The mother of all mothers: When she arrived, in 'Body Heat', there was talk of Bacall. A decade later, she had sunk to the depths of 'Undercover Blues'. Now Kathleen Turner is pulling her weight again

AT HER best, Kathleen Turner is unstoppably larger than life. But in these politically correct, liposucked days that's a perilous claim on screen glory. For size is sometimes nothing but too much flesh. So pretzel-gaunt director Herb Ross prevailed upon Turner to lose weight before committing Undercover Blues to celluloid. Whatever the first flatus of wrath and humiliation, she consented (her career had not been an unmitigated success lately) and dropped as much as 30 lb. That's a lot of puddings and fried chicken, and a lot of pain and grief in the losing (sweaty dreams of revenge in the gym), especially if one's forte is to be 'larger than life'. But it is mortification when the object of the exercise turns out to be . . . Undercover Blues] You can hear Turner's unique lioness growl, 'I lose 30 pounds for this crock]'

Now, mercifully, Turner is back, full-bodied. There are rich suggestions of maternal amplitude, yeasty bosom and bunched muscle pushing at the cardigans and trim denim skirts she sports as Serial Mom. Her fierce smile now seems to promise a shoulder charge more than a slinky embrace. She's redolent of home baking, of loaded plates put before her family every dinnertime . . . and of every decent mother's urge to make jam out of anyone who utters a mean word about her guys.

Serial Mom isn't that good; it might come apart like tissue in water if Turner wasn't there to give it body and elan. But the movie supplies the answer to a question that is now 14 years old - what is it about Kathleen Turner? Is she a genuine and rare actress, a classic femme fatale, or is there something comic about her, something disconcertingly manic or hyper-animated? Serial Mom is a live-action cartoon (maybe the dominant genre in American film today) and it reminded me of Turner's great moment, as the voice of Jessica in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, when her sorrowful sexpot sulk says she isn't really bad - she was just drawn that way.

Of course, she had a potent debut, in 1981; and sometimes we have a hard time recognising stars if their introduction sets up a misleading level of expectation. (Lauren Bacall was never again as good as in those first two pictures she made with Bogart - and Turner was compared with Bacall.) She was 27, lethally smart and alluring in Body Heat, a title that alluded to the weather in Florida and to some oven within the very available, seething and treacherous flesh of Kathleen Turner. She played a wicked woman, her body temperature a couple of degrees above normal, incongruously named Matty Walker, who set William Hurt up to kill her husband and take the fall. The character and the actress put themselves on show for Hurt and us. They made one burning body longing to have its silky clothes torn away. Suckers never noticed that the sweet availability didn't quite match the dreadful intelligence in Turner's smoked eyes. We were hooked, and so we didn't heed the warning she uttered: 'You're not too smart, are you? I like that in a man.' As if dumbness were mustard on a hot dog.

Film buffs fell for her. More than most, they dream of the second coming of film noir and Barbara Stanwyck. The masochistic stud idiot viewer was infatuated with the spectacular laying of a fresh lovely on the way to going to jail for her. Body Heat was not played for laughs, but there was no missing the poker-faced comedy of Turner as a Medusa who kept from laughing by faking orgasms and who regarded William Hurt as if he were a timeless hard-on instead of melting ice cream. Somehow contempt and repressed mirth kept Turner's eyes brimming with desire.

Excitement mounted when she did a funny version of Matty Walker for the Steve Martin film, The Man With Two Brains (1983). Andrew Sarris, a critic raised on Hepburn, Lombard and Irene Dunne, said: 'One might say that a star is born when one begins mentally casting her for everything in sight. And so it is for me with Kathleen Turner at this moment in film history.' Time's Richard Schickel called her 'the first authentically mysterious feminine presence since Garbo'. Enthusiasts observed that, as the daughter of a diplomat, she had lived in Cuba, Venezuela and London. A graduate of the University of Maryland, she liked to read] Henry James] Crossing her gold-card legs, she talked of making a movie from the Robert Stone novel, A Flag for Sunrise. One day, she said, when she was older, she would like to try the Cocteau play, The Human Voice, about a desperate woman on the phone to her lover - immortalised on film by Anna Magnani. And Turner was pretty good, in 1989, as Maggie in a Broadway revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

