Saturday, March 7, 2015
The regrettably brief prime of Kathleen Turner
Few actresses can have Meryl Streep's career. Streep is not only an outlier by continuing to work regularly and prominently for nearly 40 years, she's a significant outlier. It's a lot more common for an actress to rule the roost for no more than 10 or 15 years. Hollywood is just not kind to most actresses once they hit their 40s. It chews them up and spits them out.
There may be no better example of this than Kathleen Turner, who came on the scene, climbed to the top very quickly ... and then was gone.
Actually, not gone -- not for good, anyway. But her current incarnation is an unfortunate illustration of the major differences between an aging male star and an aging female one.
I was always aware that Turner was an actress of great beauty and great charisma. I mean, she had charisma with a capital C. She was genuinely spunky. It wasn't until I saw Body Heat on Thursday night, though, that I realized she also possessed a huge amount of sex appeal. Next to the word "sultry" in the dictionary, a picture of Turner in Body Heat appears. In fact, I'm pretty sure it's this picture:
After creating such an impression with her first starring role, Turner quickly made the world her oyster, starring in her most recongizable role in 1984's Romaning the Stone, then adding Peggy Sue Got Married and the sequel to Romancing the Stone, The Jewel of the Nile. The Accidental Tourist and The War of the Roses soon followed, and she also iconically voiced Jessica Rabbit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
The kind of stardom Turner was bound for seemed sustainable. It really felt like she could do no wrong. But around the time V.I. Warshawski came out in 1991, Kathleen Turner was over. The Kathleen Turner we knew previously, who was one of the hottest commodities of the 1980s, was over, in any case. She was only 37 at that point, but that was kind of it.
By the time she materialized in Serial Mom in 1994, I remember the sensation of having already kind of forgotten about and her and been surprised to see her turn up. And here she was being used to satirize the kind of wholesomeness which she had (at times) represented in her career (when she wasn't playing the femme fatale in Body Heat or a prostitute in Crimes of Passion, that is).
But what happened next with Turner was perhaps more unexpected. She started taking roles that played up the huskiness of her voice and some increasingly mannish qualities that were probably exacerbated by the fact that she stopped paying such close attention to maintaining her figure. I guess some of that is on Turner -- I mean, you have to keep going to the gym if you want any hope of sustained viability in Hollywood -- but what seemed unfortunate was that the industry began collectively thinking of her as some kind of monster, some kind of freak.
She kept appearing through the rest of the 1990s in increasingly more obscure roles, occasionally popping up in an arthouse movie (The Virgin Suicides) or an awful cash grab (Baby Geniuses). But it was around the turn of the century that things really changed for her. In 2001 she took the semi-recurring role of Chandler Bing's father on Friends. That's right, his father -- who had undergone a sex change into a woman.
Suddenly this was now how people saw Turner -- a gender-confused figure of fun. After Friends, she was off the scene entirely for five years before doing more voice work in 2006. But no longer was she doing the sexy rabbit. Now she was voicing an oversized circus freak in the animated film Monster House, who looked like this:
She had more TV in her future on Californication, but here again she was presented as repulsive. She played a character whose voracious sexual advances on Evan Handler's Charlie were always unwanted, and not just because she was his boss. She disgusted him, which is no surprise, because Turner was required to play the part over the top, emphasizing the character's basest and most raunchy instincts.
Twenty fourteen found Turner again being cast as a middle-aged woman who is supposed to be gross compared to her former self. She plays the grown-up slut Freda Felcher in Dumb and Dumber To -- a character both Harry and Lloyd lusted after when they were younger, yet whom they greet with looks of revulsion when they meet her again, 20 years later. We aren't supposed to be taken aback by this, because the last 15 years have asked us to adjust our perspective on Turner so that we think of her like they do: an abomination of a human being. At least Dumb and Dumber To doesn't overplay her outrageous behavior in an attempt to turn us even further against her -- more than anything, she just plays the part as exhausted, which may be how Turner really feels at this point. Except for the unfeminine plaid shirt, the following picture is even almost complimentary:
However, let's also not forget that the Farrelly brothers have been known for putting "freaks" in their films, like the character in Shallow Hal who has spina bifida. Is Kathleen Turner just another one of these freaks?
Look, fame is a two-way street. If Turner wanted to extend her prime, she knew what she probably had to do. She had to get work done, and she had to stay in shape. She could have gotten the 25 years that Julia Roberts has gotten, even if she couldn't have gotten Streep's 40. It was her choice to accept the roles offered to her where her curdled femininity was the point being emphasized.
It's just a shame that it had to be this way. If Turner were a man, she could have survived fluctuations in her weight. She could have kept getting cast in lead roles, because stories are written about middle-aged men. They aren't so much written about middle-aged women.
If I'm going to end more positively -- and with someone like Turner, I'd really like to -- I might say that Turner should earn our respect for being a Hollywood survivor. No, she's no longer glamorous, no longer young, no longer sultry. But she's still showing up on screen. She's still on our radar.
She's just working with what she's got. That's what she did when she had the looks and the figure, and that's what she's doing now that she doesn't.
And we should just be grateful that she didn't have the kind of work done that would have turned her into a true monster. At least she's still employable ... which cannot be said for someone like Meg Ryan.