Kathleen Turner: The last movie star
Strong, sexy, stylish, Kathleen Turner, is the only actress today who evokes glamour of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Since Body Heat, she has played it tough — with class. But can her V.I. Warshawski‘s hold its own against this summer’s onslaught of hardheaded, gunslinging hit women?
Ten years have passed since Kathleen Turner fogged the lens of Lawrence Kasdan’s camera in her first movie, Body Heat. Marriage, a baby, and 14 films later, Turner, at 37, still has killer dimples, legs like concealed weapons, and, anytime she cares to flash it, a come-hither look that could induce whiplash in a bishop.
But this day, in a restaurant near her beachfront Long Island home, she’s trying to induce that baby — Rachel Ann, now 3 years old — to stay with her sitter so Mommy can be a movie star for a couple of hours. ”I’m just going to do this interview,” the actress says, maternally attired in a roomy white cotton outfit with a snap-on Pop Swatch. ”When you’re done eating and wake up from your nap, I’ll be there.” Rachel nods and wanders off to schmooze some grade-school boys at the adjacent table. The girl can already work a room. ”She likes boys,” Turner shrugs.
Later, stirring a screwdriver in the seaside bar where she sometimes sings with the Suits, a rock band that’s the avocation of her real estate tycoon husband, Jay Weiss, Turner marvels over motherhood. ”Rachel’s got half my expressions down. The other day she came up and said, ‘HAH!’ I said, ‘Wait a minute, give it back, that’s my bit!”’ We’re sitting by the darkened bandstand in a deserted corner of the bar, but Turner seems to fill the space — leaning forward conspiratorially one minute, throwing back her head in an operatic laugh the next. ”It’s kind of shocking when you see your mannerisms reflected,” she goes on, ”and I have so many of them.”
Turner is, in a sense, an amalgam of great bits. That clipped diction, that saucy stride, that cool, challenging stare. No one, not even Rachel, does them better than she. In an age when movie stars pride themselves on honesty and directness, on not acting like stars, she’s a throwback to Hollywood’s glamorous heyday. Her grand matinee-idol manner has provoked comparisons to Bacall, Garbo, and that gloriously mouthy broad Barbara Stanwyck. ”After Body Heat,” says Turner, ”Stanwyck told me the only one who could’ve done it better was her.” Some actresses — Demi Moore, Debra Winger, Julia Roberts — reach us through the shock of their emotional nakedness. But Kathleen Turner is opaque, ironic; we can never be quite sure what’s going through her mind.
One secret is her voice. With its smoked-honey texture and unplaceable, actressy accent, it suggests a woman who’s accustomed to getting her way. She used it as an instrument of lubricious duplicity to seduce a quivering William Hurt (”You’re not too smart, are you? I like that in a man”) in Body Heat, the 1981 film that earned her $30,000 and film noir immortality at 26. At 31, she talked us into buying her as a 43-year-old who becomes 17 again in Peggy Sue Got Married, effecting the illusion mostly by verbal means. Her body didn’t even appear in 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit, but her breathy way with lines like ”I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way” made Jessica Rabbit the biggest cartoon sex symbol since Betty Boop. In V.I. Warshawski, Turner’s newly released turn as a private eye, she wraps her vocal cords around lines that seem to have been hard-boiled just for her (”Do you know how hard it is to get blood out of cashmere?”).
In person, Turner’s speech has an odd drama. With her polyglot syntax, her emphasis on eccentric syllables, and her unidiomatic habit of using words like swell and umbrage in the same sentence, she sometimes sounds like a countess from the Kingdom of Esperanto. She chalks it up to a childhood spent as the daughter of an ever-schlepping foreign service officer. She’d lived in Havana, Caracas, London, Washington, D.C., and Springfield, Mo., before she even finished high school. ”It makes you learn to present yourself when you walk into a new school, a new country, a new language,” she says about her crash course in being Kathleen Turner. ”You have to make a statement: You have to say, ‘This is who I am.’ You have to act yourself a little bit.”
It didn’t take Turner long to apply her hard-earned self-reliance to her career. ”Body Heat was just the three of us against Hollywood, all of us first-timers (Turner, director Kasdan, and Hurt, whose Altered States had been shot but not released), and we were in complete control of this film,” she says. Complete control has appealed to her ever since. ”I’ve always had power. You lose your power if you’re guided or directed by anyone else — by an agent, or by, heaven forfend, a manager.” And Turner knows what she’s doing. ”I’m an intelligent enough woman to always, you know, translate my talent into income.”
