Turner, Lana (1920-1995)

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Turner, Lana (1920-1995)

Nicknamed the "Sweater Girl," actress Lana Turner defined feminine sexuality for a generation during the World War II era. She portrayed an archetypal character in The Postman Always Rings Twice, the first American film version of a James Cain novel and a seminal film noir, and helped reestablish the melodrama genre in the 1950s with her appearances in Peyton Place and Imitation of Life. But Turner's importance is not rooted in her acting. Turner was a movie star in the old style, a product of the studio system, a glamour girl, a femme fatale.

Jean Mildred Frances Turner's film career began when she was fifteen years old and was hired to be an extra in A Star Is Born. MGM gave her the name Lana, and studio publicity claimed she had been discovered by the editor of the Hollywood Reporter while having a strawberry soda at Schwab's drugstore; Turner later said she was drinking a Coke at the Top Hat Café. Her first significant role came in what was only her second film, Mervyn LeRoy's They Won't Forget (1937), in which she played Mary Clay, a teenage girl who is raped and murdered twelve minutes into the film. In her most famous scene, Turner has no dialogue and simply walks across the screen wearing the tight sweater that earned her her nickname. The scene launched Turner's career; critics wrote about "the girl in the sweater," and filmgoers sent fan letters to MGM.

Turner went on to make fifty-three films in thirty-nine years. In most of them she played a variation on one characterization: sexy but not quite slutty, strong but vulnerable. In 1945 Turner was one of the most highly paid actresses in Hollywood, and by the time she appeared in The Postman Always Rings Twice in 1946, she had already been a top box office draw for several years. Still, the film provided her with her definitive role; writing in The Films of Lana Turner, Lou Valentino observed, "if Turner fans had to make a choice, Postman is the movie they would most elect to have time-capsuled." In it, Turner plays the unhappy wife of a much older man who plots with a handsome young drifter to murder her husband. Because the Hays Code would not allow MGM to film a faithful adaptation of Cain's overtly sexual novel, director Tay Garnett dressed Turner in white for most of the film, which, according to Garnett, "made everything she did seem less sensuous. It was also attractive as hell. And it somehow took a little of the stigma off."

At the height of her popularity, Turner was a pervasive presence in American society. Children could buy Lana Turner paper dolls and coloring books. Her likeness was painted on airplane noses. There was a song titled "The Lana Turner Blues." Perhaps most significantly, Turner played a major role in defining the manner in which women would be portrayed in American popular culture. In the 1940s she appeared on magazine covers almost monthly. She endorsed beauty products and made the buxom look popular—in 1948 4.5 million breast pads were sold to American women, who wanted to look like the Sweater Girl.

In the late 1950s Turner moved into melodramas. She received her only Academy Award nomination for Peyton Place, in which she plays a widowed woman who becomes the subject of scandal when she is forced to reveal that her teenaged daughter is illegitimate. In 1957, the signing of a sex symbol like Turner to the role of the mother made headlines. In Imitation of Life, Turner's most financially successful film, she plays an actress and mother who arranges for an unemployed African American woman, Annie, and her daughter to live with her and act as her servants. As the two women's daughters grow older, Annie's daughter "passes" for white and grows ashamed of her mother.

Turner was married seven times, most notably to bandleader Artie Shaw and actor Lex Barker. In 1958, Turner's daughter, Cheryl Crane, stabbed and killed Turner's boyfriend, mobster Johnny Stompanato. Turner survived the bad publicity surrounding Stompanato's murder and her daughter's trial with no visible damage to her career. She made nine more motion pictures after Imitation, and she appeared on television and on stage in the 1970s and 1980s. Turner died of throat cancer in 1995.

—Randall Clark

Further Reading:

Basinger, Jeanine. Lana Turner. New York, Pyramid, 1976.

Crane, Cheryl. Detour. New York, Arbor House, 1988.

Morella, Joe, and Edward Epstein. Lana: The Public and Private Lives of Miss Turner. New York, Citadel, 1971.

Root, Eric. The Private Diary of My Life with Lana. Beverly Hills, Dove Books, 1996.

Turner, Lana. Lana: The Lady, the Legend, the Truth. New York, Dutton, 1982.

Valentino, Lou. The Films of Lana Turner. Secaucus, New Jersey, Citadel, 1976.

White, Jane Ellen. Lana: The Life and Loves of Lana Turner. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1975.

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Turner, Lana (1920-1995)

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