Daily Book Excerpt: Entertainment Biography/Memoir
Send Yourself Roses: Thoughts on My Life, Love, and Leading Roles, by Kathleen Turner (with Gloria Feldt)
I forget sometimes that Body Heat was Kathleen Turner’s debut. How is that possible? Her performance is so strong, so suggestive of the entire history of film noir and femme fatales – it has its own specificity yet it also references every bad dame ever to stroll across celluloid … She is smokin’ hot, and she knows how to use it, but it’s more of a long low smoulder than anything more flashy. You ache watching her. The movie is through Bill Hurt’s eyes, so that’s appropriate. This is a man who smashes through a window just because she’s standing there. He MUST have her. Turner walks that line in her performance like an old pro. Another actress would have overdone the sexual-ness, being little more than a cat in heat, and missed that it is the SMOULDER that needs to be there, the long slow boil that will drive a man mad. That’s hard to do. Lauren Bacall does it in To Have and Have Not. It requires the ability to be still, to hold back, to have it all be in the eyes.
It was Turner’s debut. The mind boggles. In her book, which came out last year, she writes a lot about that shoot, and what it was like for her. She was a stage actress, living in New York. Film-making was a total unknown thing to her. She had done some extra work on a soap opera, I think – that was her only experience in front of a camera. Amazing. So she learned on the job. Most people learn on the job with smaller roles first. Not her. She was learning on the job while playing a lead. That required full body nudity. She had a good head on her shoulders, and it’s very interesting to read her version of events, her process. She was such a newbie. The fact that a whole morning would be spent filming a closeup of her fingers tapping on the counter blew her mind … and she was such a theatre person, she would be thinking, “God, you would never see such a thing on stage … THIS is what film can give you …” But still. You never see what a newbie she is in that performance.
Her salary for Body Heat was $30,000. Afterwards, before it came out, she went back to New York and started waitressing again. Her agent and the studio wanted to hold Turner back – didn’t want her to be in anything else that might dilute the impact of Body Heat. Now that is a hell of a risk to take. What if Body Heat had flopped? That means she would have stepped out of the business for almost a year – which you just can’t do, especially not when you’re a young hot woman. You have ZERO time to make your mark … but Turner, always one for taking risks – you really get that in her book – said, “Okay, cool, I won’t do anything until Body Heat comes out.” Good thing she didn’t because it was like she had come from out of nowhere – this sultry knowing ice-cool yet boiling-hot blonde … where did SHE come from?? It intensified her impact. But still: remember it was a risk. $30,000 may sound like a lot for one job, but it’s really not. Because let’s say you made, oh, $5,000 the year before as an actress – in small parts or theatre roles – and then you supplemented your yearly income by waitressing or teaching or whatever. Much of that $30,000 would disappear instantly, already going to pay overdue bills from your years of living below the poverty-line (income-wise, I mean) … and that’s what happened with Turner. She was waitressing in New York, after filming Body Heat, and people would ask her what she was up to, and she’d say, “Yeah, I did this movie … it hasn’t come out yet though.” She was about to become a huge star.
I happen to love her in Romancing the Stone. That’s another role where she had to, in her performance, reference other performances – it’s a genre, a well-known style – the adventure movie, sure, but in the style of old serials, mixed with the delicious 1940s Howard Hawks gender wars with back-and-forth repartee between worthy foes who fight and fuck, basically … This is not your straight drama or straight comedy. It’s a parody, a spoof – as well as a movie that works on its own merits. (Can you tell I love it?) But what I’m trying to get at is, yet again, Turner was playing a reference-point – a certain KIND of part – same as she did in Body Heat, only now she totally switched it up and played the uptight-yet-romantic woman who is totally undone and frazzled and turned on by her encounter with this wild man. You know, the librarian who takes off her glasses. Nothing – NOTHING – would prepare you for Kathleen Turner’s versatility from Body Heat. It’s really rather amazing. I believe that if she had stayed playing hot temptresses her career would have been about 6 years long. But immediately following Body Heat, she started switching it all up – The Man with Two Brains, Romancing the Stone. Now what, to me, all of this really reveals – is Turner’s love for camp. She “gets” it. It’s not just a surface imitation – it’s an embodiment of a certain style, and the campier the better. Body Heat, seen in this light, could be taken as one of the best camp performances of all time. I actually think that’s what Sharon Stone was up to in Basic Instict – ridiculous film, but a deliciously campy performance – which I wrote about here – scroll down to the picture of Stone. I wrote:
I thought Stone gave one of the campiest (in the best way) most specific and fantastic performances of that entire decade. I look at it not as reality – or like she was trying to play a real person – I saw it as high camp – a nod to Jane Greer and Barbara Stanwyck and all the devious film-noir femme fatales. No wonder she became a star. I know she’s nuts – but that was a star performance and she was NOT a star when she gave it. That takes balls. Well-deserved success, in my opinion.
