Written by guest blogger: David Grimm
As students of film or simply strollers in the Garden of Cinema it is fair to ask, “Why Lana Turner?” From her first offerings in the MGM ‘Andy Hardy’ series to her last creaking groans on television’s ‘Falcon Crest’ it is all too clear she can’t act – she can’t sing – she can’t dance. At best in a director’s medium to long shot she makes a good mannequin for the gowns of Adrian, Jean-Louis and Oleg Cassini. But she can’t act.
Miss Turner’s best performance was not on the screen at all. It was in a courtroom during the trial of her daughter who was accused of murdering Lana’s lover, Johnny Stampanato. It’s seems that Mr. Stampanato was in the process of roughing up Lana when the daughter entered the scene with a kitchen knife and dispatched the man with a few well aimed slashes.
Miss Turner naturally took the stand for the defense and effectively testified for her daughter, amid tears and sobs. In the witness box Lana was wearing a conservative, gray two-piece suit (skirt and jacket) designed by Edith Head. It was the same suit she would wear on screen two years later in the sweeping soaper ‘Madam X.’ The same suit worn by Doris Day in ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’, Kim Novak in ‘Vertigo’ and Tippi Hedren in both ‘The Birds’ and later ‘Marnie.’ Hitchcock got a lot of use out of that simple gray suit.
So why do we love Lana Turner? Why did we think the world was flat? It makes no sense. Or does it? She is simply beautiful. A radiant being. She is Marilyn Monroe before there was Marilyn. And there was a film world before Marilyn. Turner has a gardenia-petal allure that makes the viewer lean in and smell the fragrance. I imagine she knew it. We knew it. The camera certainly knew it.
In ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice’ ( MGM 1946) all she has to do is stand there. Lana just stands there in white shorts and turban. She doesn’t need dialogue. She doesn’t even have to move. Just stand there and hope the camera doesn’t cut away. Director Tay Garnett said, “She knew what she had and what she didn’t have. She was smart enough to know the difference.” So much for acting. Men love her because she might be available. Women love her because she isn’t better than them.
In later film roles she becomes the feminist; before there was a Gloria Stienam or a Betty Friedan. Lana owned her own world. In Douglas Sirk’s 1959 ‘Imitation of Life’ we may mourn her loneliness, but we applaud her strength. She makes handsome John Gavin behave like a Cambridge schoolboy in short pants. In Jerry Wald’s 1957 production of ‘Peyton Place’ she doesn’t need a man at all. It’s just Lana. Roaring and raging across the screen like Drew Barrymore on Benzedrine.