“WHY, YOU poor pathetic garbage picker, you’re an even bigger loser than I am!”
That’s downtrodden Lana Turner, snarling at sleazy Burgess Meredith, as Turner’s 1966 entry, “Madame X,” spirals down into delicious sordidness and beatific, self-sacrificing Mother Love.
Oh, I know, you all thought I was going to begin 2018 with mournful, angry memories of last year, and chipper pack-up–your-troubles-in-your-old-kit-bag (and smile, smile, smile!) Not to mention calls for activism, as our democracy is threatened.
Well, I have 12 months—God willing—to do all that. And some will perhaps roll their eyes and say, “Enough—aren’t you here to entertain?” (Or as Noel Coward’s 1929 “If Love Were All” song goes—always the Judy Garland version—“the most I have is just, a talent to amuse…” To be honest, I’m not sure I even have a lot of that. But sure as hell I am not going to depress you guys straight out of the gate, as a new year arrives.
I SPENT a good deal of vacation time decorating my house for Christmas—as you all know, it always ends up looking like a bordello, and I keep adding to it. Too much is never enough!
I also remained glued to Turner Classic Movies, where Miss Lana Turner was the Star of the Month. And what a star she was!
Her career, if not as prestigious and Oscar-laden as, say MGM sister Elizabeth Taylor, was rather epic in length and saw her through a number of transitions, not to mention a scandal that, looking back, was a miracle she survived. No star—save perhaps Joan Crawford–ever enjoyed her stardom more. And Lana did it with considerably less obvious desperation. Nobody is happy when a career begins to go south. Lana drifted away, buffeted by her own glorious belief in “Lana Turner” and—for many years—the comfort of liquor. Crawford, rolling her Rs to the very end, made a lot of noise. (And 100 proof vodka cushioned her disappointments.)
LANA, who was not discovered at the soda fountain Schwab’s drug store—but why bother with the truth, it’s the iconic tale—appeared first in the 1937 movie “They Won’t Forget” as a busty teen-age girl who is the victim of a killer, her screen time was brief, but her apparently well-filled-out sweater was memorable. Turner, then under contract for Warner Bros., and only 16, became well-known as “The Sweater Girl” and renowned for a bosom she didn’t really have. Turner filled out her clothes well enough, but she was tiny, trim and neat.
A year later, MGM, still suffering the shock of 26-year-old Jean Harlow’s death, brought Turner into the fold, put her through the usual apprenticeship to see what she did best—they almost made her a musical star—bleached her auburn hair blonde, and used her as both a sex-symbol replacement for Harlow, and a glamorous young leading lady, of various careers and traumas, to offset the maturing and less potent Joan Crawford.
Right off the bat, Turner was a big hit—she was luscious, baby-faced, relaxed and very appealing. She was paired with all the studio’s big leading men—Gable in “Honky Tonk” (they would go on to make five more films) Spencer Tracy in “Dr. Jekyll and Mr, Hyde, Mickey Rooney (of course!) in an Andy Hardy film and Robert Taylor in “Johnny Eager.” When MGM put her in “Ziegfeld Girl,” opposite gorgeous zombie Hedy Lamarr and budding genius triple threat Judy Garland, it was Turner who most impressed studio execs. Her role was expanded. And variations of this role echoed throughout most of her career—a basically good girl, sweet, if spoiled and headstrong, easily led to the sordid side of the street. (In “Ziegfeld Girl” she not only gets smacked around by dead beat boxer Dan Daily, she also has one of the great movie queen moments ever, attempting to glide down a long staircase, recreating her glory days as a stage beauty.)
Turner’s disordered private life was fodder for fan magazines and gossip columns. In the end there would be eight husbands, including musician Artie Shaw, millionaire Bob Topping and Tarzan actor Lex Barker. None of the hubbies seemed anything more than adjuncts to Lana’s fame and her career as a star, required to wed many times. The rumored—and factual—lovers were more interesting.
Blessed with a slimmed-hipped, perky-assed, broad-shouldered body, Turner wore almost anything thrown on her, beautifully. She had, without a doubt, the most perfect, regal posture of all the MGM girls—Ava Gardner, perhaps, came close.
Gardner and Elizabeth Taylor generally played Women in Love. Taylor was the privileged little bitch (eventually rehabilitated) and Gardner the soulful, sometimes cruel sensualist. (She often died.) Turner, on the other hand, for all her breathy blonde beauty was frequently a career woman—she played nurses, soldiers, secretaries, spies and—of course—actresses. She didn’t seem out of place doing ordinary things. Of course, the public adored her as the murder-on-her-mind Cora in “The Postman Always Rings Twice” but even there she was just trying to make her tacky roadside café into something better.
The years rolled on, and Turner, who took tremendous pride and care in her appearance, seemed to stop the clock for a long time. She became, as good roles began to dwindle, increasingly lacquered and posy—a divine clotheshorse. Or, as in the case of “The Prodigal” a divine who wore three beads and a prayer. But under that persona always there was a certain roughness, a coarseness, that was very exciting. It was in those moments, that her talent, which was not inconsiderable, was most obvious. (All fans recall her fabulous hysteria in Vincent Minnelli’s “The Bad and the Beautiful” going nuts in a careening car, after Kirk Douglas rejects her.)