It was great to see Turner and Michael Douglas again in War of the Roses – another campy romp. So much fun. They were great together.
There’s a BIG-ness to Kathleen Turner. Subtlety is not her strong suit. In a way, she is difficult to cast because of that, but she has been very lucky. Her sex appeal was enormous, and that wasn’t an accident (she writes a lot about that in her book) – she worked at it. She describes it as “turning on a tap”. She has her insecurities like anyone, and getting naked in front of an entire crew was nerve-wracking (although crews are notoriously the most professional types around – they’ve seen it all … they know how to be respectful and create a safe space for the actors to do what they have to do.) But Turner said that she would have her moments, during filming of Body Heat when the cameras were on, and the crew were basically hanging off the balcony holding lights and booms – when she felt like she was in the Coliseum, gladiators battling it out – only it was her sexuality that she had to show. In between takes, she would go back to her trailer and weep. She didn’t feel degraded, she makes that very clear – but showing that kind of energy is scary, and usually it’s done privately – your husband or your boyfriend gets to see it – and even then it might be nervewracking to let the cat out of the bag. But to do so take after take, in front of a large crowd, was a “raw” experience (her word), and yet she realized very early on that that would be her stock in trade. That was what she had to offer, and it set her apart from other actresses. She wasn’t just sexy. She was hot, and when she turned on that tap, people went nuts. She managed to negotiate that aspect of herself very gracefully, I think – and here she is, in her 50s, still trying to negotiate it. Because you see Turner now, and she’s heavy (although still gorgeous) – and the memory of that slim burning flame of a woman is still in all of our brains … a painful thing for many actresses. People can be unforgiving. They don’t want to see their sex bombs get older. Turner has certainly experienced that in her life. Not to mention her health problems, her drinking, and her battle with rheumatoid arthritis.
But we don’t stop being sexual beings just because we’re older (hopefully) – and Turner has been courageous enough to continue to explore that aspect of herself – now on Broadway rather than in films – in The Graduate as Mrs. Robinson (which I saw – not a very good show, but she was a lot of fun and the only one up on that stage who knew how to act in the THEATRE) – and then, spectacularly, as Martha in the highly acclaimed revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? I saw that production and it was a high watermark for me, in terms of live performance. She was unbelievable. Her performance stayed with me for days. Christine Ebersole in Grey Gardens was another high watermark for me. I’m trying to think of more – there aren’t many. When I was in Ireland as a 12 year old girl, we went to see Ibsen’s Doll’s House at the Abbey and whoever that Irish actress was playing Nora – she was so blazingly good that I still remember some of her stage business and blocking so many years later. The scene where she desperately dances the tarantella to stop her husband from going to the mailbox? I have goosebumps right now typing this. That woman was out of this world. Acting rarely gets that good. Let’s see, who else. I saw Bill Pullman do Edward Albee’s The Goat on Broadway – and while I always liked Pullman I hadn’t really realized how damn good he was until I saw him onstage. He was fantastic. And that is a hard play. An upper-class man falls in love with a goat that he sees during a drive in the country. This isn’t a joke. He looks in that goat’s eyes and sees a sexy kindred spirit. He hides his affair from his wife (played beautifully by Mercedes Ruehl) for a while until he can no longer stand it and comes clean. The play was uproariously funny but why it was funny was that Pullman played it all straight. He REALLY was in love, and his heart was torn to shreds because of it. That play could so have fallen flat on its face, but he was so damn good. I haven’t forgotten it. Swoosie Kurtz in House of Blue Leaves was a high watermark for me, too. But although I’ve seen much good theatre, much that I really love – those performances that burn their way into your psyche – are few and far between.
