Lana Turner, 1920-1995, all-time sex bomb, by John Lyttle
The movie was They Won't Forget and it previewed at the Warner Brothers Hollywood Theatre in June 1937. Lana Turner had only one small scene, and, as her biographers Joe Morella and Edward Z Epstein knowingly noted, no acting ability was required - "just screen impact". All the aspiring starlet had to do was walk down the street. Wearing a sweater. A sweater so tight every curve is a come-on. Lana hadn't seen the rushes, so her appearance came as a shock: "A girl came on screen. A Thing came on screen. She moved sinuously, undulating fore and aft. Mother and I scrooched in our seats. My mother said 'My Lord'. Someone in the audience whistled. There were gasps. Then the Thing was gone." Lana ran from the picture palace, "trying not to bounce". It was her celluloid debut. She was 15.

No one really knew it then - not even the director Mervyn LeRoy, who would take Turner from Warners to MGM on a "personal contract" - but They Won't Forget launched a new star. It would also be Hollywood's cruellest treatment of Lana Turner: the ripe paint-box eroticism that made her instantly memorable, and, at the beginning, oddly innocent, is just as instantly punished. Minutes after her girlish shimmy, she's raped and dead, her provocative - no, let's be accurate, her pornographic - sexuality apparently inviting tragedy. It's a sub-text that would, two decades later, explode into perfect tabloid headlines, for Turner's adolescent dreams of fame, power and riches realised early, would soon transform the "real" - Julia "Judy" - Turner into her manufactured persona, living the image until the titles of her canon (Betrayed, Flame and the Flesh, Slightly Dangerous, By Love Possessed, Persecution) became a reality and the star was indeed a leading player in an endless melodrama.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Prudish MGM knew they had an audience aphrodisiac on their hands, but what to do with her? They couldn't control Turner as they had controlled Crawford, Harlow, even Garbo. She was not, and never would be, discreet. Perhaps it was the upshot of her raw, small-town, blue-collar origins or maybe just a stand against the conventions that said ladies could not be tramps. Whatever, she hit every nightspot on both coasts, invariably in the company of a different man, and she blithely used these studs-about-town as producers had traditionally used young girls: wham bam, thank you Sam. Turner, on her way to seven marriages, simply didn't care. MGM wanted her to be genteel, but she knew no shame.

On screen and off, she always seemed to be hungry for it, and moreover, seemed happy to get it, as her straightforward grappling with Clark Gable, Robert Taylor, Kirk Douglas and, most memorably, John Garfield in The Postman Always Rings Twice amply illustrated. Pauline Kael, film critic of the New Yorker, noted that the studio "dressed her in impeccable white, as if to conceal her sweaty, murderous impulses", but Turner, as usual, looked as if she'd be happier out of her costumes, which, as Kael also noted, she didn't wear well anyway.

She was no clotheshorse (like Hayworth) and no comedienne (like Lombard). She couldn't sing or dance (like Grable) and she was never an actress, despite an Oscar nomination for Peyton Place.

Turner had no way to defuse herself - to be coy - and this is what makes her extraordinary for her times, and palpably different from, say, Monroe or Gardner (each of whom knew pain). Entirely machine-tooled for public consumption from the moment of her supposed discovery at Schwabs ice-cream parlour, sipping a soda, she was, at the same time, an authentic creature of appetite.

That's one unexplored reason why the then dominant female audience not only identified with her, but stuck by her when the male audience had moved on to fresher faces, firmer bodies. The other reason is old news - scandal: in 1958, the star's 14-year-old daughter, Cheryl, stabbed to death Mama's sex toy, the gangster Johnny Stompanato. It should have been the end of Turner as a fantasy surrogate, but she actually gained potency. The killing played as just another scene from a Turner vehicle (from, say, the kiss kiss bang bang Johnny Eager). Indeed, within the year, she would come back bigger than ever, essaying a negligent mother, complete with a younger lover, in the aptly monikered Imitation of Life; the fusion between Lana Turner, character, and Lana Turner, person, finally complete. She had become her own soap opera and that, as the screen fades to black, is her true legacy to Sharon Stone, Pamela Anderson, Anna Nicole Smith and the Next Big Thing - talent is fine, but nothing succeeds like hot sex and celebrity for its own sake

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