test screenings and several reediting sessions, was derived from a pseudonymous book about a woman’s sadomasochistic odyssey with a man she barely knows. (Basinger hasn’t seen the film. Fool for Love is the only one of her movies she’s seen before they were on cable TV, and only because Altman insisted.) Making 9-1/2 Weeks “was like an exorcism,” Basinger says in a natural Southern cadence she has suppressed in most of her films. “I didn’t want to do it — nobody wants to be taken that far. I was the sole emotional soul in the entire movie. Every nerve of mine was exposed to cast, crew, everybody. But it was a release. Every actress should go through it. Afterward, I was stronger than I had ever been in my life.”

Basinger has found her way to this obscure Spring Street address with the spectral intensity of someone looking for water with a divining rod. “Wait a minute. . .wait . . . I think. . .think this is it,” she says as she nears the steps. “This is where it was. I know it.” Now she descends. At the bottom of the stairs, Basinger reaches the spot where she and Mickey Rourke made love in a greasy New York rain. Rourke wrenched her clothes off and jammed her against the wall. A third take was impossible because both actors had destroyed their wardrobe.

“It was horrid, up against that brick where there were rusty things going into my back. I still have a scar,” she says, pulling her sleeve above her elbow to reveal a short white line on her forearm. She’s silent a moment, looking around like a crime victim who hopes to diminish the mythic quality of the experience by revisiting the scene. “After that movie was over,” she says, shaking her head and her cheerleader’s ponytail with it, “I didn’t want to see anybody I had ever seen on that set. If I ran into the guy who brought the coffee, I was going to kill him.”

“She presents a sense of self that won’t let her be violated,” says director Robert Altman.

Basinger is, in various scenes, blindfolded, struck with a riding crop, spoon-fed cough syrup, hot peppers, caviar, honey, Jell-O and strawberries in rapid succession (“Jesus, it was sickening — I tried to spit everything into a bucket, but some of it slipped down”) and told to crawl across the floor on her belly picking up dollar bills. She also performs a wild striptease, engages in a knife fight with thugs while dressed in men’s clothing and complies with Rourke’s request to “spread your legs for Daddy” while lying on a showroom bed in Bloomingdale’s. When the strip scene was filmed, she sought the crew’s encouragement. “There were so many people there when we filmed it, I just thought, ‘To hell with it.’ I said, ‘Y’ all do something!”‘ The crew hollered like razorbacks.

What is the movie really about? “It’s a psychological profile of a woman who meets her match in life,” Basinger says of the New York career woman she portrays. “In the beginning, Elizabeth’s sexuality is not there yet. She’s a great innocent, a strange, powerful character. But I think if you can find one person in your life to be that real in front of, the way she does, you’ll feel like the movie star of the century. . .We’re all closet people. There’s too much fear and too many lies. You ought to do everything you want — every fantasy.”

Robert Altman and Adrian Lyne, the director of 9-1/2 Weeks, talk about Basinger’s “instinctual,” “intuitive” acting style. “She’s really truthful; she takes these roles and makes them herself,” Altman says. “All the hot actresses who are supposed to be so good — the Streeps, the Jessica Langes, the Sissy Spaceks — they’re all taking the truth of their personality and putting it into their character. That’s what works, and Kim does that as well as anybody.”

Lyne, who made his directorial debut with Flashdance, manipulated Basinger in a manner that some on the set thought sadistic. “There was a lot of tension,” Lyne says. “A lot of the turbulence onscreen was real. But Kim has this wonderful, fresh quality, and when, toward the end, I needed her to be more broken-down and dissipated, I had to break her down. So there was a lot of yelling, with her calling me ‘motherfucker’ and vice versa. But she’s a doer rather than an analyzer. She’s got this wonderful quality that you’re using. And I think that was true of Marilyn Monroe.”

While Rourke was Lyne’s clear-cut choice for male lead, he saw Sigourney Weaver, Isabella Rossellini, Kate Capshaw, Ten Garr and Kathleen Turner before he settled on Basinger. “The chemistry between Kim and Mickey was sort of extraordinary,” Lyne says. “We tried to make the relationship progress as the movie progressed. Quite often, reality and the movie became a blur.” Lyne deliberately kept his stars separated until the first day of shooting. “I didn’t want there to be an easy intimacy between them. There had to be elements of fear and danger. Even while we were shooting, I tried to keep them apart so that there was always this aspect of chance when they came together.”

We are led to believe that Basinger’s character walks away from her lover and never looks back at the film’s end. Basinger, too, hasn’t spoken to Rourke since the movie ended. She diplomatically deflects any probing of her offscreen relationship with him. “Mickey and I never really got to know each other,” she says. “He has his life.” Yet there are rumors she and Rourke had problems, that Rourke was overbearing. It seems the film was a psychosexual litmus test for everyone involved. “I think there were problems among people who worked on the set in their relationships because of this movie,” Basinger says. Her own five-year-old marriage to Ron Britton was strained. “Ron suffered because of his emotional abandonment by me, because I couldn’t give anything.”

