On a March morning in Tribeca, Kathleen Turner is sipping a tea — and spilling the tea — about the time she and Michael Douglas nearly died in a plane crash. The year was 1985 and they were shooting the romantic action flick The Jewel of the Nile in Morocco. “We were flying back to Fez,” she recalls, “the two of us on a little jet. It was late at night — I don’t know what time it was — but the pilot said, ‘I have no runway lights.’ As we were coming in, the wing started to tip and the pilot jerked up. Because we would have flipped. Michael and I grabbed hands and said [to each other],
‘If one of us gets out of here, tell the other’s spouse I love them.’” The actors held their breath, and as the pilot made a second attempt, mercifully, “the lights suddenly came back on.”
Turner, 63, is a natural born storyteller. Which bodes well for her first cabaret show, Finding My Voice, coming to the Café Carlyle on May 22 for two weeks. Seated in a corner booth at her neighborhood hangout, The Odeon, she essentially tries out her material, holding forth on the frank sexuality that made her a star, the mistakes she’s made (namely working with Burt Reynolds), and the battle with rheumatoid arthritis that nearly ended her career.
Finding My Voice is a surprising title for a show from Turner, a woman who, by all accounts, never struggled to wield her power. A 1989 interview with Barbra Walters began with this introduction: “There are some people who find Kathleen Turner’s self-confidence a little off-putting. … Most of the men I know say they could just listen to the sound of her voice if she didn’t have anything to say. But she has plenty to say.” She still does.
But first, breakfast. Turner scans the menu quickly, then orders four slices of the restaurant’s breads for us to share. “We can handle that,” she tells the waitress (which is how I will be ordering everything from now on).
Turner’s unlikely life story provides the backbone of her new act, starting with her peripatetic childhood abroad. Turner’s father worked in the Foreign Service, and Kathleen came of age in far-flung locales like Caracas before attending high school in London (hence her alluring if hard-to-place accent). Her father passed away just shy of her 18th birthday, and suddenly she and her mother found themselves living with relatives in, well, she’ll tell you. “We ended up in Springfield, Missouri, which was” — she literally snorts — “I don’t know how to describe it.…” Like so many of us who struggled to fit in during our teenage years, she turned to the theater. “And it saved my life.” Onstage, this story leads organically into “Paper Moon,” a song “about believing in that world, and how real it was to me.”
Finding My Voice moves quickly to her arrival in New York and that first rush of mad success. Turner made her Broadway debut in 1977, in a play called Gemini, then demanded Hollywood’s attention as the femme fatale in Body Heat, a film noir co-starring a gorgeous, lean William Hurt (with a mustache built for sitting on). It was trial by wildfire, and the role required a seriously dizzying number of love scenes. The director, Lawrence Kasdan, “thought it would be a great ice breaker for the first scene to be the one with total nudity,” Turner recalls with a wry smile. “You’re meeting the crew in a bathrobe with nothing underneath. ‘Hi, I’m the camera guy.’ Larry — bless him — thought it was a brilliant idea. I must have cried for an hour afterwards. It shook me badly.”
Watching the film now, you’d never know. Turner looks fantastic in a parade of silk blouses. But it was more about her gestalt. She was only 27 at the time but seared herself into the public consciousness with one of the best cinematic flirtations of all time: “You aren’t too smart, are you? I like that in a man.” She was a broad in the great tradition of Old Hollywood. And when she later introduced herself to Lauren Bacall, Bacall clapped back: “I know who you are. You’re the young me.”
That moment — and the work that followed — was undeniably thrilling, and prompts the song, “Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home.” With that sultry, phone sex voice, who else could bring Jessica Rabbit to life in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? It’s kind of insane how famous Turner was at the time. Romancing the Stone, The Jewel of the Nile, an Oscar nomination for Peggy Sue Got Married, a Tony nomination for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. She was talented as hell. Just ask her! When Jack Nicholson advised Turner against doing Cat on a Hot Tin Roof — “‘You’ll have this huge target painted on your back, kid. They hate movie stars on Broadway.’” — she replied, “You don’t understand. I’m better on stage.”
