Thursday, June 29, 2006


"Rises to the heights of mid-period Lana Turner," remarked Pauline Kael of an actress's performance.* It was in no way a compliment. Over the years Lana built and sustained a reputation as an actress whose personal life was far more compelling than any performance she ever gave. Like most Hollywood reputations, it was undeserved.

For such a lousy actress, Lana was in an awful lot of good movies, among them They Won't Forget (one of the most memorable bit roles of all time), Johnny Eager, Ziegfeld Girl, The Postman Always Rings Twice and The Three Musketeers, as well as some campy but entertaining ones, including Peyton Place, Portrait in Black and Madame X. And then there are two the Siren and others would call genuinely great, The Bad and the Beautiful and Imitation of Life.

Lana's longtime pal Ava Gardner has a shorter list of still-watchable films, and is enjoying something of a revival. The Siren doesn't begrudge that to Gardner, who was one hell of a character. But hey, Lana was a good-time gal too, even marrying Artie Shaw before Ava did. (Perhaps Lana and Ava's bond was shared suffering. Shaw doesn't seem to have been much of a catch, ungallantly referring to Lana as an "airhead" in a late-life interview. For their part, both actresses strongly implied Shaw's performance talent was only musical.)

Of course there is a huge history of actresses who break into films based solely on their magical looks. Lana's distinction was to get a break based on how she filled a sweater. As she walked across a street to her doom in They Won't Forget, who could concentrate on the foreshadowing? Lana's breasts seemed to move independently of Lana, as an awestruck Mervyn LeRoy noted.

As much as the Siren wants to believe in universal sisterhood, there is no denying that dazzling beauty can make a woman off-putting to her own sex. But from the beginning Lana didn't arouse that kind of hostility from other women, instead suggesting the sort of goddess who would still be kind to the ugly duckling. Women liked her.

They could see that in real and reel life, Lana knew her beauty was her best card. Instead of playing that hand with icy hauteur, like Hedy Lamarr, Lana suggested a cheerful, but slightly sad, resignation to the ephemeral nature of her good luck. Sure, one day I'll awaken as a crone, she seemed to say; but in the meantime, I'm having one hell of a good time. In Ziegfeld Girl, why would anyone really want her to settle down with James Stewart's whining character? She's the only one of the girls who really seems to use stardom for all it's worth. She gets the men, the jewels, the adulation, then throws off the misfortunes visited upon her by the Breen Office, rises from her bed and proudly walks off into eternity.

In The Postman Always Rings Twice, probably the peak of Lana's looks if not her talent, the power turns to desperation. See her clinging to John Garfield, throwing every bit of her allure at him like a spear. Can't he see, for God's sake? Lana knows, she knows she's never going to get more beautiful and she sure as hell isn't going to get any smarter. She has to get away from Cecil Kellaway (Flickhead is right, that casting was bizarre), and Garfield's feckless character is unfortunately the only way out. When what she wants is murder, even Lana has to put some muscle into it. The result is that Lana's scenes of persuasion with Garfield are not subtle, but they are entirely true to a woman actually having to work on a man for the first time, after years of having them roll over and play dead.

Vincente Minnelli said he wanted Lana, not Jennifer Jones, for Madame Bovary, but was told by the censors that Lana would bring too much blatant sexuality to the story of adultery. The director had to wait to work with her, but with The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), he got Lana's best performance:

Lana was at the height of her career, one of the top sex symbols in films. Those who made easy judgments said that in being manufactured into a personality, one very important cog had been left out: a consuming talent. This to me was unfair.

I agreed with John Houseman's assessment of Lana's acting ability. 'On a long curve, she's never been capable of sustaining a whole picture as an actress,' he told me. 'But on the short curve she's very good.'

My challenge was to make her portrayal a series of short curves.

"A series of short curves;" clearly he understood her as few directors did. Lana's character is an actress haunted by a dead, brilliant father. But the character is also terrified that she is all beauty and no talent, which must have cut pretty close. Lana nails every scene, but the Siren's favorite is the sequence where Kirk Douglas turns her into an actress in a bizarre historical epic (obviously meant to evoke Gone with the Wind in scope if not plot, David O. Selznick being a loose model for Douglas's character). Here you have Vincente Minnelli coaxing a performance out of an insecure beauty, who is playing an insecure beauty having a performance coaxed out of her. Years later in his memoirs, I Remember It Well, Minnelli said his trick was to blame everyone except Lana for any retake. Darling, you were wonderful, but the lights weren't right, the sound man messed up, etc. By the end Lana was probably convinced she was the most competent person on set. It shows.