Kathleen Turner as Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is one of the most powerful pieces of live acting I have ever seen. I saw it the week it opened, I think – it was very early on in the run – but I have friends who saw it later in the run and said it was just as intense, just as raw. Ted saw it (am I getting this memory right, Ted??) and as the audience left the theatre, Ted was following behind two women. The crowd dispersed down the sidewalk, and Ted found himself still behind those same two women. Half a block away from the theatre, one of the women suddenly buckled over, and burst into hysterical sobs. A delayed reaction from the play. She and her friend stood out of the way of the flow of traffic, and as Ted passed by, the woman was still out of control, sobbing. By the end of that play, you have been put through the wringer. Not just Turner was great – everyone was great – and Turner was just magnificent in that ensemble setting.
The play is obviously funny. I laugh out loud when I read the script. Turner got a laugh on almost every line – she got laughs where I didn’t see laughs. Her delivery was superb. It was JUICY, rich, bitchy, tragic – such a good performance. And then in the last scene of the play, where the secret comes out – she falls apart. Her work was so stunningly real that I couldn’t believe that what she had done was actually part of the script, and when I got home, I pulled out the script to see if she had deviated, or if what she had done was actually on the page. And it was. This is the greatest compliment to an actress I can think of. When George comes out with the secret, Martha falls to her knees and her line is, “Oh no!” Now how does one play that? How does one go about playing such a moment? What exactly does one work on?
Meryl Streep tells a great story about the filming of the “choice” moment in Sophie’s Choice. It goes a long way towards explaining her “process” (which is good, because she sure as hell can’t explain it!). She said that she glanced at the script once, before filming, skipped her eyes over the scene, and never looked at it again until the day of filming. She didn’t work on it, or agonize over it. She knew what would be required of her, and with just one glance-over she knew it would rip her heart out – so she didn’t think about it at all until the moment came to film it. A moment like that, if your talent is fluid and accessible enough, plays itself. But it does require that you live it. You can’t “phone in” a moment like that. A good actress knows when she has to work and when she doesn’t. You work on the right things, you don’t waste your energy. Streep didn’t waste her energy worrying about that scene, knowing, in her heart, that when the time came to film it – her sense of reality and identification and horror would have no choice but to come flowing out.
And that’s what I saw when I saw Kathleen Turner fall to her knees and call out, like a character from a Greek tragedy, “Oh, no!” It was a cry of the soul, all that character’s grief and loss was in it – the grief of the ages. An amazing moment of live theatre and I still couldn’t believe that that “Oh no” was ever stark words on the page because Turner so made it come to life. It was unbearable to watch. It’s like when cameras and microphones are shoved into the faces of people who have just lost everything in a fire, flood, tornado. Their lives are ruined. They are bereft. “How do you feel?” shout the reporters. Watching them in their pain feels intrusive, like we should leave them alone – an animal slinking off to the woods to lick its wounds. Turner was a wounded animal in that moment, howling out her pain, and it was embarrassing. I LOVE being embarrassed like that in the theatre, it happens so rarely. Sometimes you’re just embarrassed because the play sucks, but embarrassment like what I felt in that last scene of Virginia Woolf comes close to being a truly divine experience. It is the meaning of catharsis.
Turner’s book is honest, ballsy, and probably made her some enemies. She tells secrets. But not just on others – she tells secrets on herself, too. But her portrait of William Hurt during Body Heat is complex, she’s not afraid to describe their conflicts. He was Mr. Method Man at the time and was really put off by the fact that Turner would be joking around with the crew moments before filming. He didn’t get that that was her process – that she didn’t want to expend her energy before the camera was rolling. He was annoyed. Turner describes the conflicts straight – you don’t get the sense that she holds a grudge, she and Hurt are still good friends – but she has nothing to lose from being really honest. The book is honest as well about her drinking, and how much she came to need it.
