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- November 03, 1986
- Vol. 26
- No. 18
The New Queen of the Screen
Linked to Film's Femme Fatale Past, Kathleen Turner Shapes Up as the Hottest Hollywood Property in Years
"I can't wait to get home and sneak into a theater and see it with real people watching," says Kathleen. Onscreen she may often exude a smoldering sexuality, but the real life Kathleen is more like a bouncy kid who hasn't quite decided what she wants to be when she grows up. "You know, I never saw Peggy Sue finished," she says. "I only saw a rough cut. I have to confess I thought it was pretty terrific. So imagine being 4,000 miles away when it opens so well. This could be one of the biggest successes of my professional life, and here I am sitting in Trieste. I have to wait to get phone calls telling me how it's going." She aches for more concrete proof. "An actress wants to read what is written about her," she says. "I want to hold those reviews in my own hands."
She might sample this bouquet: "An acting feat accomplished with grace, wit and feeling"; "Her richest performance yet"; "She deserves an Oscar." Even the New York Times, which dismissed the Tri-Star film as "inconsequential," praised Turner for "providing both moral and physical dimension to a role that scarcely exists."
For Turner, coming off a trio of hits (Romancing the Stone, Prizzi's Honor, The Jewel of the Nile), Peggy Sue furnishes further proof that she's now, as Tri-Star president David Matalon rather bluntly bottom-lines it, "the definitive female box office commodity." While Streep, Lange, Winger, Keaton and Spacek have watched their last pictures fizzle financially, Turner continues her one-woman boom. "Young people want to make their own stars," says A.D. Murphy, film industry analyst for Variety. "The big names who emerged in the late '60s [Streisand, Fonda, Hawn] are inherited from their parents. The '80s generation of film-goers see Kathleen Turner as theirs." Her seven films, since her 1981 film debut in Body Heat, have grossed nearly $200 million in the U.S. to date; her salary reportedly has escalated to the million-plus per picture range.
To reach that summit, Turner had to overcome wide resistance. At first nobody could get a fix on her. Some thought she could only play the Jezebels of Body Heat, The Man With Two Brains and Crimes of Passion. Then she showed her game, adventurous spirit, as a tomboyish novelist in Romancing the Stone and The Jewel of the Nile and a Mafia hit woman with Jack Nicholson in Prizzi's Honor. But these films all had larger-than-life elements. As Peggy Sue, a 42-year-old disillusioned former majorette, Kathleen Turner came down to earth and touched America's heart.
Tired of hearing herself described ad nauseam as "sexy," Turner had grabbed at the role ("It's the first time onscreen I haven't looked gorgeous"). And she played it without vanity in some ugly (her word) '60s period costuming, including petticoats, saddle shoes and pointed bras. Now Hollywood is talking Oscar. "Oh, it's been said before," she says. Never nominated, Turner admits she'd be "truly disappointed" if her chance didn't come this time. Still the lack of an Oscar nomination "won't change anything," she insists. "I don't make movies for that reason."
She doesn't make them just for the money either ("I'm shortsighted that way") or because a role might be written with her alone in mind. Debra Winger was the first choice for Peggy Sue, but she dropped out because of back problems. Kathleen, with a tough-cookie reputation for staying unfrazzled even on the meanest locations (in Mexico for Romancing and Morocco for Jewel), stepped in eagerly. "I am naturally athletic and can do stunts," says Kathleen. "I always want to accept a dare, to try something."
This is the attitude that propelled her to Italy to work with the little-known director Peter Del Monte. Now, after a dozen weeks, she's restless. "I can't wait to get home," she says. She misses Manhattan and the cozy, four-story Greenwich Village brownstone she shares with Realtor Jay Weiss, her husband of two years. Doing this film, she says, "has turned out to be longer and harder than I envisioned. The director is gloomy. He has restrained my natural exuberance. There have been no laughs working on this."
The title of the film is Julia & Julia. To hear Turner tell it, the movie—shot with a high-definition video camera—sounds like an experimental nightmare. She plays a woman living parallel lives with two men, rock star Sting, and Gabriel Byrne of TV's Christopher Columbus miniseries. Most of her peers would have steered clear of such a chancy role, especially after Peggy Sue. But, says Kathleen, "I had to do it. I have an image of the whole movie being in this woman's mind, where she goes through almost every great thing a woman can experience." One of those experiences, says Kathleen, is motherhood.
Kathleen explains that she and her husband are trying to have a child. She does not mention that she suffered a miscarriage just before the Italian film began. "Jay came over [to Italy] to see me twice," she reports. To alleviate loneliness on location, says Kathleen, "I now always try to import some members of my family to see me while I'm working." Her mother and 88-year-old grandmother from Missouri were the most recent visitors. She took them on a weekend jaunt to Venice, but mostly they had a lesson in filmmaking.
"Watching me work makes them realize that I am not some extraterrestrial being who wakes up in the morning beautiful, says a few lines and earns a lot of money," says Kathleen. "They see the process. I like that." She also likes the fact that the film has only a few more days left of shooting. "Then Jay is coming to pick up the pieces and bring me home. I'm at the point where I am wondering, 'Was it worth it?' "
Back in June, on the afternoon of Kathleen's 32nd birthday, such doubts were little in evidence. She arrived for lunch at Manhattan's Water Club, her tawny hair swept up on her neck, overdressed in a slinky black cocktail gown "just for the hell of it—I want to celebrate." Her "Venus" image surprises her as much as anybody. "Voluptuous? I haven't the bosom to be that," she said. "I do have the legs."
