At 24, Goldie Hawn was dubbed ”television’s dumbest and most delectable bonbon” by Look magazine. Eight weeks from her 46th birthday, she remains delectable. Wearing a clingy sweater and pants that show off her dancer’s physique, and striding across a meadow to her trailer on a Massachusetts movie set, she could, for a moment, be mistaken for a woman half her age.
But dumb she’s not. Never has been. Inside the trailer, Hawn flashes a look of exasperation at the question of how well her public image of lovable helplessness really fits her. ”I couldn’t be more not that person,” she says. ”I’ve been a worker bee since I was 17 and running my own dance-teaching business in D.C.” Off camera, her voice is startling, so much lower and steadier than the helium giggle we know from the movies and TV’s Laugh-In in the ’60s. ”When I auditioned for Laugh-In, I misread the cue card, so I started to laugh,” she recalls. ”And I got sillier and sillier with each take.” That giggle was gold, and it became Goldie — and she wound up ”shackled” to her tittery image. ”When the red light on the camera went on, I knew what my job was: I had to make that laugh happen. It’s mine; I own it, and it’s never gone away. What do I do? That was the jackpot, that was craps. And sometimes it’s hard to walk away from the table.”
The golden giggle also propelled a major movie career, which peaked in 1980 when Private Benjamin grossed a remarkable $110 million. After that, the ’80s were downhill: Swing Shift (1984), Protocol (1984), Wildcats (1986), and Overboard (1987) were all disappointments. ”For years I carried movies by myself,” she says, ”and some I carried well and others I just collapsed under. You’re just a product, basically, a commodity — they eat you until you have nothing left. It’s the beast in the jungle and we’re fair game.” With the conspicuous assistance of Mel Gibson, 1990’s Bird on a Wire earned a healthy $70 million, but it still left many critics and audiences feeling that Goldie’s adorable airhead routine was running on air.
Hawn cracks an Evian and lolls across the couch, her sprawl the only sign that the 12-hour days she’s been working have gotten to her. Changing an image that has become entrenched over more than 20 years is hard work, and for the past year Hawn has labored almost nonstop on projects she hopes will banish the cutes forever. Deceived, a taut thriller that’s the first and riskiest of these, has just hit theaters. Later in the fall will come Alone Together, a drama about a stripper and her son. And at the moment, she is four miles from Thoreau’s Walden Pond, on the set of Housesitter, a rather dark, off-center comedy she’s shooting with Steve Martin and Dana Delany, to come out next year.
”Hope you like it, everybody,” Hawn shouts to the gaggle of Housesitter cast and crew members who’ve taken over a local movie theater for a special screening of Deceived.”It’s sure different.” As the lights dim, Hawn watches the audience while they watch the movie, a brooding, portentous thriller in which her character chillingly discovers her husband (John Heard) isn’t the man she thought he was. The audience gasps, jumps, and screams at all the right places and explodes in applause at the end. ”You’re not kidding it’s different,” says one cohort, and she beams.
”Deceived is a departure movie, my first flat-out drama,” Hawn says later, ”and I had to be very aware of my personal nuances and my laugh, to make sure that I tempered a certain part of me and not let it bleed through.” The trademark grin is all but absent from the movie; the camera homes in on her gaze of icy determination as she peels away the layers of deception. Instead of giddy and flustered, she comes across as intelligent and tough-minded (though alarmingly nonchalant about walking into darkened apartments).
”It’s a stretch for the audience, not for her,” says Deceived director Damian Harris (The Rachel Papers). ”I mean, Harrison Ford can play any number of goofy nice guys, then play a complete s—. Why not? It’s the same for Goldie.”
This is not the first time Hawn has branched out. The Sugarland Express (1974), Steven Spielberg’s first (and some say best) film, featured her as a white-trash mama bent on heisting her child from a foster home. ”She played somebody quite hateful, in a sense,” says Harris, ”manipulative, willing to sacrifice everybody else, and Goldie didn’t sugarcoat it.” That brilliant film earned more plaudits than profits, though, and as the decade wore on Hawn seemed inexorably pushed into roles with high giddiness quotients. But while she was perfecting the ditz routine — ”the commodity” — on-screen, off camera she was applying her well-concealed intelligence to learning the movie business. With Private Benjamin she took the title of executive producer, and began a long-term working relationship with producer Anthea Sylbert (who also produced Deceived).
Hawn’s conversation reveals her easy familiarity with both the dollars-and- cents issues of moviemaking and the power politics of being in charge. When Deceived was running over, Hawn solved the problem with characteristic briskness: ”You say, what on this sculpture doesn’t look like the elephant we’re trying to sculpt? Let’s take it out now. There was one three-quarter- page scene where I carry my daughter into my bedroom because she’s seen something that scared her. I said, what if we cut the end, and just have me slam the door and you hear it lock? Damian said, great idea. So we cut-it could’ve been a half day’s shooting, which in Toronto could be $25, $30,000.
”You’ve got to try to get the picture made as cheaply as possible while keeping your director on track,” she says matter-of-factly. ”When you reach an impasse, a producer also has to have enough balls to go to the wall with what she feels, or he feels, is right for the movie.” Hawn compares running a film % to running a family, which, as a twice-married, twice-divorced mother of three, she’s had ample opportunity to do. Says her Housesitter costar Dana Delany, ”My gosh, she’s like Mother Hubbard — there’s just kids around her all the time. I think she thrives on it. She likes to be the eye of the storm.” Hawn’s son Oliver was an extra in Housesitter, Delany recalls: ”One minute she’d be saying, ‘Oliver! Stay at your start mark, you must pay attention!’ Then, Action!, and she’d be right into the scene. She has this knack for staying childlike about acting, yet being a mother when she has to, and being a businesswoman when she needs to.”