And one of the other things that was amazing to me about her performance in Virginia Woolf was how physical it was – dancing, sashaying, falling over the couch, sitting on the floor – and Turner lives in almost constant physical pain from her arthritis. She did what she needed to do to be able to get through the run of that show without hurting herself – but when I think of her physical limitations and remember her falling to her knees, arms outstretched in horror, screaming, “Oh no” tears come to my eyes.
Good for her, man. Good for her.
I have chosen an excerpt from her book about how she campaigned to play Martha. I did not know the backstory to that production – that it was Turner who really made the whole thing happen, basically just by saying over and over to the powers-that-be, “I must play this part. I must play this part.” There is a time to be humble, and then there is a time to be bold. “Be bold, and mighty forces will come to your aid.” When you are pushing Edward Albee to allow you to bring out a production of a show he has not allowed performed in New York in 30 years, that is NOT the time to be humble. Be bold, and mighty forces will come to your aid.
I remember reading Ben Brantley’s review in The NY Times (I wrote about it here) – the one she excerpts so proudly below (and rightly so) – and it was right after reading his review that I ordered tickets. Immediately. “I have to see this.”
A funny thing: Turner had read the play in college and was blown away by it. It awakened something in her. She was 20 years old. She knew, “I HAVE to play this part someday.” She had it in her head as a goal that she would play it before she turned 50. And I am very interested in how she made it her own. It’s not an easy thing to do. It’s like making Stanley Kowalski your own. And in many ways, an actor – when faced with that – has to say, “NO. MY version will be THIS …” It requires a rejection of what has gone before. Not easy to do, especially with these roles that have been indelibly portrayed by others … it’s like you need to give yourself permission to do it your way.
She determined, at the ripe age of 20, that she would play that part when she was 50.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, starring Kathleen Turner, opened on Broadway in March 2005, almost a year after her 50th birthday. She made her deadline!
EXCERPT FROM Send Yourself Roses: Thoughts on My Life, Love, and Leading Roles, by Kathleen Turner (with Gloria Feldt)
It’s More Fun to Play a Bad Girl
I went about getting the role of Martha step by step, because I found her character so compelling from the very first time I read the play. I suppose I chose age fifty as my goal with the idea that she would be past childbearing age. Because the truth is, the play is not really a tragedy unless you know that Martha will never be able to have a child. If she’s young enough that it would be possible for her still to hope for a child, then her character is not as deeply tragic as it could, should be. So I had fifty set in my mind. In this day and age, we think in terms of in vitro and other variations on the usual way of becoming pregnant. And we value women for attributes other than motherhood. But I think about Martha in 1960, when the play was set. Life was so different for women then, so much more restricted.
She is intelligent, ambitious, energetic. As she confesses, she worships her father, who was the president of the university. She so desires to please him. Her father has crippled her by not seeing who she is or what she has to offer. She had briefly married “the lawn mower”, as they referred to the gardener at the boarding school she attended; that made her a damaged person to her father. If it were today, she could have aspired to be a university president herself, or to some other career of her choosing. That would have given her life a whole new purpose, a whole new meaning. But it’s 1960, so her ambitions had to be channeled, funneled, achieved by a man – her father before she was married and thereafter, her husband.
As much as she and George love each other and always have, it’s been a terrible disappointment to her that he has shared none of her ambitions and certainly will not be the heir to her father’s presidency. After twenty-five years, George is still an associate professor. You have to work hard to fail that much.
And without children, what does she have? She gets to be on committees of faculty wives, to have a spring Easter egg hunt or a Christmas party or crap like that, which means nothing to her. She doesn’t have any standing other than as her father’s daughter or as her husband’s wife. She’s not a mother, can’t be a baby maker, so she doesn’t have that title of respect. Today, we women tend to have more options, not fewer, as we get older. Martha had almost none as she approached her fifties. This time of life that to me is so freeing, to Martha must have been terribly stifling.
So she sits in the empty house day after day and she starts drinking. Which I think many would do, frankly, in that situation. I think I would if i were sitting around with all that ability but no way to see that I could do something fruitful with it, or do something that used my abilities or challenged my mind. It would be dreadful. Anyone would feel defeated or might overeat or drink or do drugs.
