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Even Stretching It, Oscar Nominee Sally Kirkland Is No Girl Next Door

updated 04/04/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/04/1988 01:00AM

If you can't quite remember Sally Kirkland, it's not her fault. During the '60s she came out for the emancipation of women and against the Vietnam War. More to the point, she almost always came out wearing no clothes. As an actress, she felt she was using nudity to further human understanding and to better mankind, but most people thought she just liked going around without clothes.

Today she's an Academy Award nominee thanks to an unforgettable performance in Anna, and she also has more than 150 theatrical performances to her credit. But back in the '60s she was an innocent counterculture philosopher, saying things like, "I wished to oppose my nakedness to the intimate realism of Vietnam, in itself only symptomatic of the corruption and hypocrisies of our time." She expressed herself further by riding naked on a pig in the 1969 film Futz, perhaps her most celebrated movie role until recently, when her poignant portrayal in Anna of an expatriate Czech actress eking out a living earned her a Best Actress nomination. "I have a shot," says Kirkland, now 43. "I heard the acting community at large is voting for me because the feeling is, 'It could be us.' "

In those early days Kirkland was to nakedness what Walt Disney was to animation. She predated Hair and Oh, Calcutta!, establishing contemporary standards for nudity that made her the subject of numerous debates on morality in the arts. In July 1969 TIME anointed her "the latter-day Isadora Duncan of nudothespianism." Recalls Kirkland: "What I was really trying to say was, 'The human spirit must come out.' That was my feisty little 22-year-old mind trying to be very serious and not realizing how crazy it must have sounded to Middle America."

Middle America never quite clasped her to its bosom, even though she eagerly offered hers. In the 1968 play Sweet Eros she sat bound and naked in a chair for 45 minutes, saying nothing. "My whole body acts all evening," she explained. She had other roles as a groupie, a drug addict and a deflowered virgin. Not surprisingly, she wanted more, as any student of the Lee Strasberg school of method acting might. She yearned (and still does) to become the American equivalent to legendary Italian actress Eleanora Duse.

For various reasons, she did not. She blames her height (nearly 5'10"), her emotionalism and her strength. Kirkland recalls that movie mogul David Selznick once warned her that because she was such a tall and passionate woman she would always have difficulty finding roles, and indeed she did. "I'm not your typical, delicate girl-next-door," she says. She has produced plays in L.A., earned the 1981 Dramalogue Best Actress Award and appeared in 26 movies, but the leading roles in major films always went to other women.

"It was between me and Sissy Spacek to play Patty Hearst," she says. "It was between me and Jill Clayburgh for Hustling. It was me or Sandra Bernhard for King of Comedy—the audition got down from 300 women to us two. I've had so many close calls that I always thought, well, I must be good because it always seems to be between me and the person who gets it."

If her movie career never quite worked out, she couldn't blame it on a bad start in life. Her father, who died in 1984, was Philadelphia Main Line and her mother, also named Sally Kirkland, was a fashion editor at Vogue and LIFE magazines. She went to all the better schools and at age 13 was escorted to her first prom by Ted Koppel, then 17, who "gave me my first kiss."

In the '60s she did everything asked of young women of the era and much more. She danced the frug at a New York "happening." She experimented with LSD. She nearly died from downers. Finally, yoga changed her life, inspiring her to give up cigarettes, alcohol and drugs. "I was so shocked that something other than great sex or drugs could give you a sensation that was so ecstatic," she says.

In the '70s she often kept her clothes on, although she did play a stripper in The Sting. She was married twice and divorced twice, first in 1975 to musician Michael Jarrett and then in 1985 to jazz producer Mark Hebert. Neither marriage passed the three-year mark. "It's hard to find a man who can handle my intensity," she says. She joined the Church of the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness. She began visiting hospitals and prisons as an antidrug counselor. Through it all she always found acting work, and she almost always received positive reviews. She had small parts in The Way We Were, Bite the Bullet and A Start Is Born. She opened the Sally Kirkland Acting Workshop, a traveling transcendental meditation, yoga and theatrical seminar that has visited 15 cities in America, France and Australia.

She heard about Anna while in New York, performing in the play Largo Desolato, a Joseph Papp production in which she played a Czech woman—but without the Czech accent she would need to be Anna. She also heard that Vanessa Redgrave, Sandy Dennis, Lee Grant and Shirley Knight were interested in the part. To prepare for her audition, she did what method actors do in such situations: everything. She studied dialect tapes, gained 10 lbs., read up on Czech activists, hung out in bars frequented by Eastern Europeans, chatted with the Czech elevator operator in her mother's building. She rehearsed four scenes from Anna at the Actors Studio with mentors Al Pacino and Robert De Niro and godmother Shelley Winters looking on. De Niro advised her: "Don't worry so much about the accent; you've got it. Just think about her life."

Came the big day. She read, and Polish director Yurek Bogayevicz was not impressed.

"I went to my girlfriend's house and screamed and sobbed to God for eight hours," she says. "There was this dialogue going on between God and me."

Give her credit. Pat Robertson claims almost the exact same experience, and his career is going nowhere. It turned out that Bogayevicz was dissatisfied with everyone, and Kirkland got a second chance.

Again he didn't like her.

"I went back to bed and cried for another eight hours," she says.

The role was offered to a Czech actress. She turned it down. Kirkland's third chance came. This time she auditioned with model Paulina Porizkova, who was trying out for a lesser role as the young actress who moves in with Anna. They were so compatible that Bogayevicz announced, "I just saw what I've been waiting to see."

In Anna, Kirkland plays a bedraggled woman who is continually getting caught in rainstorms or career-threatening crises. She looks so awful that the first time she saw herself in dailies she became so upset that she wasn't permitted to look at them anymore. Her co-star Robert Fields says, "A great many actors would not have taken the part because what is important to them is how they look."

In life, Kirkland looks considerably better. Razor-slim, swathed in a black leather miniskirt, she sits restlessly in her temporary home, her mother's Upper East Side apartment, glorying in the euphoria of ecstatic reviews, sorting through all the offers that are now coming her way. She is under consideration for the female lead in three major films and was invited by director Henry (Always) Jaglom to direct a film for his new company, which will produce films by women. "I think Sally is unique in her intensity and courage, and Hollywood does not know what to do with unique people," Jaglom says. Hollywood is apparently not so troubled by unique Oscar nominees, because Kirkland is already at work on her next film, Melanie Rose, in which she plays an exotic dancer who falls in love with a Wall Street millionaire.

Her performance in Anna already has earned her a Golden Globe and recognition by the L.A. Film Critics as best actress of the year (in a tie with Holly Hunter of Broadcast News). All that remains is Oscar night on April 11, and Kirkland promises that should she win, "I will be the happiest woman in the world and my belief in God will be reaffirmed." Characteristically, she'll be standing there totally exposed, even if she doesn't take off her clothes.

—By Alan Richman, with Ann Guerin in New York

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