Seven years later Douglas Sirk managed the same feat in Imitation of Life. Before we move on to that masterpiece, though, we have to have "the paragraph." That's what Turner and her only child, Cheryl Crane, always called the celebrated episode that landed them both in court and gave them gossip immortality. Any piece on Lana, you see, has to have a paragraph about the death of Johnny Stompanato.

You could write a book, and a whopping big book at that, about Worthless Paramours of the Hollywood Glamor Queens. Maybe the Siren will one day, if she decides her psyche is strong enough to take the strain. In any such book Johnny Stompanato would take pride of place, and that would be the only time he ever came out ahead without a woman propping him up. He was a smalltime hood parlaying his loud, coarse good looks into something of a gigolo sideline. Lana, whose string of husbands was described by John Updike as "the seven dwarfs," never did have much taste in men, but here her very sanity seems to have deserted her. Presumably steamy interludes with Stompanato were punctuated by terrifying beatings. One night the teenage Cheryl, hearing her mother cry out and thinking Lana was being murdered, rushed downstairs and grabbed a knife. That knife wound up in Stompanato, though the story of precisely how will probably never convince everyone. Every once in a while Turner Classic Movies runs footage of Lana at the inquest, and she's believable, all right. The Siren doesn't think for a moment that Cheryl was (or is) covering for Mom. But does anyone, let alone a hardened tough, actually run into a knife?

Anyway, end paragraph. Those wanting a rundown on the aftermath, and Cheryl's later relationship with her mom, which stayed pretty warm despite the late unpleasantness, should turn to the wonderful fansite Lana Turner Online.

The Siren always enjoyed Scorsese's tribute to Lana's Postman entrance with Cathy Moriarty in Raging Bull, since the later relationship with DeNiro vividly echos Lana/Stompanato. Even better is the restaurant scene in L.A. Confidential, although something doesn't ring quite true about the way the actress plays Lana. It seems closer to Lana's movie persona than what she may or may not have been like offscreen.

But by 1959, maybe it was hard to know the difference. Certainly the huge box office for Imitation of Life owed a lot to people thinking it was just that, as the plot has Lana's screen daughter Sandra Dee falling in love with mom's boyfriend. Lana's best moments, though, are early, before her character has become a walking hostess gown. The beach scene, where Lana's character of Lora Meredith first encounters Annie (Juanita Hall) and her daughter, is perfect. Check out Lana's reaction to hearing that the straight-haired, olive-complected little girl romping on the beach is Hall's daughter: surprise, then hasty erasure of that surprise, then gooey "understanding." You could put that clip in an online dictionary as a hyperlink from "well-meaning white."

In some ways the most difficult aspect of Turner's role is the early part of the movie, where Annie just sort of "naturally" slips into being a maid. Even in 1959, would the audience believe all black women automatically start bustling around a white woman's kitchen? Maybe not, but they sure believed the relief showed by Lana's character. She executes the pro forma protest at Annie's new role, but you see her relaxing more with each mundane task that her guest takes over. They are slipping into the roles society has laid out for them. Lana is far more comfortable having a black woman as a maid than sitting on a beach wondering why the woman's daughter looks white. The more Hall becomes a mammy figure, the more relaxed Lana gets.

Later, success brings a series of ever-more extravagant gowns, probably sanctioned by Lana herself since wardrobe approval was a glamor gal's most cherished privilege. They are perfect, though, for showing the encroaching artificiality of Lora Meredith's life. Lana's reactions get more stilted, as more and more Lora herself doesn't know when she's offstage and not playing a role she adapted long ago in a cold-water flat. As for Annie's daughter, played as an adult by Susan Kohner, Lana's understanding of her doesn't move beyond that first reaction on the beach--that is, not until the final moments of the film. Lana still doesn't know how to talk to the woman, but Kohner's stark grief has Lana really looking at her at last.

Any one of these movies would earn Lana a blog-a-thon, in the Siren's eyes. I haven't even touched on Lana as a sociology student (!!!) in love with gangster Johnny Eager, another role well worth checking out. And That Little Round-Headed Boy definitely has me wanting to see Somewhere I'll Find You, to check out Lana's comic timing.