Perhaps some exceptional women would have found another private outlet such as writing that they could control on their own. But I think that would be the exception and that they would have been seen as abnormal by the rest of society. Martha chafes at the irrational boundaries, but not in a political way. Her behavior has no boundaries. She has no limits physically or vocally. She just throws herself around without any thought as to the proper behavior.
Poor woman, I started out feeling very angry with her and quite disgusted, and I thought, Oh, stop it! Pull yourself together – this is rubbish. But then more and more I began to empathize with her. This happens to me often with characters. I play so many awful ones. They turn out to be more interesting than the good girls. You always know what a good girl is going to do. You never know what a bad girl is going to do. It’s much more fun.
I didn’t see the whole film and I’ve never seen a stage production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Knowing always that I wanted to do Martha, I would never willingly want to have someone else’s performance in my head. But in my readings of it, I always thought it was extremely funny. I saw big laughs. I never understood why no one spoke of it that way. I like a hard-edged humor, and that’s definitely Virginia Woolf to me. The little I saw of the Richard Burton-Elizabeth Taylor film I disliked immensely, but I think that’s because it was performed with acceptance of the culture of the time rather than a questioning of it. It seemed to me that their George and Martha were just two drunks screaming at each other and tearing each other apart for a night. I didn’t understand this at all. Because my perception reading the play had been so very different.
With most characters, I find I go through stages where I truly dislike them, and then I start to find the reasons for their behavior – then I start to have sympathy for them and then empathy, and then I feel they’re totally justified. Somebody says, “How could she do that?”
Because she had to, okay?
And I had to play Martha.
Jumping into the Fear
Fear tries to overtake me when I am between jobs. I had just finished the Broadway run of The Graduate and was looking anxiously to what I would do next. I am inclined to try to overcome fear by jumping right into its face, to do that which I am afraid of doing. I decided to ask directly for what I wanted most – to play Martha.
By the time I was forty-eight, I was on a comfortable standing with most of the major Broadway producers. I’d done enough work that was very good so I could speak with any of them if I wanted to. I set out to get the role I’d been coveting since I was twenty.
Liz McCann has been Edward Albee’s producer for years. He doesn’t allow anyone else to produce his plays. So I had to get to Liz. Fortunately, she’s a great friend of the Nederlanders’, who own theaters in which Albee’s plays have been produced, and Jimmy Nederlander Jr. is a great friend of mine. I asked Jimmy and his fiancee, Margo MacNabb, also a dear friend, to set up a dinner with Liz and Jay and me. Just social, you know.
During the course of the evening, I told Liz that I wanted Virginia Woolf. “I want Martha,” I said. And Liz said, “Well, I don’t think that’s going to happen.” Edward had not allowed the play to be performed in New York since 1975. Liz told me he didn’t express any desire to do it; he’d had some readings over the last few years with other actresses but had not approved any of them. And career-wise, he was still writing new plays. The Goat had come out that year. He didn’t want to be known just for his old material. All of which was completely understandable.
I pressed on. “Yes, but you have no idea how well I would do this. I really need – no, you really need me to do this.” “No, no, no, no” was her response.
I kept after Liz for weeks after that. I want to talk to Edward. I want to meet with Edward. I want to see him. Finally she set up a lunch and the three of us got together. This was before the presidential election in 2004. Edward and I are on the same side politically, and we share a great number of concerns. It was a very interesting, challenging conversation over lunch. The man is absolutely brilliant. We never even got to the play; we just talked politics and everything that goes with that. But I’m told that I became Martha during the course of the lunch.
Finally, as we were leaving the restaurant, Edward said, “All right, what do you want?” I said, “I want to read Martha.”
When I met with Edward after that, I said, “Look, I’m funny and we’ll get a funny George. I think the dark humor in the play has never been realized.” He said, “Oh, you don’t?” I said, “No, I don’t think anybody’s seen it created as the comedy it could and should be.” He was skeptical but said, “Oh, fine, right.”
So what did I want, he asked again. Again I said I wanted a reading. We agreed to put together the reading.
