'Mom' Turner draws blood

April 15, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

In acting school, they work from a theory that traces a character arc along an axis running from motive to behavior. You begin a performance by understanding why your character does what she does. From that insight, you begin to acquire a vocabulary of gesture and nuance that gradually becomes a pattern of action, bringing the person to palpitating, specific life.

Works great for Lady Macbeth. Dynamite on Ophelia. Gangbusters on Eliza Doolittle, Maggie the Cat or even Scarlett O'Hara.

But . . . Serial Mom?

"There was no theory," says Kathleen Turner, with a snort of disbelief. "It was only, 'Can you turn on a dime?' And the answer was, yes, I could."

So it was that Turner brought her immense turquoise-blue eyes, her diva-like charisma, to John Waters' "Serial Mom," as Beverly Sutphin -- mom with a mission. The mission: to kill anybody who is nasty to her family. She even kills somebody who forgets to rewind her videos. If you've ever rented a video that hasn't been rewound, you know no jury would convict her!

The trick to the performance is the utter calmness and aplomb with which Beverly goes from Donna Reed clone to homicidal maniac and back again, without even blemishing her makeup. And you see why it has to be: I mean, when Patty Hearst shows up in white shoes before Memorial Day, well, what's a mother to do! An example must be set! Patty gets a phone inserted into her cerebellum in a Towson phone booth. Do you blame mom? White shoes! Before Memorial Day!

"I had to believe she had no memory," says Turner in a New York hotel room. "She could flash between her modes at a moment's notice without even blinking. That was the concept."

Imperially thin and powerfully commanding in a long, tight black skirt, Turner has shed the few pounds she gained to give Beverly that well-fed suburban look.

But despite the merriment the film creates on screen, Turner had some rough times dealing with the explicit violence.

"I had to do it day after day, and I began having nightmares. It wasn't easy, day after day. There's no way I can feel what the audience loves in it.

"But John was essential to me in terms of reining me in. I never wanted to go wild, and he wanted to keep everything low-key and professional and let the material determine the tone instead of the performances."

She had a few doubts about how the movie would play for an audience.

"I knew they'd have to identify it as a John Waters film up front and in big type. After all, he's not known for exquisite taste, and his work is full of extra beats and quirky moments. You could never sell it as a 'Kathleen Turner' movie."

She also had doubts the studio would let Waters make the movie he wanted.

"Oh, that's L.A.," she says airily. "They didn't get it. Liz Smith said that at one point they were re-writing the ending. But you just can't mess with John Waters. You can't change the game in midstream; he has to be what he is, and that's what he is, and that's why people love it."

And, indeed, no one could doubt that the movie on the screen is the movie Waters wrote, speared liver and all.

"That is the script," she says.

Turner has adjusted to the reality that some people just won't get it -- particularly the scene where she spears a boy's liver like a trout.

"I expect some people will be disgusted by it. What I would mind is that if people felt we were making fun of violence and trashing family values. That's not intended in any way."

She does admit, "It's not an attempt to please all."

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