In 1980, assuming she was just another WASP without a sting in her tail, studio brass were reluctant to cast Kathleen Turner as the sinister siren in Body Heat. But after a dazzling audition they did, and the steamy thriller established her as a leading brand of candy for the eyes.
In 1982, sure that she had nothing but flesh to peddle, director Carl Reiner didn't want to test Turner for the joke-Jezebel role in The Man With Two Brains. But he did, and the Steve Martin gag-jag proved she could spoof sex as well as exude it.
Then last year producer-actor Michael Douglas was afraid to cast so much woman as a ditsy damsel in Romancing the Stone. But he did, and in the spring of 1984 the lighthearted, heavy-grossing ($80 million in the U.S. and Canada) takeoff of Raiders of the Lost Ark broadened Turner's appeal to both sexes, all ages and every film executive who can read a balance sheet. (She'll start shooting the sequel next spring.)
Finally, in director Ken Russell's Crimes of Passion, a grotesque burlesque of sex American style, Turner gave "a clever, daring, mad performance" (TIME) as a career girl/floozy: clinching evidence that for versatility and power she can hold her own with any young movie actress whose name is not Meryl Streep.
So why all the resistance? Probably because Turner sends out very confusing signals. Blond hair and perfectly symmetrical features suggest a Nordic ice princess. Long voluptuous legs, "a behind you'd like to eat lunch off" (Steve Martin) and dusky contralto tones invite sultrier speculations. What's more, the ragtag array of Turner's roles has made it hard for both public and producers to get a fix on who she is and what she can do. "I figure, keep 'em guessing," Turner says. "I can still get through a supermarket without being recognized, and that's okay with me. I'm not after a flash success. I'm building a career. I mean to be around for 50 or 60 years."
Turner, 30, is confident, ambitious, hardworking, shrewd, independent and brainy. "This lady has an IQ," says a studio executive, "like a professional bowling score." According to some coworkers, she can also be aloof, self-absorbed, short-tempered and abrasive when she doesn't get her way. In short, she has all the attributes of a superstar, including a peculiar childhood.
Turner grew up as a rotating expatriate. The third of four children born to a U.S. Foreign Service couple, she spent her early years hopping from Canada to Cuba to Venezuela to Britain. Life was a series of alternative social roles—"The parts of myself I hated in Caracas I didn't have to be in London"—but continuity was maintained through the family compulsions: work, study, success. "Our parents told us we could become whatever we wanted because we were smart, well educated and willing to work. And we swallowed it." One of Turner's brothers and a sister have doctorates; her other brother is about to acquire one.
Turner fell in love with the theater in London, studied acting at the University of Maryland, made the cast of several off-off-Broadway shows, then for about a year and a half played the female heavy on a soap opera, The Doctors, doubling as a featured player in the Broadway production of Gemini. After Body Heat, assaulted with offers to play hot numbers for big numbers, Turner decided that being a lust object was a cop-out, not a career. So, at major risk, she spent three years fighting for a balance between commercial success and creative satisfaction, a fight she has now won.
"Kathleen can do it all," says Douglas. "She's funny, sexy, vulnerable and endlessly intriguing, because you never know which side she's going to show you next. It's obvious she's going to be a big star." So obvious that producers by the dozen are begging her to play challenging roles in top-dollar movies like Prizzi's Honor, a dramedy that co-stars Turner and Jack Nicholson and is scheduled to wrap production this month.
"Jack's great to work with," Turner says. "There's no hidden competitiveness. He's playing to me, not to Jack. He makes me feel warm and important. But I don't act just to feel good. Acting to me is a job. I don't try to thrust myself into my roles. I save that for my private life."
Turner's life is currently on an endorphin high. Five months ago she married a Manhattan real estate tycoon named Jay Weiss, 29. "He found me an apartment, and to thank him I took him to lunch," says Turner. "The chemistry was incredible. We talked until 2 a.m. Some men back away because they feel I'm too forceful, too independent. Not Jay. He's one of the few men near my age who has such a strong sense of himself he doesn't have to incorporate his woman into his identity. But it does disturb him when I do nude love scenes. After all, it's hard to act something as basic as sexual excitement without arousing it. I'd be disturbed if he wasn't disturbed. But Jay's all the man I want—and all I can handle."
Can Turner handle marriage and stardom too? "I'll sure try. Though being a star is a lot harder than just being an actress. A star has power, and power can hurt people. I have to be very careful what I say and do. On the other hand, it's terrific to have people invest in me, to have all that energy and support flowing toward me and carrying me along. And who knows? Someday I may have all this and a doctorate too. If I'm a star long enough, some college might give me an honorary degree, right?"