Then we started desperately thinking of who we would get as George. Bill Irwin’s name came up and I thought, Oh, that’s brilliant. He is a great comedian and an inspired clown, and talk about your timing – that boy has got it. Yeah, he’s got it. He has the clear, clear intelligence that needs to be demonstrated by George. And he’d just played in Albee’s The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? in London for a time. I thought, Oh, this is a stunning idea. There were many other leading actors who wanted this reading, but once Bill’s name came up, that was it for me. I said, “Yes, we’ve got to get him in here.”
Next I took the extra step to make sure my own reading would be the best it could possibly be. I got together with Anthony Page, the very talented British director who has done many of Albee’s plays, and he worked with us before we did the reading. Anthony later said he thought I looked like Martha, strong and somewhat plain, and unpretentious, as though I’d really lived. Ha! Is that a compliment? At any rate, working with Anthony in advance of the reading was a real plus in my preparation.
When we did our read-through, Edward was there along with the director, the producers, and a number of other people. Edward started laughing soon after we began. And let me tell you something: he doesn’t laugh easily.
Now, everyone can see that in this production, there are huge laughs throughout the first act, every three or four lines. In the second act, there are fewer, and the third act, fewer still. But even in the most difficult parts, Albee sets up big laughs that previous productions have not generally made the most of. Even at the very end, when Martha says, “Show me the telegram,” and George says, “I ate it.” My God, it’s a shock laugh, yes. But the physical action of laughing releases a great deal of tension in everyone. It allows you as an actor to build the tension back up again and to keep the audience with you.
That humor is a part of the characters’ deep, deep hurt. They make each other laugh and they make each other laugh at themselves. Martha tries something and doesn’t pull it off, George caps her, and she appreciates his effort. It’s cool. It’s part of their relationship. Honestly, I never understood why people didn’t understand how funny this was.
At the end of the reading of the first act, Edward came over to me and he said he hadn’t seen anything like it since Uta Hagen performed the role. And I said, “Well, thank you. We have two more acts to go. Hold on, baby.”
In the break between the first and second act, everybody was just beaming. We were like Cheshire cats. We finished the reading around two in the afternoon. I went home thinking, It’ll probably be weeks before we have a decision on whether or not this will be a go. And I was soon to turn my witching age of fifty!
They called at five-thirty that same afternoon and said, “So, do you want it?” I said, “What do you mean, do I want it? What, are you crazy? What the hell have I been saying for the last two years?”
I got the role of Martha just before I turned fifty.
And then I was really scared. I thought, Oh my God – is there a real plan here? It’s not all random? All these steps I took really made it happen? No, I do not think it is random. My friends would say I “Kathleen Turnered” it. I can’t seem to keep from taking action when I want to get something done, even if I am afraid.
I literally got the shakes once I knew I had Martha. I was terrified that I wouldn’t be able to pull off all my boasts. It was a huge undertaking, a huge test.
My last show on Broadway had been The Graduate, which was commercially a huge success but the critics were very tough on the play. Tough on me personally too. Ben Brantley, the New York Times theatre critic, called the play “weary” and my performance as Mrs. Robinson “little more than a stunt,” more appropriate for Xena: Warrior Princess than the Broadway stage.
And of course there had been many other jokes about my twenty seconds of nudity onstage. Maureen Lipman, the brilliant British writer, actress, and comedienne, was doing a one-woman show when I was doing The Graduate in London. She sent a letter to one of the newspapers saying that she would be performing her show in glasses and socks so that one may see what a real forty-something-year-old woman looks like. And then she wrote me this note: “My ticket sales went down.” The whole thing was a joke. My great friend Maggie Smith was doing Alan Bennett’s play Lady in the Van at the time, and she said to Alan, “Kathleen’s doing such wonderful business over there, I’m thinking that perhaps in the end scene when the lady rises, we should do that in the nude.” She said there was this long pause. And she said, “Alan, I’m joking. I’d look like a Ubangi.” It was very funny. Women, you know, don’t take this as seriously as men. At least, actresses don’t.
But I knew I had some tall mountains to climb to be given a fair evaluation as Martha.
Getting Myself Back
But if I hadn’t done The Gradaute, I could never have done Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
One of the problems of having started my career as a younger beautiful woman known for sexuality – a woman whose characters have been sexy, I should say – is that there’s an inherent dismissal of her as an individual. It probably extends to beautiful young men, but certainly to young, beautiful women. There’s a sense of these women being quite interchangeable, not unique of individually necessary.