Warshawski is Turner’s attempt to go a step beyond income and translate her star clout into the kind of project she can really believe in. ”I’ve been wanting to do kind of a detective woman thing,” says Turner. ”It’s finally taken for granted that of course a woman can be a private investigator. And women do things very differently.” As the iron-spined Victoria Iphigenia Warshawski, she rights Chicago wrongs, dodges the altar, averts her gaze from the bathroom scale, and is less likely to blow people away than to blow a month’s rent money on scarlet spike-heeled shoes. Turner, along with Disney’s Hollywood Pictures division, hopes to build a series of films around the heroine of Sara Paretsky’s novels. Warshawski struck Turner as a kindred spirit. ”She’s practical and she’s also very pigheaded, doesn’t listen to people as much as she should, which are qualities I understand well,” she says.
”I talked with Danny (De Vito) and Jim Brooks (a producer on War of the Roses) about directing Warshawski,” Turner reports, ”but they said, ‘This is your film.’ So I wanted to find someone who wasn’t the star as a director, as they both rather are.” She settled on Jeff Kanew, whose work with Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas in Tough Guys she respected, and whose Revenge of the Nerds grosses no doubt pleased the money people. Though it features an able supporting cast, including Charles Durning (who played Big Daddy to her Maggie in a 1990 Broadway revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), and Obie award-winning teenage actress Angela Goethals, Warshawski is Turner’s show from the first frame. ”They should’ve called me the first assistant director,” she says with a laugh.
It was a dark and stormy night last January on a San Pedro, Calif., pier equipped with fake rocks to make it resemble Warshawski‘s Chicago waterfront. Despite the steady wind, Turner’s tomboy chortle can be heard in the distance, joshing with the crew. She thinks power is best maintained by acting like one of the guys, not one of the gods: ”The smoothest path to good work is a friendly atmosphere on sets: knowing everyone’s name and giving them some appreciation; you get it all back. As a star, your job is to do that.”
Turner rehearses the scene: Popping out from behind an oil drum, she levels a revolver at the bad guy in the two-handed stance all Americans now know to use in such situations. ”I just need a movement,” she tells director Kanew. ”Something to trigger me.” She’s oblivious to the breeze while technicians drench her thin denim shirt and black pants; in an earlier part of this scene, she has plunged off the pier into the chilly, oily, bilious Pacific — a risky stunt she insisted on doing herself. She grinds through seven takes, each time making slight adjustments in her stance, her voice, her timing. Finally, Kanew says, ”Great!” and Turner retorts, ”Good, he speaks!” To the crew she says, ”Hey, it pays to be wet. Good night, guys.”
But making Warshawski wasn’t all chummy feelings. The collaboration between the star, who likes to exert control, and the Disney studio, which is famous for its involvement in the minutiae of its movies, was, in part, a clash of the titans. ”The battle was burdensome,” she says. ”The calls every day — would you reconsider and please shoot this? You’d say no, no, no, I won’t, I won’t, I won’t.”
During a break in the shooting, Kanew recalls that Disney execs were particularly concerned about the shiner Warshawski acquires from a ham-fisted goombah. ”We negotiated the bruise,” he says. ”Kathleen as the actor wanted a very realistic bruise; the studio paying a lot of money for an attractive female star would prefer a minimal amount of damage.”
”They wanted the bruise to disappear the next day!” Turner says later with a trace of amazement. She salvaged realism by adding an ice-pack scene and a makeup scene. ”They also wanted me to change the ending, and I really just got very stubborn and told them they couldn’t do that because I had script , approval.” Her vehement veto also vaporized a hunky male who, in the script, stood on the dock to lend her a hand after her dunk in the harbor. ”I said, ‘I didn’t spend two goddamn hours building up this goddamn heroine for a man to come along and say, oh, let me!”’
Turner didn’t win every battle on Warshawski, and the memory still rankles a bit. ”I like it, but it’s missing some pieces that I mind,” she says, ”that I liked. I think they think a little too formula-like sometimes, as if you could simply make sure you had so many elements that were in other successful films you would guarantee the success of this one. Most of the great successes have been ones that did not fit a pattern. Ones that created the pattern.”
Ironically, Warshawki does fit a pattern — that of recent hits featuring trigger-happy women. But this might work against the film: La Femme Nikita, Thelma & Louise, and Terminator 2‘s Linda Hamilton all drew first with superior firepower, and Turner’s detective risks coming off as just another distaff pistol packer.
”Now we’ve got to go move my car,” Turner announces, helpfully returning her empty glass to the bar. Her 1970 Mercedes 280 is the only auto she has ever loved, its meter has expired, and she doesn’t want it towed away by a Long Island parking cop, perhaps the only authority figure she fears. We hop in, roar off, and scrunch up the gravel drive of her 1902 beach house, graced with a small pool, Rachel’s jungle gym, and Turner’s vegetable garden.
