Kathleen Turner was one of the hottest leading ladies to ever grace the silver screen. Her debut movie role in Body Heat (1981) is right up there with some of the greatest femme fatales from the 40’s and 50’s. But what Lauren Bacall, Barbara Stanwyck and Mary Astor left up to the audiences imaginations, Kathleen literally exposed in glamorous, steamy and saturated color. Her portrayal of a calculating wife ensnaring a lawyer into murdering her husband is incendiary. The sex scenes between Kathleen and co-star Bill Hurt are some of the hottest of any era. Kathleen left nothing to the imagination and we are forever in her debt.
I’m a huge fan of Body Heat. Lawrence Kasdan’s directorial debut is a master class in building suspense. The neo-noir storyline owes much to Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) starring Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray. Both films draw inspiration from the pot-boiler detective genre of a wife and lover who plot her husband’s murder. Both have crackling dialogue and explosive chemistry between their two beautiful leads. And by virtue of the fact that Kasdan’s Heat came after Wilder’s Indemnity, he could pull out all the stops on the lurid tale. However, Kasdan’s real ace was the casting of a then virtually unknown Kathleen Turner.
You can tell Turner gave everything she had to the role and more. Trained in the theater, her performance is incredibly-timed. She skillfully seduces the audience along with Hurt, sucking you in with the kind of sensuality and screen-siren skill-set reminiscent of Greta Garbo in Mata Hari (1931), or Jane Greer in Out of the Past (1944). Her unabashed sexuality dominates whenever she is on-screen. And thank god, she’s in almost every scene for the first hour of the movie.
The difference with Turner’s femme fatale is the complete lack of a conscience. So convincing, so complete is her deception that you can’t help but admire her ambition and drive, even while she’s eating you alive. That’s the true test of an actress playing a vamp: deep down on some primal level, you want to be vanquished by her. That’s what makes the outcome so delightfully inevitable in film noir. Kasdan’s Body Heat plays like many pre-code Hollywood movies, where the woman gets away with murder. Kathleen was born with a body and mind to play such a role – and her giving herself completely to the role made her a star overnight.
Kathleen Turner went on to do largely comedic roles (Steve Martin’s Man With Two Brains would be her very next role), Romancing the Stone being the best of them. Her fresh and natural good looks made her a wonderful, photogenic screen presence, but I think it was her intelligence that made her smoking hot. The fire in her eyes in every role she took on radiated a fierceness only the greatest screen siren’s possessed. It was this quality that put her in the pantheon next to Garbo, Stanwyck and Crawford.
So, some hot and sweaty summer night rent or buy Body Heat, turn off the light and turn on the fan for the glowing, wicked warmth of Kathleen Turner’s first and hands-down best performance. You won’t be able to take your eyes off Kathleen for one burning hot second. And you’ll want to smoke a cigarette after, because both Kathleen’s character and nicotine are equally addictive, hot and dangerous to your health.