As her MGM career neared its end, still glam, but less profitable—“Latin Lovers,” “The Flame and the Flesh,” “The Merry Widow,” “The Sea Chase,” “Diane”– 36-year-old Lana was cast as the sexually repressed mother of a teenage girl in the screen version of the then-shocking best-seller, “Peyton Place.” Under any circumstances, give the novel’s notoriety, the film would have been a hit, but as luck would have it , just as “Petyon” was finishing its general release, Lana was plunged into what remains to this day, one of the most stunning scandals ever. Her own teenage daughter, Cheryl Crane, had stabbed her mother’s gangster boyfriend, Johnny Stompanato to death, in Lana’s pink boudoir. He was attacking Lana, and Cheryl was defending her mother. It was beyond lurid in every respect. Lana was clearly unfit, screamed the editorials—and some other Hollywood stars.
But Turner’s love letters to Stompanato, released to tabloids, and signed “Lanita” revealed not a rank sensualist, but a little girl, besotted. Then, with close-cropped platinum blonde hair and a severe suit, Turner took the stand at Cheryl’s trial. Her televised testimony, sobbing, heaving—but regal and motherly even in her distress, won the day. Cheryl was acquitted—justifiable homicide. Cheryl would have many troubles for years to come, but in the end, mother and daughter held their bond. “Peyton Place” had been a huge hit, and Turner nominated for her only Oscar.
But now, could Lana Turner continue? Yes, she could. Producer Ross Hunter approached her with that old chestnut about mother love and racial discrimination, “Imitation of Life.” Although the relationship between Turner and screen daughter Sandra Dee, came ominously close to what people suspected about Lana and Cheryl, Turner—offered a big slice of the profits—accepted. Thin and tense, covered in glorious clothes and jewels and given multiple emotional outbursts, Turner was good. Susan Kohner, who played the tormented bi-racial daughter of Turner’s maid—Oscar nominated Juanita Moore–was even better. The movie was a gigantic hit and secured Lana financially. She was forgiven, and had risen, phoenix-like from the ashes of the dead body on the floor of her bedroom.
NOW, mostly under the guidance of Ross Hunter, her roles reflected her notorious reputation—she was “By Love Possessed”…her “Love Has Many Faces”…she was the picture of duplicity in “Portrait in Black”…she was in “Another Time, Another Place” (with another woman’s husband). There were even a couple of silly comedies, “Bachelor in Paradise” and “Whose Got the Action” which revealed a still slender and glamorous Lana, but robbed of most of her youthful vivacity. Comedy, which she’d performed delectably as a young woman, was now beyond her. She had seen too much.
Then, in 1966, a threshold year for Hollywood films, the year that Elizabeth Taylor got fat and cursed up a storm in “Who’s Afraid of “Virginia Woolf?” Lana Turner, similarly deglamorized herself—for about 25 minutes—in her final Ross Hunter production, another oldie, re-tooled, “Madame X.” Turner, although very adept, was hard to take as the young “inappropriate” wife of rising politician Robert Forsythe. But soon enough, bored and neglected, Lana is dallying with Ricardo Montalban, killing Ricardo Montalban (it was an accident, natch), battling with her evil, freshly face-lifted mother-in-law Constance Bennett (“So, you killed your lover, my girl!…you can’t help being what you are any more than you can help being what you aren’t”), and forced to abandon hubby and child, for “the good of the family.”
Lana changes her hair color several times and travels the world, miserable, of course, falling into snowdrifts and bad habits. (Absinthe is her poison.) But, once she gets to Mexico, she is at her nadir, and it is from this point onward, Lana Turner gives a performance than in another time, another place, would have earned her an Oscar nod. But in ’66, the “woman’s picture” was dead.
It’s not just that Turner allows herself to look like crap—which disturbed her greatly in real life—she gets to the heart of the matter. She alters her voice, the way she moves, degraded in Mexico, ennobled at trial, when she tells only so much of the truth, to protect her child—who thinks she is dead. It’s brilliant stuff. Truly.
It was more or less the official end of her major starring career. There were a few more films, better left unspoken of, some TV, and eventually a spiritual awakening that was rather touching, if off-putting for those who expected a bawdy old movie star, riffing on her love life. (Check out Robin Leech’s extraordinary interview with Lana—battling cancer—a year before her death.) She appeared at peace, after a life where peace was something she rarely seemed to pursue.
Turner died in 1995, aged 74, in a Century City apartment complex. Fittingly, it had once been the back lot of 20th Century Fox. (Where she made 1955’s “The Rains of Ranchipur”as an amoral lady luring holy man Richard Burton.)
During one particularly fraught moment, earlier in her career, Lana exclaimed, “My life has been a series of emergencies!”
For a while, yes. (After the Stomanato killing, although she continued to marry, there were no more personal headlines. Unlike Taylor, Turner did not hold onto to obsessive media interest.) But to fans, her life had been a series of dazzling screen appearances, a never-disappointing goddess, who gave all she had, all she wanted to give.
As she said in the person of pagan high priestess Samarra, in “The Prodigal”—“I cannot belong to one man. I belong to…all men!”
Maybe not all–but enough. Lanita, you were quite a woman, and a great star.
AND FOLKS—the year will go on, and these columns won’t always be so giddy. Fair warning.