Kathleen's page-turner: Confessions of a screen goddess

One of Hollywood's biggest stars, Kathleen Turner's memoir was always going to arouse interest. But, like many of the characters she plays, she hasn't pulled her punches. By Andrew Gumbel

Wednesday 20 February 2008 01:00

Kathleen Turner has always had the aura of a movie star from Hollywood's golden age. Something about her boundless self-confidence, her refusal to be crossed, her grace and elegance – at least during the heyday of her film-making career – and, of course, that voice, so "filled with the low timbre of temptation", as one interviewer once described it, paraphrasing Raymond Chandler, "that it could... drive a bishop to kick out a stained-glass window".

Turns out, the 53-year-old actress can dish it out pretty well, too. Turner has just published a memoir, Send Yourself Roses, and unlike most of the production-line autobiographies churned out by stars reminiscing about their heyday (usually in the hope that the publicity will earn them a few more juicy roles before retirement), she shows not the remotest shyness in telling it like it was.

She talks about William Hurt, her co-star on her breakout film Body Heat, being an inveterate womaniser and drinker, though she says he's calmed down quite a bit since. Steve Martin, who she worked with on The Man With Two Brains, she describes as "quite stiff and unfunny" when he wasn't in character. Jack Nicholson – mischievous but a lot of fun, though she has no compunction about highlighting the weaknesses in his acting technique. Michael Douglas – almost a love affair, when they met on the set on Romancing The Stone, and then a firm friendship with a man she describes as "a wonderful friend and a terrible enemy".

She couldn't stand Burt Reynolds ("just nasty", she calls him), and she hated working with Nicolas Cage on one of his first big movies, Peggy Sue Got Married. Her description of Cage, who she says has "apologised to me for years about his behaviour", was unflattering enough to prompt a libel suit against her last week filed in the London High Court – a time-honoured tactic by movie stars who know the British libel laws are several degrees stricter than in the United States. The remarkable thing about the book – even the three relatively short paragraphs devoted to Cage – is that, for the most part, it does not come off as bitchy or supercilious, just mercilessly frank.

"Look, he's Coppola's nephew," she writes about Cage. (Francis Ford Coppola directed Peggy Sue Got Married, about a grown woman who relives her teenage years in the 1950s to try to understand the decisions she's made. Cage played the high school bad boy she almost fell for.)

"Coppola truly believed he could do it. The problem was that once Nicolas got the role, he wanted to prove that he wasn't there as a result of nepotism. And so everything Francis wanted him to do, he went against – just to show he wasn't under Francis's wing ... that stupid voice and the fake teeth – oh, honestly, I cringe to think of it."

Cage appears to be less upset about such zingers as he is about her rendering of certain nefarious acts he claims he never actually committed. In a statement read out on a breakfast television show a few days ago, Cage countered: "I have never been arrested for anything in my life, nor have I stolen a dog. I am reaching out to my fans – many of whom are children – so that they know that I do not condone drunk driving or theft. The reason why you've never seen a mug shot of me is because it does not exist."

To which Turner, who was in the studio promoting her book, responded: "I guess what I can say is I'm truly sorry if I caused distress or harm, because one thing is for sure – I never, ever intended to do that."

To her credit, Turner is hardly tender about herself, either, especially when she looks at the terrifying period in the 1990s when she developed an acute case of rheumatoid arthritis, swelled up from all the steroids she took to counter it, lost a lot of her good looks and then developed a drinking problem so bad she actually passed out a few times in public and earned herself less than flattering notices in the New York gossip press.

"I turned from a charming drinker into a really nasty drunk," she writes. "Alcohol is... a disinhibitor, as are steroids. An intense and immense anger would come out of me when I was disinhibited. And with the steroids exacerbated by the alcohol, what a terrible, terrible person I must have been to live with."

Unlike the divas of the past with their multiple marriages, Turner has at least had a relatively straightforward personal life. Her father, who died when she was a teenager, worked for the US State Department, so she got to see the world very young. She's had only two significant relationships, with her first agent, David Guc, and with the man she was married to for more than 20 years, the New York real estate developer Jay Weiss. She and Weiss, who have a daughter, split up two years ago.

