'Mom meets the media' Witty Kathleen Turner murderously charming as send-up serial killer

May 15, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Kathleen Turner may or may not win an Oscar for her performance in John Waters' "Serial Mom," but she certainly deserves one for her performance at a Thursday press conference on the set of the movie in Towson.

Radiant, ebullient, blazing with charisma and wit, Turner dominated a panel of actors and executives, including Waters himself, and did such a good job of it and kept everybody so royally entertained, nobody seemed to mind.

Dressed for the part of a conventional Everymom who just happens to kill people -- in a shapeless beige house dress and espadrilles -- she looked so suburban you wanted to invite her to a Tupperware party, that is if today weren't her car pool day. But Turner was so busy imitating the best parts of Katharine Hepburn, Tallulah Bankhead and Elizabeth Taylor, and so forcefully being the life of the party -- any party, all parties -- that most in attendance were more likely to ask for an autograph.

The setting was a grove of trees in front of a big white house near a golf course, before which had been plunked two opposing groups of chairs, one for talent, one for press. Who knew there'd be more panelists than press? In fact, most of the panelists -- young actors playing kids -- were ignored. Besides Turner and Waters, co-stars Sam Waterston and Ricki Lake also attended, as did John Fiedler, the former Baltimorean producing the film for the new Hollywood entity of Savoy Pictures. The R-rated film is scheduled to be completed by the middle of June and released '' sometime next year.

The film, according to Waters, is a true-crime parody, which follows as a rather literal-minded mother in a "typical suburban home" murders any and all who oppose or insult her family. It's a sort of "In Cold Blood" with laughs.

"And you should see what I do to the kid who stands up my daughter," said Turner, one eyebrow raised dramatically.

Turner says when she first read the script, "I put it down halfway through. 'What is wrong with this man?' I thought. But later I picked it up and suddenly I started acting as I read it. That's how I choose my scripts -- if I act them when I read them."

Turner said, "The film taps into the social rage we all normally squelch. She just can't quite squelch it. But other than a tendency toward mass murder, she's a very good mom. Playing her has been a gas!"

She said of Waters, "I . . . am sure that he is a unique talent. It's not usual for any director to create his own genre. This is not done. But he's literally made himself a genre."

She said she had two questions when she finished the script. The first had to do with a certain method of dispatch for one of her victims and the second -- "I can't even remember."

She and Waters, giggling like co-conspirators all the while, appear to enjoy an extremely loosey-goosey, laugh-a-minute relationship; in fact the whole tenor of the press conference was more like a gag than like a somber professional gathering, though the producer sat somewhat glumly through it, with one eye on his watch, waiting until the magic minute when he could order everyone back to work. Bosses!

Waterston, who plays Turner's husband, said he joined the picture because, "They asked me. And Kathleen is one of the few honest-to-God movie stars in the world -- I couldn't turn down an opportunity to work with her."

"No other actress could play this role," Waters said.

He said he got the idea for the story while doing volunteer work as a teacher in Maryland prisons, where he met some authentic serial killers.

"They were in prison for life. I thought my job was to make them laugh. I tried to put what they said into a ridiculous context. For example, if you kill someone by" -- he inscribed an arc across his neck with a forefinger in the universal symbol of throat cutting -- "they call it 'putting on a happy face.' "

As a project, Waters said, "It's going so well I'm beginning to get nervous -- knock on wood. We've had wonderful cooperation from the neighborhood and from the city. We're on schedule and under budget. It's been wonderful."

Turner, who lives in New York, has been mightily impressed with "Baltimore efficiency."

"Really," she said, "you guys ought to come up and run New York for a while. Maybe you could get it to work."

Only Waterston had a question about Baltimore.

He said he thought it was "America's back lot," meaning that the city had the look of so many different parts of America, but he still wondered about one thing.

"What's a crab cake?"

Fiedler, the producer and press-conference clock watcher, said that he'd seen his first John Waters film when he was 17.

"I've been chasing him ever since," he said, "and finally I caught him."

Then he looked at his watch and declared the conference over.

"All right, time to go to work," he announced.

En masse, the film people rose, smiled and strode back to their set a few hundred feet away.

As she was leaving, Turner was assailed by two small girls, begging for her to pose for a picture.

"Honey, I've got to get back to work," she said, but then she noticed their crestfallen expressions.

"Oh, all right," she said, and she gathered them in, hugged them as Mommy or Big Sis unlimbered the Instamatic. She gave one of those big Kathleen Turner smiles, usually reserved for cameras that cost $200,000, but this time unleashed for a camera that cost about $8.

The girls got a souvenir they might treasure the rest of their lives and show their own children sometime in the next century.

And Turner passed the hardest kind of test there is: the one where you think nobody is watching.

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