*In case you want to know, Kael was talking about Candace Bergen in Carnal Knowledge.

Last night found the Siren ready to start throwing crockery, as her Internet connection is down for absolutely no good reason. She had forgotten that one of New York City's charms is definitely not Time Warner Cable. Please be patient, as the slobs at that company inform her they can't possibly send anyone for a few days. Mr. Campaspe has put up this post for her, but the Siren asks you to be patient with any roughness in the layout and the lack of links. She will come aboard as soon as possible to clean up and contribute to comments, but alas, it may be a while. Please share your thoughts on the piece anyway; it will give the Siren something to look forward to, aside from a long wait for the cable guy. See Flickhead, Coffee Coffee Coffee and That Little Round-Headed Boy (all listed on the sidebar) for more on the fabulous Lana.


NowSmellThis said...

I have nothing intelligent to add about Lana Turner, but wanted to offer a belated welcome back to New York :-)

Michael Guillen said...

What a thoroughly entertaining write-up, with its sharp Kael hook at the beginning right on through its assessment of Lana's career peppered by peer group anecdotes!! Do you really consider Lana a "lousy" actress?!! Or were you facetiously commenting upon Kael?

I agree that "They Won't Forget" is one of the most memorable bit roles of all time. It's included in Carole Langer's TCM documentary on Lana. Although Lana's daughter, Cheryl Crane, commented that when Lana first saw the scene projected, she went red, and always hated the appellation "the sweater girl" when it as applied to her. However, if I were a woman as voluptuous as Lana Turner, I would be glad that the film captured what time invariably takes away, and I sincerely appreciate your comments of how Lana was perceived by other women.

I love the dirt on Artie Shaw!! And your description of Lana's feminine ploys in "Postman" makes me want to watch that film all over again with heightened enthusiasm.

"Here you have Vincente Minnelli coaxing a performance out of an insecure beauty, who is playing an insecure beauty having a performance coaxed out of her." That is such a flawless comment!! Thank you for yet another pellucid insight among so many!

Richard Gibson said...

I knew nothing about Lana Turner and have only seen three of her films, this post provided me with a lot of insight.

Exiled in NJ said...

If I were a critic I would simply say that your essay 'touches all the bases.'

In Cain's novel, Nick is Greek, Papadakis, like many diner owners where I grew up. The film cleans him up, and sentimentalizes him, except for his love of the bottle.

I loved your linking Lana in the doorway with Raging Bull. As I read your comment, my mind wandered to another doorway, at the end of The Searchers. As I recall, Ford was paying tribute to the past also.

Bill said...

Having read the recent biography of Ava Gardner (Ava Gardner: ?Love is Nothing?), my suspicion of Ava is confirmed ... a lovely, interesting woman who really isn't in a heck of a lot of good movies. ('Iguana' is my favourite.) Thugh I think she might have been better on screen if she and others had given her the opportunity.

As for Lana, I know little about her. But I do know I loved "The Bad and the Beautiful" and I'm due to watch it again. And while I've been vaguely aware of the Stompanato business, I've never actually read up on the details.

But my curiousity about Lana Turner is now piqued. Time to watch The Bad and the Beautiful and Postman again. And Imitation of Life which, surprisingly, I've never seen! (Not sure why.)

Koneko said...

Sorry this is off the subject of Lana... but I just wanted to welcome you all back home too! I am very happy for my dear Campaspe!

Vertigo's Psycho said...

Hey, I think Candice Bergen is on-target in Carnal Knowledge, even if Ann-Margret just about walks off with it (Pauline wasn't impressed with her either, though). However, I do really miss Kael- even though she could be rude about it, she was never afraid to throughly analyze a performance, which I don't see much off in major reviews anymore.

Great observations on Turner- I never thought to ponder Lora's relationship with Sarah Jane, as usually discussions of the film separate the two mother/daughter relationships. I love the fact Lora does firmly chastise Sarah Jane when the discontent girl starts turning a cold shoulder to her loving mother.

In Turner's early roles (Ziegfeld Girl, Johnny Eager and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde come to mind) she shows substantial ability as a fine screen talent of considerable skill and emotional depth. Her career certainly had its highs and lows, but I don't know how anyone could really view her as a "non-talent" given her body of work. Oh well, Kael picked on Crawford a lot, too (and compared Turner as a "bad actress" to Crawford once), even though she also had a lot of peaks to go with her valleys as a performer.