Kathleen Turner acts comfortable in own skin

April 10, 2000|By Marjorie Miller | Marjorie Miller,LOS ANGELES TIMES

LONDON -- Let's cut to the chase. A lot of women in their 40s will not undress in front of a mirror. Some stay married so they'll never have to take their clothes off in front of another man. And then there is Kathleen Turner, who is making her West End debut as the middle-aged Mrs. Robinson -- in the nude.

True, she is only naked for a minute and she is illuminated by a soft backlight, the stage equivalent of an airbrush, if there is one. She is in great shape and a stunning heir to the role seared into a generation's memory by Anne Bancroft in the 1967 film of the same name, "The Graduate."

But Turner is also 45 and risks comparisons with her sexy, twentysomething self in the film "Body Heat," as well as with actress Nicole Kidman's buff performance in "The Blue Room" last year, which was described as "pure theatrical Viagra." How does Turner get up the nerve?

"It's really tough," Turner said in her dressing room at the Gielgud Theatre. After a preview, the director noted that Turner was "adding a beat" before dropping her towel. "I said, `No, I am not adding a beat. I am trying to make myself do it.' "

It is a day before the play officially opens, and Turner is fiddling with the Waterford crystal goblets she plans to put in her co-stars' rooms along with a celebratory bottle of champagne.

Turner looks gorgeous in a black knit dress that offsets her blond waves and a face that is softer and more interesting than it was in her pug-nosed youth. She explains that the nudity was written into the script by Terry Anderson, who also directs the play.

"I thought, `My God, how shocking and what a wonderful impact.' At the same time, I thought, `Well, we'll see whether or not I'll do that,' " Turner said. "Throughout the rehearsal, Terry said either we'll get there or we won't. If it's appropriate, you'll know it. The closer we got to the first audience, the more convinced I became that it was right."

"Look, I am 45. I will never be in my 20s again, nor do I wish to be in many ways. Nor do I wish to undergo any body surgery. But I work out a lot, six days a week. And that really started because of my disease, rheumatoid arthritis. This is as close to curing myself as I can get. The nice result of that is that I'm in pretty good shape," she said.

"So, part of me just said, `Wouldn't it be a good thing to do? To hell with these teen-agers and their non-bodies,' " Turner said. "There is a definitive look for women, which is practically fleshless, and the world just isn't like that and women aren't like that, and I'm sick of pretending that it's great. And so I thought I'd do my little bit for us."

God bless you please, Mrs. Robinson.

Opening night reviews were mixed, although Turner's performance was widely praised. Several critics questioned the point of putting "The Graduate" on stage after such a nearly perfect film.

Turner seduced preview audiences as well with her boldness and female form. A glance around the theater reveals that most of them are middle-aged too. Many of those who identified with Dustin Hoffman's alienated college graduate in the film are paying more attention to Turner's bored Mrs. Robinson when she delivers the killer line, "Do you want me to seduce you, Benjamin?"

"The idea of a seduction of a younger man is still very attractive to men, but now more than ever to women too," Turner said.

But while the alcoholic Mrs. Robinson may be interesting, she is not a nice woman, and the character gave Turner trouble at first: "I don't like the way she treats her husband, her daughter, Benjamin. She is not a woman I admire."

After "The Graduate" completes its West End run at the end of July, Turner will take "Tallulah!" her one-woman play on the life of actress Tallulah Bankhead, on tour in the United States.

There is no contradiction, Turner insists. She is arriving at an age for good female stage roles, but film offers are few and far between. Especially for lead roles, which go to younger women.

"I love doing film. You can be so incredibly precise and exact when the camera is right in your face. When you blink, there is a sentence, a thought. It can be brilliantly exciting work. So, yeah, I kind of mind not having the choices that I want, that excite me. But I don't really know what to do about it," Turner said.

"The film industry is very much controlled by its marketing research, which is youth-oriented, where the market is for tickets, clothes, drinks, whatever might be promoted by a film, which is a lot of things," she said.

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