“I want more!” Lana Turner spoke these words as aspiring actress Lora Meredith in Imitation of Life (1959), but they could have been uttered by almost any of her characters over her 4 decades in Hollywood. Turner played women who wanted things: money, status, a successful man. These desires often lead the women to unfortunate places – mid-century Hollywood wasn’t exactly encouraging of female ambition – but they gave Turner’s best performances a formidable intensity. Her acting was big, often a little campy (particularly in the melodramas of her later career), and always demanded your attention.
Frequently, Turner’s off-screen life would overshadow her on-screen one. Her father was murdered when she was 9 years old (they never found his killer). She had 8 marriages to 7 husbands. One of Turner’s boyfriends, Johnny Stompanato, was killed by her teenage daughter Cheryl, in an attempt to save her mother from his violent rage. Turner’s acting prowess was never valued particularly highly – for the most part, it still isn’t – and her personal travails added to the consensus that she was frivolous through and through; not worth respect as either a person or as an actor.
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The consensus was wrong. For her centenary, here are 10 films that prove that Lana Turner was well worth taking seriously.
Ziegfeld Girl (1941)
Director: Robert Z. Leonard
In the film that truly set her on the path towards mega-stardom, Turner played one of 3 ingénues – alongside Hedy Lamarr and Judy Garland – newly appointed to the Broadway revue show the Ziegfeld Follies. Whereas Lamarr and Garland excel, Turner’s elevation from elevator operator to glamorous showgirl drives away her long-time boyfriend (James Stewart), and sets her on a path towards self-destruction.
In Ziegfeld Girl, Turner portrays a desperately sad woman who uses alcohol to numb her pain – the type of role she would play often throughout her career. This combination of determination and fragility would become a cornerstone of all her best performances.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941)
Director: Victor Fleming
Ingrid Bergman cannily arranged to switch roles with Turner in this adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson story, and it’s easy to see why – the cheery cockney barmaid who gets menaced by Hyde is a far meatier part than Jekyll’s loyal, sheltered fiancée.
Even with the less interesting character, Turner is always convincing as a woman terrified by her beloved’s increasingly strange behaviour. This would be one of the few times she played a character who was uncomplicatedly ‘good’, and though it feels strange to see her as someone devoid of any edge, it’s another demonstration of her undervalued range.
Slightly Dangerous (1943)
Director: Wesley Ruggles
While Turner as an actress is mostly associated with her noir and melodramatic roles, the underrated Slightly Dangerous shows that she could also be a comedic talent.
As a small-town soda jerk who – after a series of misadventures – finds herself posing as the long-lost daughter of a wealthy businessman (Walter Brennan), Turner is wistful, determined and funny. Although her leading man, Robert Young, is a bit of a damp squib, between them they still manage to conjure up a light, sweet chemistry. The scene in which they dance together at an empty late-night diner, with hamburgers in their hands, is swooningly romantic.
The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)
Director: Tay Garnett
The Postman Always Rings Twice is both one of the all-time great noirs and one of Turner’s career highlights. She’s Cora, whose marriage to the much-older Nick (Cecil Kellaway) comes under immediate threat when Frank (John Garfield) comes striding into their diner. An illicit romance swiftly follows, and before long so does a murder plot.
Even though Cora becomes a killer, Turner’s rich performance invites empathy. You can always understand why she feels the need to take such drastic action; how her life has hemmed her into a corner and it seems that murder is the only way out. Turner’s intense, steamy chemistry with John Garfield makes even the less dramatic scenes smoulder.
The Three Musketeers (1948)
Director: George Sidney
In The Three Musketeers Turner is the right-hand woman of arch-villain Vincent Price, who charges her with helping him to topple the queen (Angela Lansbury) and the musketeers who have sworn to defend her (led by Gene Kelly).
Initially, Turner accepted a suspension from the studio rather than a role in this star-studded adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’s legendary novel, not considering her part to be big enough. Happily, she changed her mind somewhere along the way. While it isn’t exactly her finest hour, there’s a lot of fun to be had watching her villainously devour the scenery (for the first time in glorious Technicolor).
The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)
Director: Vincente Minnelli
“When you’re on the screen, no matter who you’re with or what you’re doing, the audience is looking at you. That’s star quality.” Although Kirk Douglas’s movie producer addresses this to Turner’s character, he could just as well be speaking to Turner herself.
Gloria Grahame won an Oscar for her brief supporting role in The Bad and the Beautiful, but some think the award should have gone to Turner for her wrenching turn as an alcoholic actress who is manipulated by the ruthlessly charming Douglas. Her skill at playing ambitious characters beset by vulnerability was never quite so affecting.
Peyton Place (1957)
Director: Mark Robson
Turner’s sole Oscar nomination was for her scene-stealing role in Peyton Place: a big, soapy melodrama full of intrigue, romance and scandal. She anchors the many juicy interconnecting storylines in typically commanding style.
Not for the last time in her filmography (not even for the last time in the 1950s), Turner’s role as a single mother with a complicated romantic history and a tricky relationship with her daughter would bear more than a passing resemblance to her personal life: the courtroom scenes of the final act would eerily presage the Johnny Stompanato scandal of the following year.
Imitation of Life (1959)
Director: Douglas Sirk
Imitation of Life was Turner’s first project with melodrama mogul Ross Hunter, who would produce the best films of the remainder of her career (though none would better this Douglas Sirk-directed classic).
As in Peyton Place, there’s certainly a lot of art imitating life in this tale of the difficult relationships between 2 single mothers and their daughters. Though for much of the movie Turner’s storyline plays second fiddle to Juanita Moore’s (Moore plays an African-American housekeeper whose light-skinned daughter is determined to pass for white), her performance is typically powerful and engaging.
Portrait in Black (1960)
Director: Michael Gordon
Turner and Anthony Quinn play lovers who decide to kill her cruel, bed-bound husband (Lloyd Nolan). The murder is pulled off successfully, but soon they receive a note from a stranger who claims to have discovered their crime. Paranoia reigns as the pair desperately search for their blackmailer.
Portrait in Black often gets lost amid the more high-profile melodramas in Turner’s filmography, which is a real shame: it’s an entertaining and worthwhile film in its own right. Through all the typically preposterous narrative convolutions, her outsized, magnetic lead turn provides the movie with much of its campy fun.
Madame X (1966)
Director: David Lowell Rich
Turner’s last collaboration with Ross Hunter was another big, blowsy melodrama. The high emotional tenor of Alexandre Bisson’s source play has made it irresistible to filmmakers over the years – the 1966 version was the ninth time it was adapted for the screen.
Turner plays a society wife who, driven to distraction by the frequent absences of her diplomat husband (John Forsythe), embarks on an affair with a local lothario – and disaster ensues. Overblown though it all may be, Turner’s performance is one of her most impressive, taking her character from the prim, naive woman of the opening scenes to the desperate wreck of the finale, with gut-wrenching conviction.