Not since Anne Bancroft’s vulpine Mrs. Robinson sank her fangs into young Dustin Hoffman has there been a hornier movie vamp than Margaret Whitton. In the spring’s biggest comedy hit, The Secret of My Success, she goes after Michael J. Fox with rapacious, Rambo-like gusto. She’s his uncle’s wife, and—worst case scenario—his uncle is also his boss. “I’m going to eat you for lunch,” she informs her co-star, just before throwing him on the couch and devouring him. Earlier she had ripped off his swimsuit in a pool and cornered him on a window ledge. The woman won’t take “Leave-me-alone-get-out-of-here!” for an answer.
The New Yorker’s tough-to-please Pauline Kael hails Whitton as a “knockout.” Co-star Fox agrees. “She has no fear—just a love of performing,” he says. Offscreen, though, Whitton is a little uneasy about her character’s sexual assertiveness. “Michael’s so wholesome and appealing. I felt like a child molester,” she says.
In her mid-30s, with kinky red hair, Whitton boasts a figure that could cause seismic vibrations. Although stage audiences are familiar with her work in serious drama from Shakespeare to Wallace Shawn’s Aunt Dan and Lemon, Whitton is relatively new to film. Her first efforts, The Best of Times and 9½ Weeks, were clinkers, but with Success a smash and Baby Boom with Diane Keaton on the way, Whitton is now more than a passing tremor.
Just as well, since, until she was able to support herself with acting, she never held down a job for more than two weeks. She was a bicycle messenger, a topless dancer, a cab driver and a dog walker. She even put in five days as a tax preparer—a feat in itself since Whitton is dyslexic (or, as she puts it, “lysdexic”). Earlier, her reading impairment had led to a “terribly checkered” educational career. It didn’t help that her father was an Army colonel and that Margaret, her four siblings and her mother, a nurse, spent a lot of time on the move. Born just outside of Baltimore, Margaret lived in Japan until she was four, then relocated with her family to the U.S. She began acting at 13 at Northeast High School in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. After graduation, she worked in regional theater, even after moving to New York in the early ’70s: “When someone says you get to do Camille, you don’t ask where, you just go.”
The 5’4″ actress, who looks like a cross between Bette Midler and Amy Irving, has a habit of throwing herself into her roles, even changing her physical appearance à la De Niro. For her part in Success, she worked out 90 minutes every day with a trainer. “That was so I could mutter the immortal line to Michael, ‘Do you see anything on this body that isn’t firm?’,” she says.
For her new film, Ironweed, in which she plays a Gay Nineties temptress, Whitton is working out again—this time to put 10 pounds on her hips for the requisite hourglass figure. In the film, she seduces the teenager who grows up to be Jack Nicholson, giving him a kiss, she says, that “sends him ’round the bend for the rest of his life.” For obvious reasons, Nicholson does not play himself as a youth. “All the fog filters in the world won’t make him look 17,” says Whitton. As for rumors that Nicholson and his Ironweed co-star, Meryl Streep, are a romantic item, Whitton says, “It’s a passionate friendship, and that’s all. You know how much fun it is when you find someone you can play with, like when you were a kid and you found a great playmate? That’s what they’re like.”
Talk of her own personal life brings an uncharacteristic pout. After eight years of marriage, she and Bill Russell, a cabinetmaker, were divorced in 1978 with no children. They met at a Christmas costume party in the Berkshires. Whitton, then barely out of her teens, recalls that Russell was wearing a French dueling shirt and was “the best looking guy I had ever seen. It was a first-love syndrome and that’s tough to get over,” she says. But listen, guys, she’s single now, and if you’re 6’1″, 180 pounds, disease-free and have a great sense of humor, you’re hers. “He doesn’t have to be successful, but I shouldn’t have to support him,” says Whitton, who has just blown most of her movie money on a 1,400-square-foot loft in Manhattan’s TriBeCa. More important, the man in her life has to like baseball, since Whitton plays a blood-and-guts softball game in the Broadway Show League and gets to Yankee Stadium whenever she can. “In a divorce, some women go for the paintings and the jewels. I went for the box seats,” she says. “Great baseball is like great sex. They both require relaxed concentration.”
Whitton’s best friend, actress Judith Ivey, has dubbed her “Mad Margaret.” They met in 1982 when both appeared nude on Broadway in Steaming, a play that took place in a women’s Turkish bath. “I tried to wear a lot of jewelry so the audience would have something else to look at,” says Whitton. Observes Ivey: “Margaret’s always got something going. Dates. Dancing. She’s terribly perceptive of the zaniness of the world, because she embraces it.” Fox couldn’t agree more. “Margaret’s happily deranged,” he says. Maybe that’s the secret of her success.