But something went adrift. Maybe it was unfair to expect Hollywood to find material for a sophisticated actress. Or maybe the mystery Schickel perceived had something to do with a talent that was far from automatic or well-behaved. Turner would have major hits: the two films where she was a romance novelist caught up in adventures that top her books, Romancing the Stone and Jewel of the Nile. She handled the action of those films and made a stormy on-screen romance with Michael Douglas. But the role was cliched and she seemed conventional. Turner herself didn't enjoy the pictures and she did the sequel only after legal pressure was exerted. And so she got a reputation for being difficult, which didn't mean she wasn't imperious, wilful, stubborn, sometimes wrong and less than easy casting.

The precision so seductive in Body Heat was gone. Some of her choices were wayward: Ken Russell's Crimes of Passion; A Breed Apart; Giulio and Giulia. In Prizzi's Honor (1985), directed by John Huston, she got a little lost in the more absorbing duel between Jack Nicholson and Anjelica Huston. Her hired killer seemed an unfleshed concept, short of humour or motivation. When the film finally dispatched her, no one wept or missed her. In Peggy Sue Got Married (1986) she worked hard to be both the 40-year-old and the high-school girl. But neither the script nor Coppola's direction helped her much. No one on board seemed too sure why the film was being made, and Turner was hesitant playing romance straight.

By 1988, it was a stretch to recollect that she had once been sophisticated. With Burt Reynolds, she made a hash of remaking Howard Hawks' His Girl Friday. It was called Switching Channels and, amid its disarray, Turner seemed too loud, too crude, and too much - the weight was showing. She took the thankless role of the wife in The Accidental Tourist for Lawrence Kasdan, who had written and directed Body Heat, but she seemed stunned into passivity by her unlikeable part and unable to give it life.

Then magic swooped down, in the shape of an hour-glass figure. Robert Zemeckis, who had made the original Romancing the Stone, asked Turner to provide the voice for Jessica Rabbit, the voluptuous chanteuse who loves her bunny because he makes her laugh. In fact, Turner just did the talking. Amy Irving sang the songs (despite Turner being an enthusiastic singer). Jessica is one of the great lulus in American film - breathy, comic, camp, sans lingerie (we now know), but very human, ballsy and about as erotic as pen, ink and smooching voice could contrive. Close your eyes and you can hear Turner letting rip and feel the hot, saucy blast of her humour. (On camera, she's never been so flagrant or free.) It's enough to remind one that the line of aggressive female comics in American film begins and ends with Mae West, another actress who sometimes seems drawn on film.

A year later, in 1989, Turner was reunited with her Romancing the Stone colleagues, Michael Douglas and Danny DeVito, for The War of the Roses. That film has many lapses and excesses, not least the screen time given to DeVito's character. But its portrait of a marriage emptied out of love and filling up with malice is uncanny. Turner's eyes bulged with comic mayhem; but the fun was often chilled by her implacability. The Strindbergian action gave fuel to her huge energy. The picture was too disturbing for many audiences - yet, played as a cartoon, on TV, it might have launched a series. Cartoon would have given it a kinder edge, for The War of the Roses had a crazed lust for damage that is generally confined to the divorce courts. To put it mildly, ordinary naturalism was not Turner's medium.

By then, her smile was more credible as a warrior's glare. Her voice had become increasingly difficult to place. In interviews, she could hardly say two lines in a row with the same accent or intonation. Sometimes with those headlight eyes, the 'Latin' voice and the glaring persona she was like Carmen Miranda. All of a sudden, it was hard to think of parts she might play, unless Hollywood wanted to run with mature lady gangsters or pirates. Years before Serial Mom there was a hint of murder about her or of a dragon who would devour all the air that regular mortals needed.

