I hear Kathleen Turner before I see her. She has a guttural, slurring voice that is several fathoms below the surface of normal female speech. As I sit waiting for her with my head in a book, this voice rolls up and out across the restaurant like a breaker. We are on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, around the corner from her apartment overlooking the Hudson River, and she has stopped to say hello to some friends on her way to my table. She has her back to me and I am filled with a sudden trepidation as I wait for her to turn. Her voice, as she herself has put it, is more recognisable than she is these days.
It seems a cruel fate to be frozen in the public memory as a lithe, icy-yet-smouldering, husky-voiced sex symbol in your mid-twenties, but that is what the 54-year-old Kathleen Turner has to contend with every day. It is hard to exaggerate the extent to which she was considered cinematic Viagra in her day. She was even offered that draughty Sharon Stone role in Basic Instinct and turned it down on the grounds of it being too tacky. Certainly, it is no exaggeration to describe her as an icon of 1980s cinema, not least because Body Heat, her first film and first box-office hit, was made in 1981 and her last big hit, The War of the Roses, was made in 1989.
In Body Heat she played a cold-hearted femme fatal opposite William Hurt and delivered the unforgettable line, ‘You’re not too smart. I like that in a man.’ She was pretty chilling in her second film as well, The Man With Two Brains, and that was a comedy. A trilogy of rom-coms with Michael Douglas followed – Romancing the Stone, The Jewel of the Nile and The War of the Roses – and these made her one of the most bankable female stars in Hollywood.
There was an Oscar nomination for Peggy Sue Got Married and then her turn came as Jessica Rabbit, the cartoon figure she voiced in Who Framed Roger Rabbit – ‘I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way.’ But then, in the 1990s, she seemed to disappear off the radar. There were sightings of her looking bloated and raddled; reports of her having become an alcoholic. She didn’t deny them. She thought them preferable to the truth.
She had succumbed to rheumatoid arthritis, a crippling auto-immune disease that affects the tissue in the joints, and the steroids she was taking for it were the cause of her changing appearance and making her look puffy – though the vodka she started drinking to kill the pain didn’t help. As things transpired, she did become an alcoholic and went into rehab in 2002.
But instead of becoming a recluse when she came out, she reinvented herself as a stage actress, an acclaimed one, both on Broadway and in the West End: first as Mrs Robinson in The Graduate, then in an award-winning performance as Martha, the acerbic, hard-drinking faculty wife in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? After that, in 2006, she got a divorce and sat down to write an autobiography. There’s a lot to talk about, then. The woman has lived.
And here I am, sitting at a corner table in the restaurant, waiting for her to turn round. When she finally does, the air tightens. She gives a toss of the head and a smile exposing expensive American teeth – she had them fixed after the studios complained that, because she had spent part of her teenage years in London, she had ‘English teeth’.
When she sits down, I see she is wearing a silky Chinese jacket and no make-up. Her skin is not smooth and she has a low brow, with thick, dusty blonde hair that spills over her shoulders. For a moment, this adds to an impression that her features are somehow too small for her face, then they seem to come into focus and I realise that there always was something snubby about her look. Hers was an enigmatic beauty, neither obvious nor bland – chiselled from wood rather than sculpted from marble. And something about the way light catches her eyes, one hazel, one blue, as she tilts back her head makes her suddenly unmistakable.
‘Friends of mine,’ she growls with a backward look over her shoulder. ‘Like just about everyone around here, they work in the theatre.’ She has lived in the theatre district of New York for most of her adult life, eschewing Hollywood because she didn’t want to raise her daughter there. ‘Your engagement with the world is completely out of whack in LA. I mean, all their body-image problems. Once I had a daughter, there was no way in hell I was going to bring her up out there.’
She is quite unstarry in her habits, she tells me. Takes buses. Potters around the grocery store and the pharmacist. Chats to the garbage men she sees every morning on her way to the gym. They know about her numerous feet and knee operations and are used to seeing her with a cane or on crutches. ‘Yeah, this is my neighbourhood. Lived here for 16 years. Let’s eat. I’m hungry. I’m going to have steak tartare. Haven’t had much meat lately.’
I nearly choke on my drink. Though she didn’t mean it that way, it just sounds so, well?… What about alcohol? I ask. Has she had much of that lately? ‘Just back from a two-week vacation to the wine region of northern California. Rented a convertible. It was so nice not to have a schedule. I have friends in the vineyards there. So, yeah, sometimes I drink wine.