Basinger is at first evasive on the issue of her identification with her character. Asked why she never read the book 9-1/2 Weeks, she answers, “I don’t read a lot of books, and my attention span is very short.” It’s as if she’s hoping she can deflect the question by playing the stereotypical not-too-bright model. Three hours later, she’s more open. “Underneath it all, I didn’t want anything to do with the book,” she says. “I wanted to come from where I wanted to come from. I don’t care where she came from. I’m not a carbon copy of her. I wasn’t playing someone’s life. Elizabeth was me. I was playing my own life.”

Basinger grew up the middle child among five siblings in a house surrounded by lawn and palm trees on a street called Chestnut Lane. Her father, Don Basinger, was a trumpeter and pianist in swing bands until he had to support a family, at which time he took a job in a loan company. She went to church on Sundays and choir practice on Saturday nights, though in high school her attendance at both trickled off to nothing. In grade school, she was so frightened of speaking in class that she once fainted when her teacher called on her. The childhood timidity lingers. She can tremble visibly before a three-minute television interview. “Do you know what they do?” she says incredulously. “They count down from ten! Now I know what it’s like to go up in the space shuttle.” Her stage fright should never be confused with weakness. She brings to life the platitude about Southern women, that below their demure façade is a reservoir of will. “I just knew I could do anything. I’ve had that attitude since I was a kid,” she says.

When she was 16, she and her mother, in New York to accept Basinger’s Miss Breck title, stayed in a hotel overlooking the Ziegfeld Theatre. Basinger told her mother that someday her own name would appear on the Ziegfeld marquee. Years later, when she costarred with Redford in The Natural, it did. A modeling career during her early 20s that netted her as much as $1,000 a day came in between. “She certainly got any job she ever went out for,” says Eileen Ford, with whom Basinger lived for a while in New York. “She was hugely successful. She was the all-American girl.”

Ford remembers Basinger as “the most angelic girl who ever stayed with me — totally innocent about the ways of the world. She could have been nominated for sainthood.” She also recalls how Basinger often read from the Bible. The actress laughs when she hears this, and denies it. “Eileen sees hundreds of models, some of the widest ones ever, and I can understand where she’s coming from. She remembers me as a little girl who got off a plane from Athens. A lot of people think of Southerners as people who go to church every Sunday and eat fried chicken and go around with greasy fingers. But there are a lot of crazy, talented people in the South, hungry people who want to get out and go to places like New York to make their dreams come true.”

Basinger, in her transition from little girl to woman, has needed to assimilate her particular ambition, her own beauty and the elements of her rearing to make her life work. Going to church on Sundays left its mark. She recites her favorite parable about a woman who cleans and bakes in preparation for Jesus’ visit to her village, then turns a beggar from her door so her house will be impeccable for Jesus; of course, the beggar is Jesus. It’s not surprising that this story resonates for her. In an otherwise childish poem called “Birthmark,” she called her protagonist’s blond hair and blue eyes a disguise she can’t help. She views her own elegantly arranged face as an often troublesome mask that keeps people from seeing her. “Kim has never been into her own beauty; she hated being a model,” says a friend. When Menahem Golan, one of the producers of Fool for Love, was quoted in a national magazine as saying, “Just looking at [Basinger] makes me want to screw her,” she was repulsed and hurt. Golan also gushed, “She is Marilyn Monroe, Brigitte Bardot and Judy Holliday in one girl, with the talent of Julie Christie,” but the other line hit Basinger harder.

Certainly, Basinger’s raging sexiness has been the most potent facet of her screen persona. In her movies, she’s luscious, but not like Pia Zadora. In Fool for Love, Altman sought to avoid explicit sex; Basinger heats up the theater merely by taking off her cardigan or appearing in a white slip while bathing her feet. “She had just the right kind of sexuality,” Altman says. “She was uninhibited with it, she wasn’t coy. She’s beautiful, but” — and here Altman begins to struggle with the language — “she snatches herself a lot. She’s got a freedom . . . she’s . . . by sexy I mean . . . it’s an abandon.” Basinger grimaces when the subject comes up. “People used to ask me if being attractive was going to be a detriment, and I used to think, yeah, it’s gonna get harder and harder. But then I thought, that’s just one more prejudice. They want to say, ‘Hey, if you’re pretty, you can’t be an artist. You can’t even walk straight.’ I’m really fed up with it, and I’m not gonna put up with it I’m gonna do everything I want to do, and I don’t care what I look like. They can say anything they want to. Maybe next time I’ll play Eleanor Roosevelt. Hah!”

When Basinger was very young, Eileen Ford remembers, “she was against anything that was suggestive” in her jobs as a photographer’s model. “She’s right,” Basinger says. “I wasn’t real cool about doing a lot of those things. But timing is everything. I wouldn’t have known what to do with it. I wasn’t in full command of my physical or mental self. You’re so lucky if you’re intuitive enough to wait and use those things, to be a lady and a woman, to be intelligent about what you really have.”

