Kathleen Turner: There’s nothing liberated or strong about the femme fatale
The Hollywood star reflects on being sexualised on screen and how it can lead to being perceived as a "trophy"
Kathleen Turner may be famous for her smoky, sexy voice in films – but in real life, the Hollywood legend is huskier and more sultry than I’d imagined humanly possible. So when Turner tells me with a gravelly, slightly dangerous laugh, “Women should never be underestimated, doll,” I feel I’m on a film set and she’s just delivered her killer line.
Turner is here to talk about femmes fatales, the subject of her Radio 4 documentary. From Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not to Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice, Turner is thrilled by women in movies who used sex like a pistol, “able to get what they want by using their wiles on susceptible men”.
Of course, Turner is herself an iconic femme fatale, having become a star in 1981 playing the erotic, cold-hearted Matty Walker in Body Heat. At one point, in an unbuttoned, clingy white shirt, she witheringly tells William Hurt’s cocky lawyer, “You’re not too smart. I like that in a man.”
How did Turner, 62, feel about being synonymous with sex?
“I didn’t realise I was being viewed in a sexual way until the film came out. While doing the movie, I used to literally have nightmares that I would tell Larry [director Lawrence Kasdan] about. I dreamt I’d throw a smouldering look at Bill [Hurt] and then the audience would start to giggle. I just thought, ‘They’re never going to buy this. They’re never going to buy me.’ But they did!”
She titillated audiences but also got the ultimate compliment from 1940s femme fatale and Double Indemnity star Barbara Stanwyck. “After Body Heat came out, I got a note from Barbara saying only she could have done it better. It was rather wonderful.”
Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice
Suddenly being seen so sexually by others altered the way Turner saw herself. “I’d always thought of myself – and still do – as an attractive American woman, but I never thought I had some extraordinary power, which one does think of in terms of femmes fatales. So it made me take rather a sharp look at myself. I had so much fun doing that movie.”
What was less enjoyable, she says, was the way men began to treat her.
“Body Heat immediately made me a target for all kinds of men who wanted to prove something by attracting me, by controlling me, I guess. All these ridiculous ideas of me being a trophy. I’ve never lived in LA, but when I went out there, I would hear that certain actors had competitions to see who could get me.”
She adds, with shattering sarcasm, “That’s absolutely thrillllling, isn’t it?”
Did any of the men – she doesn’t say which red-blooded actors – win in the end? “No, doll. I thought that was pretty stupid. It just made me feel so objectified that I had no desire to do anything with these people.”
While Turner says that it was huge fun to play alluring, manipulative women, she doesn’t think being a femme fatale is a sensible model for life. “I don’t think it’s admirable. Ideally, a woman should be able to enjoy her attractiveness as she wishes without needing to weaponise it, uh?”
I wonder if there’s some liberation in the way femmes fatales eschew patriarchy and control men by whatever means they can. “I don’t think femmes fatales were ever liberated or considered themselves to be liberated,” Turner says. “At the heart of a femme fatale is the feeling that she is always controlled by men and she can only use sex to get back at them. There’s no strength in that.”
Strength is something Turner has plenty of. At the peak of her career in the mid-90s, the Oscar and twice Golden Globe winner was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. Dealing with the side effects of medication, she didn’t feel like the sex symbol she’d been in Body Heat, until she came back to work in 2000 and starred in the West End as The Graduate’s Mrs Robinson.
She says that surviving in Hollywood – although she’s at pains to point out she’s always lived in thespian New York – is down to her innate confidence in her ability. “I have to say, and this is odd but true, I always felt quite sure of myself as an actor. I wasn’t so sure of myself in my personal life, but in the acting world I never felt out of place or threatened by the male versus female power nonsense. Those men can’t do what I do, and I don’t wanna do what they do.”
Where did that enviable self-belief come from? “It’s a question I’ve been working on for years and doll, I do not have the answer.”
Turner doesn’t think the femme fatale really exists in today’s films (“Female characters today aren’t making use of men”), but Scarlett Johansson, who she’s seen on stage twice, is as close as it gets. “She’s got something inherent. It doesn’t have to be obvious, it’s just part of that woman. I think she’s got it. Emma Stone has that power, too, in a new sort of way.”
Now she’s making programmes about femmes fatales rather than being cast as one, what does Turner want to do next? “I’m now starting on a new stage of my career... why not? I’m developing a musical. Isn’t that fun? I’d like to develop the musical in London, I really would. There are many people who I’m very impressed by here. It’s a campy, strange sort of thing.”
Will Turner be singing, centre stage, in her West End musical? “Oh, am I gonna be singing!” she purrs.