Finding her voice? She had it from the jump. Turner, who for more than 25 years has served as Planned Parenthood’s Chair of the Board of Advocates, started volunteering for that organization at 19, when she was broke and needed a doctor. Of Vice President Mike Pence’s promise to outlaw abortion, Turner shakes her head. “The disregard for women’s lives is extraordinary to me. What gives a man the right to say what a woman can do with her body?”
She’s always been vocal. It’s just that, you may be asking yourself, where has she been lately? While her stage career has thrived (in 2005 she earned a second Tony award nomination for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), her last major film appearance was in 2014, in Dumb and Dumber To, where she played an aging, weathered sex symbol. Jim Carrey actually dismisses her and her “blowfish jowls.” Turner was in on the joke. And she’s the best thing in the movie. But is this really all Hollywood has to offer her?
If you’ve been sleeping on Turner’s legacy, she was basically the Jennifer Lawrence of 1984 — an outspoken raw talent with an unbridled sexuality. In fact, J. Law was supposed to play her in a flashback in the Dumb and Dumber sequel, except the scheduling didn’t work out. It would have been a pretty awesome through line to Old-ish Hollywood. And also maybe a warning shot about how this business has treated — and still treats — so-called difficult women. Of her reputation, Turner sniffs, “Men are not called difficult. They’re decisive! Or assertive.” But opinionated women, well, we know what happens to them.
Later that day I’ll see a story in my Twitter feed about how Sharon Stone just landed a role written for a 25-year-old woman. I don’t know how to feel about it. Stone looks almost exactly like she did in Basic Instinct. But that’s an impossible standard. For her part, Turner looks better in person than the rumors would have you believe. Actually, she looks pretty damn good — in maroon cashmere and black pants, regal and sturdy. Like she’s more than ready to tangle with Kathy Bates and Jessica Lange in a Ryan Murphy joint. She’s certainly aged better than the gay panic jokes in Friends, where she played Chandler’s dad.
The most poignant moment of our breakfast will also be, I’m guessing, the most poignant moment of her cabaret show. Shortly after filming the John Waters black comedy Serial Mom in 1993, Turner was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, a painful autoimmune disease that triggers inflammation of the joints and organs. “The doctors told me I’d be in a wheelchair the rest of my life,” she said. “I would meet people who’d had R.A. for more than a few years — they had no hands and they couldn’t walk.” She quotes a lyric from “Send in the Clowns,” which she also sings in her show: “Losing my timing this late in my career… it felt like what was going on with me.”
Steroids helped, but the medication left her bloated, and looking not quite like herself. Alcohol numbed the physical pain and the emotional wreckage as her 20-year marriage fell apart. But the tabloid headlines were particularly harsh.
Turner got the drinking under control. And divorced, too, having amicably split with her husband in 2007. And her disease is under control thanks to advancements in medication. She sold her apartment on the Upper West Side and moved downtown, where she’s often seen, miraculously, biking along the Hudson River.
Thankfully, that voice — like hot coals simmered in whiskey — is still there. Many people have done impressions of her over the years, but she is partial to one in particular. “Sarah Paulson did one on a late-night show,” Turner says. “She went hard and heavy. I thought, OK.”
Turner’s been friends with Paulson’s girlfriend, Holland Taylor, ever since they appeared together in 1984’s Romancing the Stone, and she can’t help but weigh in on the coupling, saying, “This romance is quite delicious.” Of her own dating life, she waves the question away: “I don’t know what’s going on there.” What she’d rather talk about is the stage, and how she’d like to play King Lear, calling the play “the most extraordinary exploration of self-deception.” Perhaps this cabaret show will be a reminder of how game she is. Of her singing voice, she says with a laugh: “My pianist says I’m one of three women he’s ever met who can sing ‘Ol Man River’ in the original key.”
As we pay the check, I wonder about that title: Finding My Voice. Hasn’t she always known her power?
“In some ways, yes. But in other ways, I’ve always acted. This is my life. And my stories.” She ruminates for a moment. “I own this. This is mine. I am attracted to the risk. Which drives my daughter crazy. She’s like, ‘What if you fail?’ Then you fail.”