‘I know it is not approved behaviour but, the truth is, I haven’t had an incident for many years now. Hope I never do again. I know it is a serious danger, but I don’t have the pain that I had and don’t have the personal pressures that I had. What can I say? Alcohol is a powerful anaesthetic. It works! It works!’ She gives a raucous laugh then looks serious again. ‘It is so hard to explain to people that kind of chronic, endless pain that you can’t do anything to relieve – can’t sit, stand, lie, anything. It hurts from the inside out. It’s hard to explain what it does to your mind. You will take any escape. I went too far with the drinking but I don’t feel I have the need or the inclination to do that any more.
‘You know, RA is a very bad disease. Very difficult. You have a permanent low-level fluey feeling, a constant temperature and nausea.’ She raises her arms in the air, clenches her fists and shakes them. ‘You think, “Get the f— outta my body!”‘
She still feels angry about her disease, clearly. ‘My first feeling was relief that it had a name, because I thought I was dying from something nameless. Having a name for it gave me a point of attack. Honestly?…’ She sighs. ‘I was 37 years old when I was diagnosed and I thought, why should I expect to be incapacitated? It wasn’t as if I had done a stupid stunt that broke my neck – though, boy, I came close to that.
‘I suppose I felt a sense of helplessness. The day I was told, I went from the hospital to kindergarten for a meeting with my daughter’s teacher and looked at these little chairs and started crying because I knew there was no way I would be able to get into that chair. Anger certainly came along after that. Anger is never far from my sense of self. A core of anger has sustained me through many things. I become more articulate in an argument. I’m scary. When I go quiet, run!’
In her autobiography, Send Yourself Roses, she writes that she wants to apologise to anyone she was unpleasant to when she was drinking. In what ways unpleasant? ‘I’ve seen it in other families but not mine at all. We were never discourteous. Never have a tone of voice that was harsh. Then to hear it coming from my own mouth. It was like I was possessed. It was terrible. I was ashamed and shocked. Didn’t know I had it in me. Wrong!’
Her decision not to reveal the truth about her illness was one she took with her agent as well as her husband. The logic was that, in Hollywood at least, it is more acceptable for you to drink or do drugs than to be ill. Contracts are more likely to waive insurance for drink and drug addiction, than for serious illness. There was a precedent for this, after all. Michael J. Fox hid his Parkinson’s disease for years so that he could keep working.
Her illness, she says, sapped not only her strength but also her confidence. ‘And then there was the personal side, too,’ she says as her steak tartare arrives. ‘The sexual relationship is not pleasurable because it hurts to be touched. My husband was wonderfully patient and supportive, but I missed the sex. I missed it as being a part of me, part of my identity. I enjoy sex. I enjoy the hell out of it!’
How are things in that respect at the moment? ‘Boring. Not easy. It’s not so easy. I think many men are put off by, well, by me.’I suppose the name comes with some baggage. ‘Maybe. Maybe they don’t want to be part of this, have this responsibility, being photographed and appearing in public and having your life scrutinised. Maybe they are right to choose not to.’
There are scratches on the backs of her hands. ‘My cats have been at me,’ she says when she notices me noticing them. She lives alone these days, after being married for 22 years to Jay Weiss, a wealthy New York property developer. Their marriage had survived years of scrutiny, so what, I ask, was the reason for their split in the end? ‘I don’t think there is a simple explanation. I don’t think there ever is. I think we became too difficult for each other because our lives were going different ways. He wanted to be part of the public world less and less. He was tired of the publicity, and the travel, and being, as he would call it, “Mr Turner”.’
She reckons she and her husband are still great friends – just happier apart. At first she felt relieved to be on her own. ‘The peace of my own place, you know. I started painting rooms all these colours that he would have minded, one green, one terracotta… Then I started to grieve because I realised, “Nobody knows where I am right now.” Always, for 20-some years, Jay knew where I was.’
On the other hand, she felt she was ‘coming to a place where I was opening up more and I didn’t want my life to get smaller. My daily, child-rearing duties were over. Well, one hopes. At the moment I have my doubts.’ She laughs again, a room-filling laugh. Her daughter, Rachel, is a 20-year-old university student. ‘She’s a terrific kid but I am kind of hoping she will leave home soon.’
Her lowest moment came, she says, when she found herself crying in the bathroom, unable to squeeze moisturiser out of a bottle because she could no longer grip anything with her hands. Rachel was four at the time and said, ‘I can do that for you, Mommy.’
At one point, her daughter even had to feed her because she couldn’t hold a spoon. ‘You never want to look helpless in front of your child. It was hard not being able to play with her. She would say, “Come on, Mom, run!”, and years later, after many operations and much medication, Rachel and I were going somewhere and I ran with her across a road and she said, “Mom, you ran!” I suppose I never expected to again, having been told I would spend the rest of my life in a wheelchair, you know. Instinctively, I would count the steps to the bus stop, just to brace myself for having to walk a distance.’