The legs were on stunning display that day, as were the pearls that Jay had given her earlier. (In the evening, he offered his other present: champagne and baked potatoes filled with caviar, served in the hot tub.) Licking salt off the rim of her margarita glass, Kathleen expounded on her own trip to beautiful. "I look a thousand times better now than I used to," said Kathleen. "A lot of it, I think, is awareness; that and baby fat settling. I've also learned to use my [blue] eyes to focus attention. And I'm real good at concentrating. What people show you by their eyes, their interest, is what's beautiful. It's like showing somebody you're having a good time. People love it."
Growing up, Kathleen hardly fit the bill as a budding sex star. As the third of four children born to a U.S. Foreign Service couple, she spent her formative years moving from Canada to Cuba to Venezuela to England. Her father was "very strict," and as a result Kathleen—a self-described "ugly duckling"—rarely dated. When she did she was chaperoned. She spent her high school years in London, enthralled with the theater. "I had the chance to study acting there," she says. She admits that even then, "I did see myself becoming a star. But a stage star, not in movies. I thought there would be people at the stage door all backed up with roses." When her father died in her senior year, she moved back to her mother's family home in Missouri. She studied theater at Southwest Missouri State University, later transferring to the University of Maryland, where she graduated with a degree in theater arts in 1976.
Her move to New York in the spring of 1977 ("with $100 in my pocket") left her anxious but unshaken. Though she did some waitressing, there was no long period of struggle. She found an agent, David Guc, in her first month. By December she had a role on Broadway in Gemini and a continuing part for 18 months on the NBC soap The Doctors. She and Guc lived together for nearly five years, an experience that she says provided a "fabulous base. I was with somebody who was completely involved with my work." They split without rancor; he remains her agent.
In 1981 came her movie debut as the flesh-peddling Lorelei who lures William Hurt to his doom in Body Heat. Those legs in a slit skirt left some producers blind to anything else, including her acting skills. Her 1984 role as the kinky hooker China Blue in Crimes of Passion cemented that image. Scenes involving Turner sexually with such diverse objects as a policeman's night stick and a client's big toe made the film a cult favorite and a continuing hit at video rental stores, where customers too timid to cope with the X-rated version (in a red box) can study the R-rated version (blue box) as a primer in torrid Turner. Though Kathleen, and most critics, admire her acting in that film, she admits she'd be reluctant to take on a similar role today, knowing how it would affect her family.
To illustrate, she tells this story: "My mother happened to be visiting me in New York the day Crimes of Passion opened, and we were watching the noon news on television. [Critic] Judith Crist came on and said, 'This is not the worst film this year. This is worst film in 10 years!' And my mother goes, 'Oh well, we all make mistakes. But yours, Kathleen, are so public' Now that's tough to fight. It wears you down."
When Weiss (then her fiancé) also objected to the nude scenes, the pressure worsened. "Jay wondered why I felt I had to play the role in Crimes. I tried to make him understand that it wasn't me on the screen. I would never go down to Hollywood Boulevard and pick up men or go to hotel rooms with fat ugly guys. So I finally said to him, 'I'll tell you why I did it. Because I had the chance to act my ass off, and I don't get that chance very often.' "
Finishing her call from Trieste, Kathleen longingly discusses her publicity-shy husband, two years her junior, who insisted on marriage, and as she puts it, "would never want to be Mr. Kathleen Turner." She feels the sports-loving Jay adds a stability and purpose to her life. "He keeps me in the real world." They met in 1983, when "he found me an apartment, and to thank him I took him to lunch. He's all the man I want—and all I can handle."
After completing Julia & Julia Kathleen will have at least two weeks to spend at home with Jay. On a typical visit to her brownstone (complete with Japanese garden with its own running stream), you'll find the supposedly steamy actress cross-legged on the floor in jeans and sneakers, reading (she rarely stops) and sipping coffee. They'll also spend some time at the house they rent with friends in the Hamptons on Long Island. Getting together with the amateur musical group with whom Jay and Kathleen love to rock 'n' roll is also a must (she sings, he plays sax). So is talking once more of starting a family.
Then Kathleen must report for rehearsals at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven.
She is going onstage in a new production of Camille. Yes, the Camille Greta Garbo and Alexandre Dumas, but written by playwright Pam (Piaf) Gems. Kathleen is enthusiastic about the play and its 1852 period costumes. "This interpretation is lovely and bawdy. It is about those incredible Paris women who were such extraordinary courtesans. We'll play it for six weeks at the Long Wharf. Broadway? Yes, there is talk, but it's up in the air."
After that, Kathleen relates happily, "I've got nothing on my plate." She's not particularly worried about finding another movie. The contract killer of Prizzi's Honor says she "can't stand all these things that are filled with violence. I had one script recently where 16 people were killed before the first scene ended. I decided to pass. I said, 'Fellows, three dead is my limit.' "
Kathleen feels certain of her next step. "I'm really going to take a break," she says. "I'm never going to be separated from Jay again, picture after picture, as I was doing there for a while." Adjustments are delicate in any marriage, but Kathleen, unlike Peggy Sue, has no yen to go back in time and start again. "I wouldn't change anything," she insists. "I would hate to think I would lose something. My life is so good now." Still, if a few decades from now Kathleen did get the chance to zap back to the past, she'd be well advised to skip her less than halcyon high school days and try for 1986. It definitely has been her year.
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