Industry people know Hawn’s not a bubblehead, but with some of them she has the opposite problem: a reputation as a director-stomping bigfoot. A big reason is Swing Shift, her sole disaster, grossing an abysmal $6 million (though it did launch her love affair with costar Kurt Russell, whom she’s lived with ever since). A bittersweet look at the women who went to work during World War II, Swing Shift was the first big movie by Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs), after his offbeat masterpiece Melvin and Howard. ”I got a sense he didn’t want me to see dailies,” says Hawn, ”and I said fine.” But when Demme screened the first cut for the studio suits, ”they were enraged,” says Hawn.
So was she. ”My character looked like a whore,” she says. She felt the plot line about an affair between her character and a jazz trumpeter played by Russell had been mishandled and she demanded changes. ”What came out was I didn’t like the way I looked and I was competitive with (costar) Christine Lahti, and none of it was true! And the studio never backed me up; they were using me as the person to catch the s—.” Swing Shift was rewritten by Chinatown‘s Robert Towne and released over Demme’s noisy protest. ”He felt stripped of his power and humiliated,” says Hawn.
Demme no longer talks about the Swing Shift episode, but sources who’ve seen his never-released version say it contains some of Hawn’s best work; Pauline Kael called it ”a delicate masterpiece.” Even Hawn admits, ”He sees things from a very askew angle, and that’s what makes him special.”
But she makes no apologies for pulling rank on him. ”There are all kinds of people in the world,” she says, ”and some of them shouldn’t be (working) together.”
Hawn finds a feminist lesson in all this. ”If I was a man, I wouldn’t give a s—, but I wanted him to like me — to remain a woman in his eyes. Trying to protect that male ego gets you in trouble. So now I’ve learned to say exactly what I think in the first place. I’m raising my daughter that way. Hopefully she’ll never be under the thumb of a man, or never have to impress a man with her female guile.”
Still, she recognizes the stubborn persistence of sex roles. She’s trying to raise her two sons — one from a previous marriage and one with Russell — progressively, but ”my littlest one came out with a gun in his hand.”
In a bar near Ralph Waldo Emerson’s house, after another long day on the set of Housesitter, Hawn slips into a booth and orders a Scotch (”It’s good for your cholesterol,” she says) and clam chowder. Thanks to a Dixieland jazz band on the premises, she has to shout to be heard across the table.
”My dad was in a band,” she hollers. ”He played for years at big events in D.C. — he was sitting next to Mrs. Roosevelt when she got the telegram announcing FDR’s death.”
Growing up in a musical household in Takoma Park, Md., Hawn learned early about the training and discipline one needs for a career as a performer. It’s knowledge she still uses. ”I started out as a dancer, so I hear the beats in a scene; I’ll beat it out on a table, like a metronome. Steve (Martin) started out as a musician, so he thinks the same way. We’ll get to a joke and go, wait a minute, we’ve got to count one, two, three, okay, the laugh’s over, but they didn’t hear that line, so we’ve got to shoot it again with a pause there.” Hawn also has a theory regarding the mathematics of humor. ”Three syllables,” she notes soberly, ”are funnier than two.”
She thinks in musical terms, even when discussing the difference between comedy and drama. ”Deceived is all long set-up shots. It’s like a violin string vibrating forever until you know there’s going to be a timpani in there — it’s gonna explode, but you don’t know when. Comedy is more — I don’t want to say mathematical, because that makes it sound contrived — it’s musical.”
Hawn hasn’t renounced comedy. In Housesitter she plays a compulsive liar who moves into Steve Martin’s life and simply takes charge. ”She gets to play a wild eccentric,” says the film’s producer, Brian Grazer. ”Externally, she’s sweet, fun, vulnerable, but behind that beauty is some mystery and danger.” Hawn hopes the role reveals the same precision she prizes in her Deceived performance. It’s all part of her plan: ”Now that I’ve sustained a very controlled performance in a drama with no comedy laced through it, I can apply the same principle to comedy.”
But there definitely are no goofball roles in the pipeline. One movie lying ahead is Death Becomes Her, a black comedy to be directed by Robert Zemeckis (Who Framed Roger Rabbit) with Meryl Streep. And then there’s Alone Together, due out Nov. 8.
”It’s 1969, and my character’s Vietnam- vet husband leaves her with no money, and she supports their son by stripping, and they live in a fairly drug-infested hotel,” Hawn says. ”It’s not softhearted, it’s not sentimental, you know?” Nor is it much like The One and Only Genuine Original Family Band, the ultrawholesome 1968 Walt Disney musical featuring a 17-year-old Kurt Russell and Hawn, 23, as a member of the dance chorus, or any of her most celebrated roles. Hawn recently nabbed a seven-picture contract with Disney’s fledgling Hollywood Pictures, a contract reportedly worth $30 million. Studio president Ricardo Mestres pronounced the deal ”an auspicious beginning for Hollywood Pictures.” While Disney is famous for reviving the careers of fallen stars — Bette Midler, Richard Dreyfuss — its execs are quick to point out that Hawn’s career has never crashed.
Still, it was scraping the treetops for awhile there. ”I don’t know what a hit is,” she confesses cheerfully. But she does know that, having run her old persona into the ground, the time for challenges is now. ”My father played the violin until he was 73 years old,” she says with a faraway look. ”When he gave it up, I said, Daddy, why? And he said, because I can’t get any better.” Goldie Hawn thinks she can.