At the end of five years in New York, Basinger — sick of modeling and depressed — loaded her jeep and moved to L.A. to launch herself in movies. After two television movies and two features — Hard Country, with Jan-Michael Vincent, and Mother Lode, with Charlton Heston, neither of which was widely distributed — she was hired for the role of Domino in Never Say Never Again. She hated the movie (“It was all about Bond”), and little love was lost between her and the director, Irvin Kershner. In a recent interview, she called him “mean.” He retaliated by saying that “she has a problem that a lot of ex-models have, and that’s paying too much attention to their looks.” The man knew which button to push. “He zinged it to me like you wouldn’t believe!” Basinger says. She’s laughing, but she’s angry, too. “They preface everything with ‘ex-model.’ I don’t even know what the hell that means. ‘Cause they could just as easily put ‘plumber’ in there now, like ‘plumber-actress.’ Because I’m not a model anymore. It drives me mad.”

Basinger waited until she was 29 to pose nude for Playboy magazine. “Playboy had asked me a number of times, but I never saw any point in it,” she says. “Then there was a year when there was an actor’s strike, and I felt I needed something to further things along and not lose that year. I didn’t do it for money. I needed something that would remind the industry of me, something that would wow them. I considered the spread almost a silent film for myself.” Basinger kept free of the Playboy web of coy sexuality. Choosing her own photographs, she “went after pictures that made her look like a real person, pictures that weren’t necessarily the most beautiful,” says Playboy‘s photo editor, Marilyn Grabowski. “She wanted it very natural, very offbeat. She’s a real iconoclast.” Basinger ignored the advice of her lawyer and agent, who promised her the Playboy connection would ruin her career. “It just happened to work, in my case,” she says. “It put me over the edge.” Shortly afterward, Blake Edwards, who directed The Man Who Loved Women, cast Basinger in a comedic role as a nymphomaniac in pursuit of Burt Reynolds. It’s her favorite part.

Five years ago, Basinger married Ron Britton, a makeup artist she met on Hard Country. Britton is a relaxed, bearlike man 15 years Basinger’s senior who looks as if he would be most at home in a log cabin. Britton’s father, “Whitey” Snyder, is a legendary Hollywood makeup man who, in fact, routinely did Marilyn Monroe’s makeup, even for her burial. Basinger’s husband has quit makeup and taken up painting. “He wouldn’t go near me if I were the last woman to be made up,” Basinger says. Britton is conversant in the Hollywood culture, and his real task seems to be helping his wife through the mine fields. “At first she was vulnerable and easygoing, but you have to learn to have an exterior coarseness.”

Slouching on the brown Naugahyde of a stretch limousine reaching maximum cruising speed on the Triborough Bridge leaving Manhattan, the two banter easily about their relationship.

“There were always movie people around our house when I was growing up,” the bearded Britton says. “Therefore, I felt I was stepping down when I took her in.”

“Ahhh, shit! This jokester!” Basinger squeals.

“I knew I’d marry an actress. I was just waiting for the right one.”

“Oh, bullshit! That’s the biggest bunch of crap.”

“It was either her or Lassie, and she was house-broken.”

“I gave him an offer he couldn’t refuse, and he gave me an offer I couldn’t believe!”

“She begged me.”

“Oh, this is the pits! I’m not even sure we are married. No. No, we’re not.”

Basinger was married to Britton in a spur-of-the moment ceremony before a justice of the peace. “We didn’t have a witness, so the guy got his nephew to come out and watch. The kid was eating hamburgers and got ketchup all over,” Basinger says. “I had long, wet hair. I had just gotten out of the bathtub, and I was wearing white tennis shoes and an old dress.”

Later, Britton says, “Kim’s really breaking out now. She’s always had respect in the industry, but no one really knew her on the outside. She’s still not a household word in Iowa, but before, we could go anywhere. Now, people are busting us. They send notes to our table, they murmur. No one can pronounce her name [Bay-singer], but they know she’s somebody. Pretty soon, I suppose it’ll be intolerable.”

Altman had never heard of Basinger when Sam Shepard called to say she might be right for the part of May, Shepard’s half-sister and lover in Fool for Love. “Sam didn’t know anything about her either, but he said he liked her if I liked her. He said, ‘I don’t think she’ll try to act too much.”‘ Altman liked her from the start. “She was very direct. She didn’t like the play very much, she didn’t like theater very much. She was quite open about all that. She wasn’t blowing smoke. . .  . Thank God she was in the film rather than one of those actresses who are so established they’re going to deliver the established performance.”

Altman is confident Basinger won’t be manipulated in the way Marilyn Monroe was. “She’s mature. She presents a sense of strength that won’t let her be violated. I don’t think she’ll ever have to do the obligatory femme fatale comic-strip character again.” He won’t hazard a guess about her standing with the Hollywood establishment (“I don’t want to be contaminated by their rating system, but I would think they would just drool all over her”). But he does recall one reviewer, Time‘s Richard Corliss, who called her a Hollywood casting director’s joke and added, “46 other American actresses could have made some emotional sense out of May.”

“She must have hit him hard,” Altman says. “I don’t know where his sex life is, but I assume it’s under his armpit somewhere. Kim said, ‘When I meet Corliss, I’m gonna grab him by the balls and say, “Okay, name ’em!”‘ And that’s really her.” He laughs at the thought. “But she has to understand the vultures are out there to eat flesh, and she’s going to have to pay for that.”

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