As we mark the 100th birthday of Lana Turner (1921-1995) this coming February 8 and reflect on her cinematic legacy, some of us may recall a line from a rather different sort of film from the kind in which Turner typically starred. In 2001’s wacko fantasy-drama Donnie Darko, Jena Malone, distraught over events in her personal life but elated at meeting up with her love interest — the film’s eponymous anti-hero — muses, “I guess some people are just born with tragedy in their blood.”
Indeed. It’s an observation that evokes Hemingways, Kennedys, and dozens of troubled movie and pop-music stars through the years, but seems particularly apt in the case of a film legend for whom life imitated art in the most lurid and gruesome way. Over the course of her life, Turner married and divorced seven men, and though not solely her own fault, Turner’s personal entanglements certainly stained her life and reputation and those of her teen daughter, Cheryl Crane, forever. In Crane’s memoir, Detour: A Hollywood Story, Crane alleges that Turner’s fourth husband, Lex Barker, repeatedly abused and molested her when she was a girl, but that’s not even the worst of it. On April 4, 1958, L.A. entrepreneur and mobster Johnny Stompanato, who had been aggressively courting and harassing Turner for months, attacked Turner in her home in Beverly Hills. This prompted then-14-year-old Cheryl to rush to her mother’s defense and fatally stab Stompanato. It was the end of an abusive relationship with a bully who had seen nothing wrong with storming onto the set of Another Time, Another Place and threatening Sean Connery with a gun. (The late Connery’s actions on this awful occasion were as heroic as anything he later did onscreen as James Bond.)
One might wonder why Turner hadn’t detected much earlier that Stompanato — an associate of the notorious gangster Mickey Cohen, as well as a jealous, controlling, ill-educated, verbally and physically abusive thug — was bad news and avoided him. But even amid the collapse of her marriage to Lex Barker, it seems Turner still hadn’t grown wise about her romantic relationships with men.
Turner’s personal life played out with a fidelity to her onscreen personae that is nothing short of eerie. In role after role, Turner played a ravishing young woman who is married to or closely involved with a certain type of man — staid, respectable, hidebound, and sometimes a bit dull — and who then becomes interested in a guy from another walk of life with a radically different temperament.
It’s as if the screenwriters and directors of Turner’s films updated a D. H. Lawrence scenario to the pre-Mad Men world of the late 1940s and the 1950s. Instead of a deserter, trespasser, handyman, or sly fox, we often see in Turner’s movies a young man who holds out the promise of a less settled, more adventurous life pose a dilemma in the starkest terms for Turner’s character.
One role which cinephiles and the public will forever associate with Turner is her portrayal of Cora Smith, the unhappy wife of middle-aged diner owner Nick Smith, in the noir-ish 1946 adaptation of James M. Cain’s novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice. Into this scene of domestic non-bliss wanders Frank Chambers, a handsome drifter with a laconic manner given to philosophical brooding. As long as Cora is stuck with the overweight, unprepossessing Nick, she can’t be with Frank. It seems unlikely that Cora’s thoughts would turn to murder without Frank entering the scene, but once he does, she isn’t exactly reluctant to move ahead with wicked plans. As expected, nothing goes as planned or comes to any good for the characters, and it’s their own vanity and ineptitude that doom them.
It is a bit of a shame that some people will come away with no more than a Wikipedia-level sense of Turner as a femme fatale, acting maliciously within a highly specific type of poisoned love triangle. Although she often portrays a woman with a dull partner who finds herself tempted by a less conventional option, the dynamic plays out on a far grander level and in myriad ways throughout her rich and storied career. Another Time, Another Place, the 1958 movie whose set briefly suffered the brutish Stompanato’s interruption, is about a young American reporter who is romantically involved with her staid employer — played by Barry Sullivan — but grows interested in a British reporter, played by Connery, who is willing to literally put his life on the line in the pursuit of a story. Her interest in this man isn’t about enlisting him to carry out dark and dirty deeds so that she can escape an unhappy relationship. No, Turner sees in Connery certain qualities of nobility, courage, honesty, and passion for the art of storytelling. The interest continues long after the British journalist’s death in a plane crash, even compelling her to visit the seaside resort where he spent his childhood. This film about one journalist’s budding affinity for a fellow muse has a timeless resonance, and like so many other Turner features is quite beyond being lumped together with any sordid murder story.
Viewers will find further variations and similar resonance in Turner films such as Honky Tonk (1941), in which Clark Gable’s charming and fast-talking Western desperado represents a daunting but mesmerizing temptation in the eyes of Turner’s proper and timid Boston transplant in turbulent Yellow Creek, Nev.; 1951’s Mr. Imperium, in which Turner must weigh the respective merits of two love interests — an aggressive but hidebound film producer and a garrulous prince of an exotic but unstable polity; 1954’s Betrayed, where Turner plays a young Dutch woman working alongside two Resistance operatives who embody, in the nomenclature of role-playing games, lawful good and chaotic good, but one of whom does not stay loyal to their cause; 1955’s The Rains of Ranchipur, in which she plays a deeply unhappily married woman who meets, in a village in India, a former lover and a Hindu doctor who embody distinct ideals of heroism, but who may have reasons for not accepting her; and many other films in which Turner’s beauty and talent shine.
Even if many Turner outings share a certain dynamic, they are anything but predictable. One of her very finest films, A Life of Her Own (1950), invites us to consider where a talented and magnetic young woman might end up, literally and figuratively, if she does not resolve certain personal dilemmas and find a reliable partner who won’t die, disappear, or turn out to be a total creep, if choices and attachments prove as fleeting as some of Turner’s tragically did. Once again, life imitated art.