The New York Times once called Kathleen Turner a “certifiable diva,” and neither she nor most of the people the film and stage actress worked with in those days disagreed with that characterization. But today, at the age of 53 and having survived disease, alcoholism and a failed marriage, the diva shoe no longer fits.
Her life and view of herself has changed so much, she told TODAY co-host Matt Lauer on Wednesday, that she didn’t even want to write the autobiography that’s currently in bookstores: “Send Yourself Roses: Thoughts on My Life, Love, and Leading Roles.”
“I thought it might seem self-aggrandizing,” she said. “Egotistical, I suppose.”
She credited her co-author and close friend, former Planned Parenthood president Gloria Feldt, with talking her into doing the tell-all book.
“I’ve been a very active member of Planned Parenthood my whole adult life,” Turner said. “So she kind of talked me into it. And she really, I think, had the greater job, because I just got to talk for hours and hours and hours and hours. She had to make some order out of it.”
She speaks with a slight British accent, the result of spending time in London as a girl while growing up the daughter of a member of the U.S. diplomatic corps. It is a voice made for the stage, where she had her first experience with acting and the venue to which she has returned in recent years.
She told Lauer how, when she got her first film role starring in the steamy movie “Body Heat” with William Hurt, directors kept telling her, “Get smaller. Be quieter. Many times people felt that even though it’s not intentional, I seem to have a kind of forcefulness that might be intimidating to some.”
She got $30,000 for the role in the film, which was released in 1981. When she came back from filming, her friends asked her where she’d been.
“I’ve actually been starring in my first film,” she told them. “It’s called ‘Body Heat.’ ” To which they responded, “Oh — porn?”
Turner said she was utterly unprepared to be revealed as a sex symbol by the film.
“I don’t think I ever thought of myself in that way,” she said. “As a healthy, good-looking American woman, yes, but not as a sexual icon, no.”
The success of the film spawned offers for sequels, but Turner has tried never to repeat a role, the one exception being reprising the role of Joan Wilder opposite Michael Douglas in “Jewel of the Nile,” the sequel to the hit romantic comedy “Romancing the Stone.” She did that sequel only after the threat of a lawsuit.
“It’s just more interesting as an actor to explore new characters,” she told Lauer. “Why do the same thing you’ve already done?”
Her changing roles allowed her to work with some of the generation’s best actors: Hurt in “Body Heat”; Danny DeVito and Douglas in “Jewel,” “Romancing the Stone” and “The War of the Roses”; Jack Nicholson in “Prizzi’s Honor”; Nicolas Cage in “Peggy Sue Got Married”; Burt Reynolds in “Switching Channels” and Steve Martin in “The Man with Two Brains.”
She loved working with DeVito and Douglas and said Nicholson “is amazing — one of the best actors I’ve worked with.”
‘A little hormonal’
Turner denied reports in tabloids that she and Reynolds are sworn enemies, but did admit, “I don’t think we had a very good relationship. I was pregnant when we were shooting that film and I might have been a little hormonal. But he was difficult; he was difficult to deal with.”
She also had little good to say about Cage in her book, accusing him of being arrested for DWI during the filming and stealing a dog. The allegations prompted Cage to file suit against her.
Lauer read a statement from Cage to Turner: “I have never been arrested for anything in my life, nor have I stolen a dog. I am reaching out to my fans — many of whom are children — so that they know that I do not condone drunk driving or theft. The reason why you’ve never seen a mug shot of me is because it does not exist.”
“What I can say is I’m truly sorry if I’ve caused distress or harm,” Turner said on TODAY. “I never, ever intended to do that. This is what I remember. These are my thoughts.”
Update: On April 4, Cage settled the libel suit in a London court against Turner. Neither of the stars attended the hearing at Britain's High Court, where Turner's lawyer, book publisher and the Daily Mail, which ran an excerpt, all apologized to Cage and offered to make a substantial donation to a charity of his choice.
According to Cage's lawyer, Simon Smith, Turner, Headline Publishing Group and Daily Mail publisher Associated Newspapers now accept that, owing to a mistake on Turner's part and despite the other defendants' publishing in good faith, the allegations were defamatory and false.
All three agreed to pay Cage's legal costs and make the charitable donation, Smith said.
On drinking, medical problems
In her 40s, Turner contracted rheumatoid arthritis, and the disease threatened her career. She also had a drinking problem at the time, and she said she hid the disease from others because it’s easier to get hired in Hollywood as a drunk than as disabled.
Her arthritis is under control and she’s back on stage; she opens in “Crimes of the Heart” on Broadway on Friday.
At the age of 45, she undertook the role of Mrs. Robinson in a stage production of “The Graduate” that opened in London and later played on Broadway. She gained considerable attention for doing a nude scene.
“When I did it on Broadway, I was 48, and certainly in this country that’s considered quite over the hill and past any sexual attraction,” she said.
That role led to a memorable fan letter.
“I got this wonderful note from a woman saying she had not undressed in front of her husband in ten years,” Turner said, “and she was gonna do it tonight.”