What made Turner significant in the development of the movies – certainly, it's what she feels is significant about herself – was her ability to blend the liberated, stand-on-your-own-two-feet ethic of the feminist era with the romance and passion of pre-war Hollywood. Like those earlier stars – Lana Turner, Lauren Bacall, and the rest – she had to contend with being chastised, at least a little, for demonstrating her strength of character on screen. "I find it intriguing," she writes, "that so often 'strong' also turns out to be written into the script as 'evil' when the adjective applies to a woman. Our culture is still afraid of strong women and tends to demonise them."

It escaped nobody's attention, back in 1981, that Body Heat cast her as a manipulative woman similar to the Barbara Stanwyck character in the 1940s classic Double Indemnity, only with a much more forthright way of showing the sexuality that drives her co-star, played by Hurt, to self-destructive frenzy. Stanwyck actually wrote an admiring note to Turner when the movie came out. "The only one who could have done it better," she wrote, "is me."

The irony of all the steamy passions explored in the movie is that Body Heat was in fact shot during a particularly cold Florida winter. She and Hurt popped ice cubes in their mouths before each take so the camera would not pick up the condensation of their warm breath in the cold air. The very first scene they shot was a naked sex scene. They tensed their muscles between takes so they wouldn't shiver while the cameras rolled, all the while quietly hating the crew who were wrapped in scarves and duffel coats. The sweat their bodies were supposed to be generating in the heat of both passion and high summer had to be sprayed on.

Soon after her initial success, Turner developed a reputation in Hollywood for refusing to take any nonsense – a reputation she fully embraces in the book. On The Man With Two Brains, she found a scene in which her character's bottom gets rubbed to be offensive, so she asked for, and got, a body double. When it came to The Jewel of the Nile, the sequel to Romancing The Stone, she hated the script so much – the producers changed screenwriters without telling her – that she threatened to pull out, earning her a $25m breach of contract suit from the studio. Michael Douglas might have been her friend as well as her co-star, but he lost his sense of humour entirely over the episode. (He was also one of the producers.) "You don't have any choices here," he told her.

She refused to buckle to him. As a compromise, Douglas rehired the screenwriter on the original film as well as a specialist script doctor, and together they hashed out a version she could live with. "I learned a very big lesson," she writes. "First, I've never signed to a sequel again. Second, from that point on, I made sure I had script approval." Never in her life has she ever regretted fighting for what she believed in.

And that, for all the pages in her memoir devoted to rather tedious expressions of self-belief, makes her story remarkably good reading. Describing the making of Crimes of Passion, in which she plays a successful fashion designer who takes on the persona of a streetwalker by night, she has no trouble describing the director, Ken Russell, as "a mad, self-sabotaging genius". She wasn't too fond of her co-star, Anthony Perkins, who she describes as taking drugs on set and encouraging her to do the same. He backed down after she called him an "asshole".

Around the same time, she addressed a congressional hearing in Washington on federal funding for the arts, then being slashed to ribbons by the Reagan administration. She got no sympathy from Strom Thurmond, the nonagenarian senator from South Carolina who spent the first half of his career as an unapologetic advocate of racial segregation. He called her "little lady" and "honey"and thought he'd put her in his place. But Turner was, in fact, on the verge of losing her cool. "I had my arm cocked back," she writes. "Thank goodness Joseph Papp grabbed my wrist and pulled it down. But I thought, 'One more 'little lady and Strom's lost his teeth'."

Turner has also managed something those stars from the Thirties and Forties couldn't, which is fashion herself a career comeback. She did two highly publicised turns on stage in New York and London, first as Mrs Robinson in The Graduate and then as Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? She is currently directing her first stage show, Beth Henley's 1980s hit Crimes of the Heart, in New York.

Whatever her reviews – which have mostly been good her whole life – the refreshing thing about Turner is that she doesn't, ultimately, seem to care what other people think. "I feel about this book like I feel about my acting roles," she writes. "Send Yourself Roses is my truth as I see it. Every story has many truths. Take from mine whatever you will."

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