Though she came to prominence in the 1980s, Kathleen Turner, with her blend of raw sexuality, beauty, intelligence, and drive, could give golden age-sirens like Lana Turner and Ava Gardner a run for their money. After years of working as a relative unknown in way-off-Broadway productions and in the television soap opera The Doctors, Turner burst onto the movie scene in a star-making blaze when she was cast as femme fatale Matty opposite William Hurt in Lawrence Kasdan’s neo-noir thriller Body Heat (1981). She continued to wreak havoc on the opposite sex throughout the decade, appearing in a variety of popular movies that ranged from drama to lighthearted adventure to jet-black comedy.
The daughter of a U.S. ambassador, Turner experienced a peripatetic upbringing in a fiercely competitive environment. Living in Canada, Cuba, Washington, D.C., Venezuela, and England, she learned to adjust to new situations at a very young age. She later claimed the experience molded her as an actress and taught her to constantly refashion herself to meet the needs of particular situations. Turner first became conscious of wanting to be an actress while living in England, where, during her weekly visits to the theater, she was thrilled by the work of Diana Rigg, Christopher Plummer, Angela Lansbury, and others. While attending high school, Turner enrolled in classes at London’s Central School of Speech and Drama. She studied there until 1973, when her father’s death forced her mother to move the family back to her hometown of Springfield, MO. It was there that Turner would take voice lessons at Southwest Missouri State University, where she later enrolled. Finding the campus devoid of the culture she craved, however, Turner transferred to the University of Maryland and in 1977 graduated with a degree in theater. Following graduation, she moved to New York and, in between waiting tables, found work in television commercials and obscure stage productions until deciding it was time to try Hollywood.
Turner had just finished an unsuccessful audition when, fortuitously enough, she encountered the casting agent for Body Heat. Her subsequent portrayal of the murderous Matty proved to be her breakthrough and led to a series of widely varied starring roles. For her sophomore effort, she tried her hand at comedy with The Man With Two Brains (1983), in which she starred opposite Steve Martin. Again, as with her previous role, she played a woman who used her feminine wiles to manipulate a man. In the erotic Crimes of Passion (1984), she once more was cast as a woman using sex for manipulation, playing a fashion designer/hooker who gets involved with a street preacher. Understandably not wanting to get typecast by this point, Turner next played a dowdy author who finds herself caught up in an exciting South American adventure with dashing Michael Douglas and sleazy Danny De Vito in Romancing the Stone (1984). The film was a smash hit and Turner found herself a star. The following year, the trio reunited for the sequel, The Jewel of the Nile, and in 1989, they once again collaborated for The War of the Roses, Danny DeVito’s grimly funny dissection of a messy divorce. Other high points of that period included Turner’s performance as a beautiful but ruthless hit woman in Prizzi’s Honor (1985) and her Oscar-nominated turn as a dissatisfied housewife who gets a second chance to alter her life in Francis Ford Coppola’s moving Peggy Sue Got Married (1986).
In 1988, Turner re-teamed with William Hurt for a supporting role in Kasdan’s The Accidental Tourist (1988). That same year, she gave a devastatingly sexy performance as the voice of Jessica Rabbit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Unfortunately, despite these successes, Turner subsequently had a hard time finding quality roles, and her appearances during the early to mid-’90s were sporadic. One highlight of this period was her turn as the completely psychotic suburban housewife who goes on a killing spree in John Waters’ funny but uneven Serial Mom (1994). In the latter half of the 1990s, Turner began to find more quality work in films like Moonlight and Valentino (1995) and The Real Blonde (1997). In 1999, she could be seen starring in the children’s comedy Baby Geniuses, The Prince of Central Park, and Sofia Coppola’s eagerly awaited adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides, which cast Turner as the matriarch of a profoundly dysfunctional family.