If you love 1980’s movies, you have to love Kathleen Turner. She was terrific in “Body Heat”. I love when she says to William Hurt in her husky voice “Your somewhat dim, I like that in a man”. She was excellent too in “Peggy Sue Got Married”, “Romancing the Stone” and “”Prizzi’s Honour”.
A leading lady of 1980s cinema, Kathleen Turner earned comparisons to 1940s femme fatales like Barbara Stanwyck for sensuous, aggressive roles in “Body Heat” (1981), “Prizzi’s Honor” (1985) and “The War of the Roses” (1989). When the smoky-voiced actress was not manipulating male characters with her on-screen sultry ways, she proved to be quite a comedienne, as well, volleying quips with Michael Douglas in the jungle adventure film “Romancing the Stone” (1984) and inhabiting an 18-year-old body in “Peggy Sue Got Married” (1986). She received a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis in the early 1990s, and that – along with the pained actress’ heavy drinking and over-40 status – meant her screen appearances were reduced to character roles as moms and comic villains – something she still pulled off with panache. After acclaimed theatrical runs in “The Graduate” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” on the New York and London stages, the fiery actress regained her esteemed reputation and settled into a comfortable real-life role as a supporting film player, theater director and acting teacher.
A globe-trotter from birth, Kathleen Turner was born June 19, 1954; the child of a foreign service diplomat father. Turner lived in Cuba and Venezuela, among other places, and began to take an interest in acting while living in London and seeing top British performers on the West End stage. She studied at London’s Central School of Speech and Drama, in addition to classwork at American High School, and when the multi-lingual teen returned to the States, she went on to earn a Theater degree from the University of Maryland. She moved to New York City to pursue an acting career and landed an agent within a month of her 1977 arrival. Work off-Broadway led to her role as social-climbing Nola Dancy Aldrich on the NBC daytime drama “The Doctors” (NBC, 1963-1982). She also debuted on Broadway in “Gemini” in 1978. In 1981, she experienced overnight stardom with her feature debut as the cunning temptress who cons lawyer William Hurt into murdering her wealthy husband in “Body Heat” (1981), a contemporary film noir from Lawrence Kasdan. For her unforgettable performance, critics likened her to Golden Era greats like Stanwyck, Lauren Bacall and Ava Gardner. Proud of the comparisons, Turner capitalized on her femme fatale reputation in sensuous, aggressive roles like Steve Martin’s gold-digging wife in Carl Reiner’s “The Man with Two Brains” (1982), a businesswoman-turned-prostitute in Ken Russell’s “Crimes of Passion” (1984), and the cold-hearted hit-woman in John Huston’s Mafia comedy, “Prizzi’s Honor” (1985).
Turner also proved a likable comedienne in the popular old-fashioned adventure “Romancing the Stone” (1984), in which Turner was cast in the more sympathetic role of a romance novelist who can not find love, only to meet Michael Douglas’ professional adventurer who sweeps her off her feet. The box office success triggered the 1985 sequel “Jewel of the Nile,” but it took a $25 million lawsuit on the part of the studio to make Turner honor her contract for what she perceived was a vastly inferior script compared with the original. In 1986, Turner starred in Francis Ford Coppola’s “Peggy Sue Got Married” (1986) and earned a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her tour de force performance as a mature woman inhabiting the body of her teenage self. Absolutely believable as a 42-year-old in a 17-year-old body (she was 32 at the time), she captured youthful insouciance through her altered speech and body movements and was the best thing about the sentimental picture. After the psychological thriller “Julia and Julia” (1987) cast her as a woman caught between a happily married existence with Gabriel Byrne and a dangerous affair with Sting, Turner teamed up with Douglas again in Danny De Vito’s darkly comic study of marital breakdown, “The War of the Roses” (1989).
Perfectly cast to voice sexy cartoon character Jessica Rabbit in the ‘toon noir “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” (1988), Turner scored a second time that year when she reteamed with Hurt and Kasdan for “The Accidental Tourist,” playing Hurt’s emotionally distant spouse. Though Geena Davis stole the show and took home a Best Supporting Actress Oscar as the new love interest for Hurt, Turner gave a compelling and sympathetic portrayal of a woman deeply scarred by the death of her 12-year-old son. Turner turned in a much-applauded and Tony-nominated portrayal of Maggie in a Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” in 1990, but the new decade did not bode well for the maturing actress’ box office clout. The detective film “V.I. Warshawski” (1991), the small-scale medical drama “House of Cards” (1993), and the “Thin Man” wannabe “Undercover Blues” (1993) all failed with critics and the public. Filmmaker John Waters, with his knack for sending up actors’ established personas, gave Turner a break from the forgettable with “Serial Mom” (1994), in which she played a modern-day homemaker with the looks of June Cleaver and the heart of Charles Manson. Turner at once frightened and delighted audiences, but nothing she did seemed to fully re-ignite her feature career, which began to suffer in part by a diagnosis of arthritis and the actress’ increasing dependence on alcohol to manage the pain.
Both conditions made Turner less desirable to cast, and she turned to the small screen. Her experience at the helm of “Leslie’s Folly” (1994), part of Showtime’s “Directed By” series, did not earn her subsequent directorial work, and she produced and starred in her network TV-movie debut, “Friends at Last” (CBS, 1995), showing that she was more than willing to be unglamorous in her new life as a character actress. This was never more obvious than taking the role of Chandler Bing’s (Matthew Perry) drag queen father in a number of episodes of the popular sitcom, “Friends” (NBC, 1994-2004). With her unmistakably sophisticated voice, she also became a frequent narrator and host of TV documentaries. One of the 1980s leading actresses was now relegated to supporting roles and comic villains on the big screen throughout the 1990s, with appearances as the stepmother in “Moonlight and Valentino” (1995), the wicked fairy in 1997’s “A Simple Wish,” and a nefarious scientist obsessing over “Baby Geniuses” (1999).
Turner returned to the stage, insisting that the best women’s roles could be found there. She portrayed an incestuous mother in Jean Cocteau’s “Indiscretions” on Broadway and later ventured to London to act in “Our Betters” and perform a one-woman show about silent film actress Tallulah Bankhead – someone whose throaty voice was reminiscent of her own. After appearing as a TV anchorwoman in TNT’s satirical “Legalese” (1998), Turner was excellent in her understated turn as the rigid, dowdy mother of five in Sophia Coppola’s feature directing debut, “The Virgin Suicides” (2000).
She returned to the British stage as famed elder seductress Mrs. Robinson in a theatrical adaptation of “The Graduate” (2000), and after reprising the role in a 2002 run on Broadway, the 48-year-old actress checked into a rehab facility for alcohol treatment. A commitment to sobriety plus new developments in arthritis medication that significantly eased the actress’ constant pain facilitated Turner’s return to Broadway in 2005, where she was cast in one of the most demanding roles in American theater, Martha in Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” She was nominated for a Tony Award for her electric performance and followed the production to London, where she again wowed audiences and critics. Turner maintained her strong standing, lending her voice to the animated film “Monster House” (2006) and debuting as a theatrical director with the off-Broadway production of “Crimes of the Heart.” She was tapped by New York University to teach acting and released the memoir Send Yourself Roses, which offered some insight into her career, her history of alcoholism, and her struggles with arthritis. In 2008, Turner was well-cast to play a drill instructor-like dog trainer in the film adaptation of John Grogan’s bestseller about a rambunctious dog and the family who loves him in “Marley & Me.”
The above TCM overview can also be accessed online here.