Oh, how fandom can mislead you. With The Extra Man coming out this week, I thought: "Perfect! I can write a Their Best Role piece of Kevin Kline!" I've loved the man since I first saw him on stage in my youth, and since he's so tied to theater, Kline's credits are quite manageable. He has less than 40 cinematic (live-action) roles to his name. But it isn't so easy to pick a best role for Kline. Though his roster remains relatively small, it is jam-packed with memorable characters, whether we're talking about excellent films that he had an excellent part in, or easily forgettable films where he was the lone beacon of light.
Though not a big-screen role at first, it all started with Joseph Papp's production of Pirates of Penzance. With Kline as The Pirate King, the production became so popular that it was taped and released, jumped to Broadway, and was ultimately sculpted into a feature film. The roguish character was perfect for Kline's talents, intermingling charisma, theatrical audacity, and a healthy dose of silliness. But Kline quickly established that he was more than some easy-to-love pirate battling Chris Atkins for the cinematic seas. Before the film was released, he starred alongside Meryl Streep in Sophie's Choice as her troubled love, Nathan, and within a few years, there were three Kevin Klines, who remain to this day.
The first and original Kline is the stage actor who can make the densest Shakespearean prose seem natural and modern. One of the best examples of this talent would be Kenneth Branagh's As You Like It. Though his portrayal of Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream was delightful, Kline's turn as Jaques perfectly encapsulated his Shakespearean charisma, with every pulse of his vein, curl of his nose, and pause in his delivery. However, coming from a long tradition of stage performances, it doesn't feel right to single one out as his best cinematic role.
The second Kline is a much different sort -- the big-screen funny man. This is, perhaps, the man audiences remember best. His many seductions of Jamie Lee Curtis in A Fish Called Wanda -- with arm pit whiffs and stuttering Italian -- earned him an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, which was his only Academy nomination and win. Though it was, by far, his best comedy, Kline still managed to add verve to his projects, from a man struggling to stay in the closet in In & Out, to a plagued soap opera star forced to perform for daft senior citizens in Soapdish.
But the third Kline -- the dramatic actor -- offered the actor's best performance. It's not his work in the classic The Big Chill, his retro moments in De-lovely, or the recent drama Trade. I'd like to say that it's The Anniversary Party, which saw the entire Kline family coming together on-screen in one of my favorite cinematic families. But to me, regardless of Academy awards and Shakespearean perfection, Kline's best role is that of Ben Hood in The Ice Storm.
Usually Kevin Kline has a palpable sense of charisma and theatricality. There's a power to each action and word, whether it's the power of strength or just pure silliness. With The Ice Storm, however, Kline is understated. His Ben has no real grasp on his life. Ben is going through the motions and feeling ineffectual at every moment -- even in his extramarital affair, which comes off as clumsy rather than sexual.
But you can see Ben's potential. He's not an oafish, one-note character. His snark and reactions reveal a hint of the man underneath, who might have become a "Kevin Kline" himself if not for the suffocating suburban life and mediocrity he's stuck in. When Wendy and Mikey fool around, the anger bursts forth, a backbone lengthening up Ben's spine, only to soften at the tear-stained face of his daughter, who he then carries home.
[Spoiler alert - Discussion of the film's final moments below.]
But nothing compares to the moment when Ben leaves the key party. He's just sobering up after a night of drunken humiliation. He's in those first moments of the morning when you wish you could forget the night before, but one simple turn of the wheel burns the moment into his memory when he finds Mikey lying in the road. As Ben stumbles on the ice and checks for breath in the cold body, everything changes. When he picks the boy up in his arms, it's as if he's finally found strength, or at least some measure of sureness in the world. He's faced the loss we all think could never happen.
And once Mikey is delivered home, and the family picks Paul up at the train station, the life line of Kline's talent emerges. It's not the theatricality, or the perfect way he can deliver a line. It's in the moments when he pulls back and can offer the world with one look. As he gazes at Paul and Wendy, his face is the perfect mixture of joy and sadness -- devastated by his life and what he's just witnessed, but joyous that his own children are alive and safe.
It's a true shame that Kline isn't given more roles like this to shine in. When given the opportunity like this, Kline pulls out talents that rival the best of the best.