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JACK MATHEWS

Kathleen Turner: Busy Career Of Contrasts

March 11, 1987|JACK MATHEWS

Earlier in her film career, after "Body Heat " and just before "Romancing the Stone," actress Kathleen Turner found herself being routinely identified in newspaper articles as Kathleen (Scum Queen) Turner.

The nickname wasn't one that she would have chosen for herself, but, at the moment, it was vaguely flattering. It meant that her performance in the screwball comedy "The Man With Two Brains," in which Steve Martin called her a scum queen and kicked her into a mud puddle, had made an impression.

Few people even remember that movie now. In the last four years, she has made six more movies and has established herself as one of film's boldest and most versatile actresses.

The label that journalists are now attaching to her name is Academy Award nominee. After being overlooked in consecutive years for "Romancing the Stone" and "Prizzi's Honor," Turner finally received a best actress nomination for "Peggy Sue Got Married."

"The most important thing for me was getting the nomination," Turner said, during a recent stay at the Hotel Bel-Air. "It meant that I wouldn't have to spend two weeks telling friends, 'It's all right, really, it's OK.' Everybody feels so bad for you when they think you should get it and you don't."

Many critics would rank other Turner performances above the one the academy nominated. She was a legitimate best actress candidate for her first film performance, as the black widow in Lawrence Kasdan's 1981 "Body Heat." And she was heavily touted for nominations for both "Romancing the Stone" and "Prizzi's Honor."

Turner won the best actress award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. two years ago, for her work in both "Romancing the Stone" and "Crimes of Passion," in which she played a fashion designer who moonlighted as a skid row hooker.

When you consider the films she has done in her brief, busy career, you'd think Turner had some grand scheme of keeping audiences and critics off guard. The comedy doesn't get any broader than "Man With Two Brains," and the sexuality doesn't get any steamier than "Body Heat" (or any kinkier than "Crimes of Passion").

Turner says the assumption that she plotted her course is pretty silly.

"People say, 'Oh, what intelligent choices you've made. Bull. I was just trying to get jobs, that's all. I'm not saying I would have done 'Porky's' if there weren't these others. I wouldn't have. But I was just reading scripts and doing the ones that I liked that were offered to me.

"You can't say, 'Well, now I'll do a character that contrasts with the last one. You don't even know what scripts are out there."

Whatever scripts are out there featuring a strong woman in the lead, Turner is now reading them. "Romancing the Stone" put her on the A list with Debra Winger, Jessica Lange, Sissy Spacek and the few others regarded as bankable box-office stars. In fact, Turner replaced Winger as the star of "Peggy Sue Got Married" when a back ailment forced Winger to pull out, and Winger ended up with the lead in the current "Black Widow," a role Turner rejected.

Still, Turner seems less concerned with her image and her star status than most of her A-list colleagues. She just finished a film in Italy, with an Italian director and a mostly Italian cast, for the independent Cinecom International.

"Julia, Julia," due for release this summer, is the story of an American widow whose new life is disrupted when her dead husband returns. But is he alive, or is he Memorex?

"It's a very spooky and a very strong film, I think," Turner said. "In Europe, they are less afraid of emotion, both in terms of sexuality and things like grief."

Turner said that for one scene, her character breaks down, after finding her son missing, and begins howling uncontrollably.

"It is very raw and very uncomfortable," she said. "I'm not sure we would have done it this way in the U.S."

You cannot be sure too many actresses would have agreed to do it, either. But just as she did in "Crimes of Passion," a movie that included a series of graphic and dramatically humiliating sex scenes, Turner stepped into the breach.

"I made a commitment to do it. One of the things I'm proudest of is that once I'm committed, I will follow through, at the risk of looking stupid or failing or being really bad. When I'm doing it, I don't make any apology for it."

If there is a thread connecting Turner's various characters, it is that most of them have required acting within acting; they are real women acting out fantasies. And none is a victim.

"I do not play victims; I can't," she said. "I don't agree with the victim mentality, I don't confess to it, and it's just the one thing I will not do."

Even with her status on the actress A list, Turner said it is still hard to bring Hollywood into the '80s in terms of its approach to women. The main frustration is that after finding that rare script that taps into the problems of contemporary women, the men in charge don't want to make the movie.

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