V I Warshawski (1991) was not the answer to that dream, though one can appreciate the notion that Turner could play the tough private detective of Sara Paretsky's novels, a woman who might break your knuckles or wisecrack you back if you dared call her a private dick. But Warshawski had nothing going for it except the concept: the plot, the script, the direction, the rest of the cast bespoke a vehicle without wheels. Turner looked variously bored, plump, at the end of her tether and reproachful.

In the early Nineties, she made two other films - House of Cards and Undercover Blues, and there's not a good word to say about either of them. In 10 years, she had come, and come close to going. Her weight showed (even in happier days, when she was on the cover of Vanity Fair, she had been dressed in solid blacks). She was 40, which is something American actresses hope to avoid. Her rare personality needed a lead part in some unusual amalgam of life and cartoon. But what reason did she or anyone have to suppose that such a part would appear again? One Jessica Rabbit in a career is luck already.

Not that Turner played her situation for pathos. She seemed happy to have made a few pictures, and a few of them good. Beyond that, if the public or casting directors didn't like her - screw them. Early on in her career she'd talked of rejection with a boldness she hadn't needed then, but which sounded honest and durable: 'All you can do is get on to the next audition. In my case, though, it's usually politics that do me in. There's a tradition of placating a certain element within our industry, and I'm not very good at that. To my knowledge, no one has ever said I'm no good, but they've certainly said, 'Well, I don't know if I could tolerate her' - which is just as damning in terms of getting the part.'

John Waters' Serial Mom might have been made for her. Who else could look like America's ideal rose-cheeked Mom, granted that her smile was too intense and her response to opposition a little over the top? Waters has admitted that he wrote the script with Julie Andrews in mind. But Andrews has never felt like an American; she is the archetypal English nanny, cool, orderly, but without the possessive passion of a mother - let alone the Mother of all mothers.

Once the script was done, Waters met Turner and came to understand his own work better - 'I knew she had it. She has that inner kind of humour, and rage . . . She enjoys being evil. I know that from The War of the Roses. And she is classy. People said, is the character like Dan Quayle's wife? But she's the opposite: she's a liberal, a good mother - she would have voted for Clinton. She's the mother most of my friends wish they'd had. She just has this one problem. She overreacts and kills people.'

The satire of Serial Mom didn't actually sweep the American box office. You could argue that much of America is too fearful to make such jazzy play with a sacred institution. The gay abandon of John Waters' style has seldom won a mainstream following. Or maybe the movie is itself a little thin, or under-developed. The situation is comic, and the view of celebrity falling on a killer fits the age of Bobbitts and Menendezes. But Serial Mom has a weakness, I think, one that rather strands Turner's courageous performance: her spasms of murderousness don't grow out of the real, distorting pressures put upon mothers now - to be maternal, supportive, income-earning, child-rearing, beddably delectable and above suspicion. As it is, Turner's character just turns a little wild now and then, whereas the burgeoning rage in the actress's eyes seems to yearn to be grounded in that impossible collection of roles - being motherly.

Still, Serial Mom made a big impact - there are movies that people notice even if they don't go to see them. And Turner may have altered her image for good. It's hard to see her being cast again as a Matty Walker, without some monstrous comic shadow. Being a mom made 40 acceptable. She has moved from the aura of Lauren Bacall to that of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Of course, that may expose her to camp projects until we all weary of repetition. But Turner may yet join the pantheon of great American movie mothers, most of them a little crazy, but so resolute we're afraid to laugh: Stella Dallas and Mildred Pierce; Margaret Wycherly, Cagney's Ma in White Heat; Shelley Winters in Bloody Mama; Mrs Bates in Psycho . . .

This is rarefied territory, to be sure, and Turner is not likely to make life easy for herself. But there is no other actress who has her appetite or zest for violent comic outrage. Suppose she played a sitcom actress with a weight problem, a manic depressive of bingeing and cruel diets, driven mad by the sight and smell of food, and beginning to feed on . . . her young, her lovers? I know, that would need Bunuel. Why not? The Spanish voice, those years in Cuba and Venezuela, the arrogance of a tango dancer - Turner seems infected with a more exotic kind of melodrama than America handles easily.

'Serial Mom' (18) opens on Friday.

(Photographs omitted)

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