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On the set of ''Soapdish''

On the set of ”Soapdish” — Will an all-star cast, including Whoopi Goldberg and Sally Field, find laughs as actors on a daytime drama?

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It’s a Saturday morning in January, and Whoopi Goldberg and Sally Field are making a scene at the Topanga Plaza Mall outside Los Angeles. Goldberg has just parked the balance of her Greek gyro (hold the lettuce, tomato, and ”that sour yogurt sauce”), donned a winter coat (never mind that it’s 70 degrees outside), and now heads for the mall’s balcony. Field, who has stocked up at Gap Kids, hands her 3-year-old son, Sam, off to his father, Soapdish coproducer Alan Greisman, loses her gum, and joins Goldberg at the top of the freestanding escalator. ”Ready?” asks Goldberg. ”Ready,” says Field. Off come Field’s dark glasses and head scarf; on comes the serene look of a public deity as she begins a regal descent. As the cameras roll. Goldberg suddenly gets antic. ”Look who it is!” she announces loudly, pointing at Field. ”Aren’t you on that show?!” In a matter of seconds Field is where many an actress would want to be: in the center of a giddy crush of autograph seekers who really, really like her.

These aren’t regular shoppers, of course. They’re hired hands clutching prop bags from Gucci and F.A.O. Schwarz. (The real fans are behind security ropes.) And although the escalator scene could be a moment of cinema verité — the Sally Field version of Truth or Dare — it’s actually a moment from Soapdish, Paramount’s just-released ensemble comedy. Directed by Michael Hoffman (Promised Land), the spoof takes aim at the surreal terrain of daytime-TV soapland, sending up the very notion of celebrity. This is daring fare for a Hollywood movie that reportedly cost $25 million. This is most certainly daring fare for Sally Field.

The actress stars in Soapdish as Celeste, a histrionic scene chewer who has endeared herself to a fawning public as Maggie, leading lady of that beloved soap The Sun Also Sets. Whoopi plays Rose, Sun’s head writer, who has just brought Celeste to the mall and orchestrated a show of fan support in an effort to buoy her spirits. Celeste, alas, is having some really bad days. She’s being edged out of Sun by the show’s scheming costars, Montana (Cathy Moriarty) and Ariel (Teri Hatcher). They’re in cahoots with the slimy producer, David (Robert Downey Jr.), who is motivated by visions of kinky sexual recompense. Hoping to unsettle Celeste, and thereby finally seduce Montana, David hires Celeste’s old flame Jeffrey (Kevin Kline) back to the show. And while Jeffrey, who has fallen on bad times and vodka at a godforsaken dinner theater, still carries a torch for Celeste, he also seems to be falling for Lori (Elisabeth Shue), who plays the beautiful, homeless deaf woman. Trouble is, Lori might be…(music up) Celeste’s niece!

In the eyes of the real cast of this TV-show-within-a-movie, the comedy is less about soap operas than about actors. Field, who has won Oscars playing plucky martyrs in Places in the Heart (1984) and Norma Rae (1979), has much the same role here, only now the formula is cranked up to reach the farce zone. At times, Field even seems to be laughing at herself. ”There is a kernel of the truth in my character,” admits the 44-year-old actress. ”My experience is not quite like that, but there is something in the absolute paranoia and utterly insecure life, in Celeste’s terror of getting older and being pushed off by the younger crop. Kevin’s character can’t really focus on the world because he is so busy focusing on himself.”

Kline, 43, does indeed play a souped-up version of himself. A stage actor fluent in Shakespeare — he starred in and directed a 1990 production of Hamlet at New York’s Public Theater — his Jeffrey is a down-on-his-luck Shakespearean wannabe who dreams of taking center stage in a one-man Hamlet. ”Actors are always depicted as narcissistic, self-involved, vain, emotionally self-indulgent, crazy people,” says Kline, somewhat fondly. ”It was like playing a psychotic.”

Field puts it in a kinder light. ”Actors,” she says, ”are so vulnerable.”

Which is just how she felt when she decided to make this movie. While Kline’s classical turns have been balanced by comedy — he got his Oscar for 1988’s A Fish Called Wanda — Field’s screen persona has never been as a big laugh getter. ”Comedy’s not really my territory,” she says. ”I don’t feel as comfortable in it as I do in drama.”

Nonetheless it was Field who actually helped jump-start Soapdish. While filming Steel Magnolias, from Robert Harling’s Off Broadway play, she and Harling began scheming. ”I’d been trying to develop a film about actors,” she says, ”and Bobby thought it would be fun for me to play an out-and-out bitch. I thought, Great! A bitch with a heart of gold; someone who is just very, very crabby.”

After weathering the usual Hollywood melodramas — a change of studio (from Tri-Star to Paramount), a change of directors (from Herbert Ross to Hoffman), and a change of writers (from Harling to The Freshman‘s Andrew Bergman) — Soapdish was ready to cast. The part of the libidinous producer with a zebra-skin casting couch, originally written for a 45-year-old, was retailored for Downey as a younger letch. Between writing screenplays, a novel, and a TV pilot, Carrie Fisher did a quick turn as a casting agent. Goldberg managed to squeeze time in between taping Star Trek: The Next Generation and Bagdad Cafe. Director Hoffman spotted veteran director Garry Marshall lunching at the Paramount commissary and snagged him to play Downey’s boss, a programming exec whose credo is ”Peppy and cheap: Those are words I like.” A wide net was cast for the rest of the ensemble: Kathy Najimy, star of Off Broadway’s The Kathy and Mo Show; Arne Nannestad, a British-born performance artist; Cathy Moriarty (Raging Bull); Teri Hatcher (star of Norman Lear’s new sitcom, Sunday Dinner), and, to play Entertainment Tonight cohosts, Leeza Gibbons and John Tesh as themselves — ”for a sense of hyperreality,” says Hoffman.

