It's a voice with an accent that falls somewhere between the American heartland and London's West End. Or is it the Deep South and sunny Spain?
In an era when cigarettes are social poison, this voice is unadulterated nicotine -- a sound so low and sultry, it could singe the phone wires. And then there's the vocabulary. "Extraordinarily" pops up more than once. So does "exhilarating." No understatement here, thank you.
The voice is so distinctive it couldn't belong to anyone but Kathleen Turner -- unless, of course, it belonged to Tallulah Bankhead.
"We have very similar vocal qualities," says Turner, who over the years has been compared to Bankhead by everyone from John Waters to the New York Times and is now portraying her in a one-woman show, "Tallulah." "I find it more similar than people might think -- not just the tone or timbre, but also she had a great facility for languages."
Turner's voice is wafting over the phone from Pittsburgh ("We call it glorious, glamorous Pittsburgh"), the third stop in the play's 11-city pre-Broadway tour. The show opens Tuesday at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre.
Turner and the late Tallulah have more in common than their voices. Both had parents in government service. Bankhead's father was speaker of the House; Turner's father was a career diplomat, who moved his family from Missouri, where Kathleen was born, to Canada, Cuba, Venezuela and England (which explains why her accent is all over the map).
And, of course, both women courted and earned the term "star."
Born in Huntsville, Ala., in 1903, Bankhead displayed a formidable ambition to become an actress even as a teen-ager. When Picture-Play magazine awarded her a movie contract at age 15, her grandfather countered her father's resistance by saying, "Let her go on the stage. She's not worth a damn for anything but acting" (in the words of her ghostwritten 1952 autobiography).
That autobiography is titled simply "Tallulah" -- a one-word appellation that became instantly recognizable around the world. Although she cultivated a reputation for hard drinking and hard living, Bankhead was also a hard worker. She starred in a score of movies, most notably Alfred Hitchcock's "Lifeboat" (1944), and more than four dozen plays, including Lillian Hellman's "The Little Foxes" and Thornton Wilder's "The Skin of Our Teeth."
Bankhead was known for being outrageously outspoken, and though Turner keeps her conversation well within the bounds of propriety, in an interview she talks openly about everything from embarrassing moments on stage to her student days at the University of Maryland Baltimore County to her battle with rheumatoid arthritis.
The 1977 UMBC grad was in her mid-20s when she got her big break -- an unknown cast as the femme fatale in Law-rence Kasdan's "Body Heat" (1981). She probably could have played a similar role the rest of her life. Instead, she returned to Washington, where her family had once lived, and played Titania in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at Arena Stage. Since then, she has chosen roles that demonstrate range -- from adventure ("Romancing the Stone") to comedy ("Serial Mom") to self-parody ("Who Framed Roger Rabbit?"). Yet like the stars of the past, Turner is always, to some extent, playing herself.
She is continuing to expand her range with Sandra Ryan Heyward's play, "Tallulah" -- Turner's first one-woman show. "It's extraordinarily exhilarating to have this whole audience only focused on you, exciting and thrilling and satisfying," she says, barely pausing as she adds: "It's very frightening in that if you don't stay totally focused and you lose your place, there's this wave of panic because there's no one there to help you out. You can't cast a desperate look at your co-star."
She did lose her place almost two years ago when the show made its American premiere at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami. "I was shaken. I had to say, 'Excuse me, please. I have to check on something,' " she recalls. Then she dashed into the wings to consult the stage manager.
"I had a good friend there that night, Geraldine Chaplin. It was the first preview. She said, 'Oh, honey, you were so vulnerable. It was so honest. I think you should keep it.' I said, 'No way.' "
"Tallulah" takes place at Bankhead's home in Bedford Village, N.Y., where she is giving a fund-raiser for the 1948 campaign for incumbent President Harry S. Truman. As Turner sees it, her character is not strictly alone in the play. "[The playwright] treats the audience as if they're invited guests, using the audience as characters in her play. So I'm always talking to them. Sometimes they talk back, so a little ad lib is in order."
This is precisely what happened last month, when "Tallulah" was in Boston. "There's a passage where I say, 'Do you think that bisexuality makes for marvelous love?' A woman yelled out, 'You bet.' I said, 'Well, honey, I agree with you.' "
No Bankhead clone