These days I face a different hurdle. People assume a woman my age is not supposed to be attractive or sexually appealing. I get very tired of that and relish opportunities to counteract that. Playing the role of Mrs. Robinson, who in her midforties seduces a young man less than half her age, was one of those stereotype-busting choices. But it had a deeper personal meaning to me too.
I started performing in The Graduate at forty-five. Performed it at forty-six in London. We brought it to New York when I was forty-eight. I don’t think people in the audience doubted that Mrs. Robinson was capable of seducing Benjamin or that she had the allure, the power, and the sexuality to entrap this much younger man. That’s greatly a matter of having the confidence and projecting that confidence to others.
Appearing nude on film was not easy when I was twenty-six in Body Heat; it was even harder when I was forty-six in The Graduate, on the stage, which is more up close and personal than film. After my middle-aged nude scene, though, I unexpectedly got letters from women saying, “I have not undressed in front of my husband in ten years and I’m going to tonight.” Or, “I have not looked in the mirror at my body and you gave me permission.”
These affirmations from other women were especially touching to me because when I began The Graduate I’d just come through a period when I felt a great loss of confidence, when my rheumatoid arthritis hit me hard and I literally couldn’t walk or do any of the things I was so used to doing. It used to be that if I said to my body, “Leap across the room now,” it would leap instantly. I don’t know how I did it, but I did it. I hadn’t realized how much my confidence was based on my physicality. On my ability to make my body do whatever I wanted it to do.
I was so consumed, not just by thinking about what I could and couldn’t do, but also by handling the pain, the continual, chronic pain. I didn’t realize how pain colored my whole world and how depressive it was. Before I was finally able to control my RA with proper medication, I truly had thought that my attractiveness and my ability to be attractive to men was gone, was lost. So for me to come back and do The Graduate was an affirmation to myself. I had my body back. I was back.
But I still had some other important body work to do to be ready to play Martha. Rheumatoid arthritis eats up your joints. I knew I had to have my right knee replaced in order to physically do the play. And once that was really clear to me – because you don’t want to rush into things like replacing joints in your body – I immediately had the surgery. I had only about eight weeks to rehab and get back into shape to do the play.
And I did it. I did it. The surgery probably saved my left knee too because neither of them was very good. Martha could wear cushy padded slippers to cope with the pain in my feet, but she had to be very physical in the fight scenes and her body language throughout the play. It wouldn’t have been fair if I’d been unable to go on because of the pain. So I had to have the surgery. But that added a great deal of stress to the already intense stress of taking on Martha.
And so when Virginia opened in New York to great reviews, and when Edward Albee wrote me a very kind note, which I had framed, telling me I made him happy to be a playwright, and when the critic Ben Brnatley apologized in print for underestimating me, for assuming that because I’d made the choice of playing Mrs. Robinson before, I wouldn’t be capable of playing Martha now, I wept.
Oh, yes, this felt far better than winning a Tony ever could. Brantley saw exactly the points I wanted people to see, saw that I had been able to communicate with the audience exactly what I had intended. Even better, he really saw Martha.
At 50, this actress can look ravishing and ravaged, by turns. In the second act, she is as predatorily sexy as she was in the movie “Body Heat”. But in the third and last act she looks old, bereft, stripped of all erotic flourish.
When she sits at the center of the stage quietly reciting a litany of the reasons she loves her dearly despised husband, you feel she has peeled back each layer of her skin to reveal what George describes as the marrow of a person. I was fortunate enough to have seen Uta Hagen, who created Martha, reprise the role in a staged reading in 1999, and I didn’t think I would ever be able to see “Virginia Woolf” again without thinking of Ms. Hagen.
But watching Ms. Turner in that last act, fully clothed but more naked than she ever was in “The Graduate”, I didn’t see the specter of Ms. Hagen. All I saw was Ms. Turner. No, let’s be fair. All I saw was Martha.
Aah, I thought to myself, well, now. People can say, “Maybe she was cute or sexy and she took her clothes off then,” but they’d have to add, “Just look at what she can do now.”