The surprising stumbling block in all this was finding an actor to play Jeffrey. ”Basically, in the 40-year-old age group, after you get past Michael Douglas, William Hurt, and Harrison Ford, who is there?” asks Hoffman. ”Mostly people who have proven themselves not to be leading men.” Kline had been considered, but he’s so choosy that he’s known at CAA, his agency, as Kevin DeCline, and nobody thought he’d go for Soapdish. But Kline turned out to be a fan of Hoffman’s Promised Land. After hours of conversation (”Kevin likes to talk,” says Hoffman), Kevin signed on.

He didn’t have to do much research for the part. From 1976 to 1977, Kline played Woody Reed, a serial cad, in CBS’ Search for Tomorrow. ”I’d moved to New York and vowed never to do commercials or soaps,” the St. Louis native painfully remembers. He soon found himself airing regularly as Woody — and as a tango instructor in a Thom McAn commercial. ”The weirdness of what we do,” says Kline, with a sigh, ”is ever present.”

On Stage 15 of the Paramount lot, Elisabeth Shue is lying in a hospital bed, inordinately giggling, prompted by Kline, who is snuggling close to her and whispering something about underwear through the stethoscope he has planted in her ear. Paul Johansson, an alumnus of NBC’s Santa Barbara who plays Bolt, Maggie’s dim-witted but well-built husband, is practicing triceps exercises. Teri Hatcher, in a stretch minidress, is making her best vixen adjustments, smoothing her stockings and pushing her chest simultaneously up and out.

It’s a relaxed moment on a relaxed set. ”It’s like being at summer camp,” says Kathy Najimy. Cathy Moriarty agrees: ”We do our jobs, we laugh, and we go home.” Much of that atmosphere can be attributed to Hoffman, a director who was once an actor and who welcomes improvisation and ideas from his cast, even though he nixed Downey’s suggestion to imbue his character with a urine fetish. ”It would’ve created a problem for the prop department,” admits Downey.

Later, on another part of the intricate set, Garry Marshall is getting ready to do a scene with Field. Marshall, director of everything from The Odd Couple and Mork & Mindy on TV to Pretty Woman in the movies, remembers directing Field on the 1966-67 television series Hey Landlord. ”We brought her in to punch up the show,” says Marshall.

Quiet on the set. It’s time to film Marshall’s reaction shots as part of a montage of Sun stars crankily tendering their ultimatums. It’s Field’s turn, and while Marshall sits at a desk, crunching rice cakes and twirling his wedding ring on a toothpick, she stands across from him, and stops blowing her bubble gum long enough to deliver her lines off-camera. ”I remember when you worked in the mailroom,” she begins. ”I’ve really loved working for you, and I loved getting those Christmas cards, and I’ve enjoyed all your wives — well, actually, I don’t like the present one much-but I can’t go on with the show…”

The scene is taking place in the upper tier of the million-dollar set designed by Eugenio Zanetti (Flatliners). ”TV is an actor’s hell, so we based the set on Dante’s Inferno,” says Zanetti, who, along with costume designer Nolan Miller, is responsible for the movie’s crucially tacky look. In keeping with Zanetti’s vision, his set is divided into two levels. Up top is a deco-style ring of executive offices, dressing rooms, a control room, and even a commissary. In the pit below is the hot-hued TV studio where The Sun Also Sets is taped; the locales here include the hospital, a flame-colored Chinese restaurant, and a tropical island backdrop replete with a mechanical wave (a turquoise rug with fringe). The resulting garish miasma, Zanetti says, ”is a metaphor for the neuroses of these people whose lives are 10 times worse than the plots they’re playing.”

Soapdish is also blessed with the gilded touch of Miller, he of Dynasty fame, whose costumes are synonymous with soapery. At the moment, he is admiring his handiwork: an array of principals decked out in custom couture, an army of extras in Dynasty hand-me-downs. There’s Field, dressed in a strapless gold ball gown, punching the floor with her stilettos. And there’s Whoopi, wearing a demure maroon satin floor-length number. Her Gibson girl hairdo and a pearl choker render her almost unrecognizable.

Goldberg, in fact, was the greatest personal challenge the designer faced. ”This is the first time she’s ever done serious glamour,” says Miller, who was initially told the 1990 Oscar winner would wear only pantsuits. ”But I persuaded her to wear a short skirt in one scene, and she got such notice on the set that, while I was making her a tuxedo for this shot, I got a call: ‘Miss Goldberg wants a glamorous gown.’ I said to her, ‘Okay, but you know you’re going to have to wear a bra.’ I don’t think she has worn one in 20 years.”

Whoopi gave in, and perhaps entertainment history has been made. For all its zany turns and self-parodies, its splendid tackiness and glorious venality, Soapdish may ultimately be remembered as the movie in which Whoopi Goldberg made a fashion statement.

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