Imitations of Life

"What a horrifying sight": Lana Turner

MORE THAN JUST an influential case of reality TV, the 1958 news footage of Hollywood diva Lana Turner tearfully defending her teenage girl against a murder charge is a vivid reflection of art, life, and everything in between. Addressing an L.A. coroner's jury in a chic silk suit, her blonde hair piled into an alarming bouffant, the 38-year-old actor clutched her crumpled hankie and stammeringly recalled the fateful event. On the evening of Good Friday, 1958, in the pink boudoir of Turner's Beverly Hills mansion, 14-year-old Cheryl Crane plunged an eight-inch butcher knife into the abdomen of Johnny Stompanato, the abusive ex-Marine-turned-mobster whom Mom had been seeing.

According to Turner, her hour-long testimony--reprising the courtroom climax of the equally shameless Peyton Place, for which she had just received an Oscar nomination--was "a humiliating ordeal." But the reviews and the grosses were magnificent: Life found the star "quivering with emotion she had never approximated in movies," while Newsweek reported that the post-trial ticket sales for Peyton Place swelled by 20 percent in some cities. Even more flattering was the fact that the jury bought the performance, ruling the death a justifiable homicide. Indeed, the ten-year-old O.J. Simpson--cast decades later as the bully in his own piercing legal drama--might well have studied Turner's play book in preparation for how to act like a celebrity when it really counts.

In a way, Lana Turner--who's the subject, along with Susan Hayward, of Walker Art Center's "Summer of Love" series of classic melodramas in Loring Park--had been preparing for this very real weeper all her life. Born to a mine-foreman father who was killed during a craps game when she was still in grade school, Turner was playing hooky from Hollywood High when she was discovered sipping soda in a drugstore and swiftly placed under contract. Some would say it was only the artless ingénue's anatomical merits that prompted MGM to promote this "sweater girl." But by 1946, the wartime pinup had become a major movie star through her sultry turn as the adulterous killer of The Postman Always Rings Twice (screening Monday, July 23 at dusk)--the first of four films in which the sweater girl is called to the stand.

The third of these, 1957's Peyton Place, has Turner's character successfully testify in defense of a teenage girl who has beaten her violent stepfather to death. Hmmm. Might the star's own daughter have been thinking of this blockbuster when, just ten days after accompanying Mom to the Oscars, she grabbed one of the knives from the cutlery set that Stompanato had purchased as a housewarming gift? Did Turner consciously consider that her most persuasive soaper to date might help her kid beat the rap? No matter: A year later, Imitation of Life (Monday, August 13 at dusk) drew on the recent reality by casting Turner as an actor stuck enduring a difficult daughter, making martyring mother love into one of the central components of her so-called "star text."

As Imitation of Life likewise imitated movies, being a remake of an earlier film, Turner imitated its success in 1966 through another life-imitating remake. Playing with speculation that it was the diva's own hand on the knife, Madame X (Monday, July 16 at dusk) features Turner as a lonely woman whose depression causes two sleazy men to meet their maker. Although this campy yet cruel "women's picture" contrives to put the icon's last compelling character on the witness stand (and at risk of losing her child!), the other fact of life that needed imitation here was Turner's age. Completed the same year as the star's first face-lift, Madame X viciously spans two dozen years in its protagonist's life--inspiring one gossip columnist of the time to joke that Constance Bennett, giving her final performance as the heroine's bitchy mother-in-law, looked younger without makeup than Turner did with it.

Naturally, the star saw fit to have the last word in her 1982 autobiography. "What a horrifying sight," she wrote of discovering Madame X in the mirror, "that strange, aged face!" By which she meant: That little old lady was just another imitation of life.

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