Even Though She Got Nicholson, Chanteuse Karen Akers Can't Relieve the Pain of Heartburn

updated 09/01/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/01/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

That figure. Six feet tall, with tapering limbs and elegantly boned shoulders, Karen Akers knows how to make an entrance. When she first appears in Heartburn, as the home wrecker who steals Jack Nicholson from Meryl Streep, audiences start buzzing.

That voice. In night clubs and concert halls, her expressively throaty vibrato demands attention to every note in a smart repertoire of Piaf, Brel, Sondheim and Coward.

That face. The pale skin, high cheekbones and piercing eyes belong on an Art Deco statue. They seem rudely out of place in suburbia. Yet home for Akers is a tree-lined, upper-middle-class neighborhood in Washington, D.C., where she lives in a two story house with her husband, Jim Akers, a corporate attorney, and her boys, Christopher, 10, and Jeremy, 12. She makes her entrance down a flight of stairs and greets her visitor with a sharp announcement: "I can't talk for more than an hour. I want to be with my family, so let's get to work."

She's blunt and, you learn, likes the same directness in others. Try beating around the bush—"Uh, do you consider yourself a late bloomer?"—and you're headed off at the pass. "Would it help," she asks, "if I said flat out I'm 40?" The ice broken, Akers relaxes, talks for hours, offers to make lunch.

Her newfound career in movies excites her. She had a small role last year as a singer in Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo. But Heartburn, the film version of Nora Ephron's roman à clef about husband Carl Bernstein's infidelity, was to be Karen's big movie break. Heartburn turned to heartbreak after director Mike Nichols trimmed her part to a mere cameo. Akers tries to remain diplomatic. "I did have the fun of doing the scenes," she says. What hurt Akers most was the deletion of a fantasy sequence. In it, Streep catches husband Nicholson in bed with Akers, the other woman. Only Streep is dressed as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz—pregnant and clutching Toto. "I slowly turn into Margaret Hamilton, a witch in full regalia," says Akers. "I start screaming at Meryl, 'Where did you get those shoes?' Meryl picks up a bucket of water, throws it in my face, and I melt. Isn't that glorious? What's so disappointing is no one will ever get to see that scene."

Nichols' justification for cutting the fantasy was that it made philandering Nicholson look unsympathetic. Karen received the bad news three months before the movie was released. "Mike wrote me a very sweet letter," she says. "I was devastated, but I tried to keep it in perspective and not go nuts."

Being statuesque helped Akers get cast as the other woman, who, in Ephron's novel, is ridiculed for being "hopelessly tall." Karen knows how such remarks can hurt. "I didn't make peace with my height until I was well over 30," says Akers. She says Tommy Tune, who stands 6'6" and in 1982 directed Karen in her first and only Broadway musical, Nine, helped overcome her self-consciousness. "I made peace with myself by watching him," she says. "Now I love being tall."

The oldest of six children, Akers had a charmed childhood, even though it was not moneyed. Her father, Heinrick Orth-Pallavicini, is an Austrian count. But, says Karen, he had no inheritance—just the title. When Karen was 14, her father quit his job selling insurance and took wife Mary and the family to Italy for a year. "It was his dream to work there as a sculptor," says Karen. "It didn't pan out." Even so, the experience changed Karen's life. She attended Catholic school in Rome, where classes were taught in French and Italian. Akers often sings in French, having grown up listening to the records of Edith Piaf, her idol.

For Karen, 1968 was a big year. She married Jim—whom she had met on a blind date—just before she graduated from Hunter College with a degree in English. That same year the couple moved to Lake Buffalo, Ill. where Karen got a job as a secretary. Although she'd always sung in school glee clubs and could accompany herself on the guitar, she felt too awkward to perform alone. "We'd have company over, and I'd have to beg Karen to sing," Jim recalls.

During the early '70s Jim and Karen moved back to New York, where she went from singing folk songs in church basements to small nightclubs. Critics hailed her dark, reedy timbre. Then Jim was transferred to Washington, D.C. "I thought my career would take a nosedive," Karen says. "The fact is, she cried for days," remembers Jim. But compromises were worked out. They bought a one-bedroom apartment on New York's Upper West Side so that Karen could commute to Manhattan for voice lessons and club dates. In Washington they hired a housekeeper to help look after the boys.

By the end of the decade, Karen's career had picked up momentum. West German filmmaker Christian Blackwood flew Akers to Hamburg to film her in concert. That one-woman show, called Presenting Karen Akers, became a 1981 PBS special and record album. Then she won the role of Raul Julia's wife (and a Tony nomination) in Nine, which threw her commuter marriage completely off-balance. "With rehearsals, I was with that show for a year," Akers says. She did eight shows a week and shuttled home, exhausted, for abbreviated weekends. "For a while I tried to be supermom," she says. "I learned I can't be everything to everybody."

Despite that crisis, Washington has been a good home for the Akers family. Jim is proud of his wife's accomplishments and show business connections. When Heartburn was wrapped, Karen had Nichols and Streep to dinner. "It was all I could do not to ask them for their autographs," he says.

In addition to family, politics also plays a role in their lives. In 1985 Karen, a self-described "ardent peacenik," did a poetry reading at Ford's Theatre with Soviet poet Andrei Voznesensky; on Sept. 12 (before starting a new album) she'll go to the Soviet Union to sing as part of a citizen's group promoting détente.

It's late afternoon in suburbia, which has been painted in bold, lush strokes of green. "I miss New York," says Karen, sitting on her front porch, looking across her lawn, "but I feel I've got the best of both worlds living here." Behind her, next to the front door, someone's parked a skateboard with a crash helmet on top of it. Maybe it's Karen's way of saying just how difficult it is to keep her home life and career on course.

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