Turner is pretty good on the self-analysis, describing herself as ‘funny, smart, irreverent, silly, stubborn and demanding’. Her self-awareness even extends to admitting that her self-awareness is probably down to her having had the same therapist, a woman, for the past quarter of a century. ‘It’s preventive really. She’s a sounding board. My shrink has told me I have unresolved issues.’
Such as? ‘My father dying when he did. I was 17. A great time of transition in my life.’ Her father, a US diplomat, died suddenly of coronary thrombosis while on a posting to London. He was mowing the lawn at the time and she reckons he died angry with her, because they had had an argument. Her father hadn’t been keen on her becoming an actress, considering it one up from street-walking. ‘His death left me with an inherent insecurity that I would fight to hide. I would see others as being as flawed as I see myself. It’s one reason I wouldn’t be 20 again. Who needs to be hag-ridden like that? I wasn’t a happy 20-year-old.’
Really? She wouldn’t want to be 20 again? Everyone wants to be 20 again. ‘Not me. I’m so much better now, at my job, at caring and relating to be people, so much less self-involved. I’m a better person now. I was inexperienced, then. I wouldn’t deliberately damage someone, but I couldn’t see what could be done to protect someone either.’
The actress lost her virginity at 19 and found the experience ‘disappointing’ – but sex got better, and by the time she had returned to America and graduated with a degree in drama from the University of Maryland she was very comfortable about her sexuality, particularly her power over men. Famously, she once said: ‘You know how it is when you know you are really sexy? On nights when I feel great about myself, if I walk into a room and a man doesn’t look at me, he’s either dead or gay.’
Our waitress arrives, an actress in between jobs. That was what Turner was doing when she was cast in Body Heat, and she went back to waitressing while waiting for the film to be released. ‘For all I knew, it was going to be a flop and I needed to carry on paying the rent. But then, suddenly, Bill [Hurt] and I were hot.
‘Men were pursuing me all over the place. I went to a dinner party and Jack Nicholson was there and afterwards, when I got home, Jack was ringing saying: “How could you do that to me? You were my date.” I said, “I was your date? No one told me.” It was very odd but there was all this?… I didn’t know the rules, having not grown up in LA, thank God?… I felt hounded and hunted by men there. I thought after Body Heat I would never marry. Because who would want to take that on? When Jay said I was the woman for him, I said, “Are you crazy?”‘
Sitting in the Manhattan restaurant enjoying her meat she seems animated to the point of hyperactivity. She widens her eyes, tosses back her head, cackles manically. She even slips into Dick van Dyke English from time to time, for my benefit, and uses oddly old-fashioned phrases such as ‘Oh my stars and garters’ and ‘Heavens to Betsy’.
At one point I excuse myself and forget to turn my tape-recorder off only to find, when I later listen to it, that she hums to herself when alone. Actually, she does seem self-possessed and she is quite a one for bigging herself up, talking about her ‘range’ and how her films were ‘ground-breaking’ and how her ‘agent tells me offers to direct are pouring in’. Her relentless self-affirmation seems to mask vulnerability, though, as well as a certain sadness.
This autumn, she plans to return to the London stage in the new Edward Albee play, Me, Myself and I. She plays the mother. ‘I said to Edward, “It’s mother roles for me from now on.”‘ The playwright is a big fan of hers, having told her she looked like his idea of Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: ‘Strong and somewhat plain, and unpretentious, as though she had really lived.’
It’s not a bad description of Kathleen Turner either. She does, after all, do a nice line in self-parody, having played on her reputation as a gay icon by taking the part of Chandler’s transsexual father in Friends – ‘A woman playing a man playing a woman,’ she recalls with her deep and wheezy laugh that sounds like the last drop being squeezed from a tube of suntan lotion. Her memoirs reveal her to be unprecious about Hollywood, too.
Burt Reynolds was ‘just nasty’, Steve Martin was ‘quite stiff and unfunny, when he wasn’t being funny on film.’ And Nicolas Cage she dismissed as a ‘self-involved egotist’, though she was obliged to apologise to him after he successfully sued her earlier this year for falsely characterising him as a drink-driver who once stole a chihuahua. So there is exaggeration there, as well as blunt honesty.
She reckons she is getting blunter with each passing year. As to her appearance, she says that it makes no sense for people to compare her to how she looked 25 years ago. ‘These people who do that didn’t stop growing or changing, so why would I look the same?’ She is quite right of course, but there does seem something almost wilful about the way she now checks her watch, takes out her lipstick and applies it unselfconsciously before popping it back in her handbag – I get the feeling she hadn’t worn make-up deliberately.
Anyway, she has another appointment downtown and, before she leaves, she slips her sunglasses on indoors, a little touch of Hollywood in New York.