Turner leads me to the top floor, with a big-screen TV, antique horsey rocker, and a stuffed Mickey Mouse. She lounges on the couch, gesturing triumphantly to the wall of windows. ”When the skylights are open, it’s just the ocean and you.”
And a reporter. Snug in her sun-splashed sanctum, I finally ask Turner about the tragedy that shadows her household. Weiss was a leaseholder of a New York City building that held an illicit social club, the Happy Land, where an arsonist’s fire killed 87 people early one morning in 1990. It was the largest mass killing in American history (the alleged arsonist’s trial is under way), and some of the blame rubbed off on Weiss-and Turner. ”Jay was not responsible in any way,” Turner says evenly. “Somebody shoved a microphone in my face and said, ‘Where do you feel your responsibility lies?’ I said, ‘What are you talking about? Other than human compassion, what the hell’s it got to do with me?’ This is what I’ll have to deal with for the rest of my life.” Aside from her sympathy for the victims, what Turner found most disturbing was being caught up in a media event she couldn’t influence. ”It was incredibly upsetting,” she says. Then there is the $5 billion lawsuit filed by survivors and families of the victims. ”The legal fees alone are years of salary. We could’ve been wiped out. But I think it’s pretty much under control now.”
Having things under control, of course, is what Kathleen Turner is all about. It’s no coincidence she has little sympathy with ”Method” actors who dredge up their deepest emotions like divers hunting sunken doubloons. ”I go to the Turner school of acting,” she says. ”You choose what you want to show. It’s not actually feeling it in yourself, spilling your own guts all the time. People don’t really want to know that stuff.”
With Warshawski, she says, ”we made a choice of not explaining this character very much. You go in and you don’t have to learn all this woman’s motivations. You’re just meeting her in the middle of the story and saying, ‘Go!”’ That approach suits Turner fine. ”I’m not interested in solving all the mysteries of life, you know?”
In the end, Warshawski may be the closest thing she’s done to a self-portrait, because it’s her most practical character yet. ”I come back to that word, but it’s a marvelous quality,” she says. ”What can I do about this? Fine. If I can do things, I will; if not, I’m done. Don’t agonize, don’t waste everybody’s time. Just do what you’ve got to do and move on.”
Dishing It Out: Turner Plays truth or dare
Most actors are discreet to the point of tedium when commenting on their colleagues. Not Kathleen Turner. We asked her to free-associate about these Hollywood names and institutions, and she said, “You want to see my primal thoughts? Okay!”
Lawrence Kasdan (director, Body Heat, Accidental Tourist): ”I find his sense of humor is rather low, but he thinks I’m stuffy.”
Jack Nicholson (costar, Prizzi’s Honor): ”There’s this thing when you’re the new girl in town in L.A., right? And they all have to take you out for dinner and make sure they get a shot at you. I’m an old-fashioned Midwestern girl, so this doesn’t work well for me. Once we got that straight we were friends.”
Michael Douglas (producer/costar, Romancing the Stone, Jewel of the Nile; costar, The War of the Roses): ”Oh, I give him respect and credibility, of course. And he gives me a devil-may-care, laissez-faire attitude.” (Twentieth Century Fox filed a $25 million lawsuit when she tried to back out of the Romancing sequel, which would have been inconvenient for producer Douglas; asked if he’d like to work with her again, he replies, ”Always.”)
Danny De Vito (costar, Romancing, Jewel; costar/director, Roses): ”He provides a sickness, the tastelessness, that dark underside. It’s like being groped all day long — being somewhat short, he gets to casually drape his arm around parts of your anatomy that no one usually would.”
Francis Ford Coppola (director, Peggy Sue Got Married): ”I’m really about the only lead woman he’s worked with. He’s shy, but we worked out well. I said, ‘You give me a martini at the end of the day and everything will be fine.”’
Robert Zemeckis (director, Romancing, Roger Rabbit): ”I remember terrible arguments doing Romancing. He’s a film-school grad, fascinated by cameras and effects. I never felt that he knew what I was having to do to adjust my acting to some of his damn cameras — sometimes he puts you in ridiculous postures. I’d say, ‘This is not helping me! This is not the way I like to work, thank you!”’
Steve Martin (costar, The Man With Two Brains): ”Steve just wasn’t somebody you want to grab a beer with after work. I don’t know why he’s so contained, but when the camera’s rolling, he’s a genius.”
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (which has ignored most of Turner’s work): ”I would encourage more young people to join, because the average age now is over 60. Not to sound sour grapes, but I think there is a lot of politics involved. They like a classic with the hottest young actors who can barely speak English. Oooh, didn’t I sound like an old lady then?”