Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Lana Turner: Georgia on My Mind

When I look at classic Hollywood movies and read about the heyday of the Hollywood studio system, I often wonder if some of the big stars were fully appreciated at their home studios.  Olivia de Havilland toiled at Warner Bros. for years.  Both of her Best Actress Oscars were won for performances in Paramount features.  Not a one of her five nominations came for a Warner Bros. picture.  Look at the all the years of service Joan Crawford put in at MGM.  From the silent era to the sound era, she was a star.  But her first Oscar nomination came for Warner Bros.' Mildred Pierce after she was given the heave-ho from Metro.  Same thing with Judy Garland.  If little Quvenzhan√© Wallis was a Best Actress nominee for Beasts of the Southern Wild, Judy Garland should've been a Best Actress contender for The Wizard of Oz.  If Judy's performance in that classic 1939 musical action/fantasy hadn't worked, the whole big budget production would've fallen apart. She was just in her mid-teens and had to carry the whole movie musical. But her first Oscar nomination also came for a Warner Bros. production, 1954's A Star Is Born, after she got a similar MGM heave-ho.  The one Oscar nomination that Lana Turner received was her Best Actress nod for 1957's Peyton Place, a 20th Century Fox box office hit drama based on the scandalous best-selling novel of the same name.
Like Judy and Joan, Lana was a longtime MGM veteran who never got an Oscar nomination during her MGM years.  Did the studio just never campaign to get them nominated?  To me, Lana should've been an Oscar contender for her passionate performance as the co-dependent Hollywood daughter in 1952's, The Bad and The Beautiful.  Vincente Minnelli directed her in one of the strongest dramatic performances of her film career.  She really dug in and did some raw emotional work.  She showed us the dark side of being a famous, fabulous Hollywood star.  She showed us the potholes, ditches and detours encountered on the road to stardom.  When we meet her character, Georgia Lorrison, she is both bad and beautiful.  A producer will change her life.

Back in the late 1980s, when I was a talk show host on VH1, Carrie Fisher of Star Wars fame was one of my favorite guests.  Later, so was her MGM star mom, Debbie Reynolds.  They weren't on together, but both killed when they were on my show.  I loved them.  The studio crew loved them.  Especially Debbie.  Carrie was promoting her first novel, Postcards from the Edge.  She was adapting her best-seller into a screenplay.
She confirmed a small item I'd read -- that director Mike Nichols told her to watch Minnelli's The Bad and The Beautiful for tips on writing her first screenplay.  Her told her to watch it for structure.  I didn't get to ask her why that film in particular but, after I saw the movie Postcards from the Edge, I could see why.  The Lana Turner portion of Minnelli's Hollywood-on-Hollywood classic must have been a great inspiration for Carrie.  She'd brilliantly written almost an entirely new story.  In the novel, the relationship between the mother and daughter is a minor element.  The Hollywood Star Mom is only on a few pages.  Carrie expanded the relationship between the two related actresses in the book, Suzanne Vale and Doris Mann, for the film version starring Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine.  That co-dependent parent/child relationship is the core of the Carrie Fisher Postcards from the Edge screenplay adaptation.  For the "Only in Hollywood" files:  Shirley MacLaine was slated to star in MGM's The Unsinkable Molly Brown.  Debbie Reynolds got the role.  Debbie wanted to play Doris Mann, the character created by her daughter, Carrie Fisher.  Shirley MacLaine got the role.  Carrie, an actress herself, has had years learning how to come to terms with her mother's stardom.

Loosely based on the life of Diana Barrymore, Lana's Georgia Lorrison is a Hollywood daughter trapped under the shadow of a Hollywood superstar parent.  Georgia drinks too much.  She takes up the wrong men.  Wisecracking actress Suzanne Vale does too many party drugs and takes up with the wrong men.  She winds up in rehab and in recovery under the watchful eye of her former Hollywood musical queen mother, the often overbearing but devoted Doris Mann.  This is a wise, witty comedy.

Suzanne is making a new movie.  Both Suzanne and Carrie could understand how Lana's Georgia Lorrison felt trying to climb up to a level of emotional security and sanity in the Hollywood Hills.  Suzannne is never at a loss for advice from her Hollywood survivor mom.  Georgia felt forgotten by her late actor father.  Suzanne falls for a Hollywood heel played by Dennis Quaid.  He's a hotshot movie producer who has turned so many women into one-night stands that he should nickname his manhood "The Magic Johnson."
Georgia Lorrison falls for the talented and unscrupulous producer, Jonathan Shields (played with verve and muscle by Kirk Douglas).  He'll make Oscar-winning Hollywood history.  He is the worst and the best thing that could happen to her.  Jonathan is conflicted because, deep down, he's fallen in love with her and knows he's being a heel.

After Jean Harlow's untimely death in 1937, Lana Turner eventually picked up the mantle as MGM's top blonde.  She was perfect for the attitude of the 1940s.  The Big Band era.  The World War II years.  She was a luscious babe who loved the boys and the boys loved her.  Onscreen, Lana was at her best playing the good kid who was attracted to the bad boy and excited by the thought of being a bad girl for a little bit.  She had simmering passions that she wanted someone to turn up to the boiling point.  But acting on those passions, taking up with those bad boys, often caused her turmoil.  Onscreen and off.  Look at her as the elevator operator who gets discovered for the Ziegfeld Follies and takes the express car up to stardom.  She'll party too hard with the wrong guys.  She'll wind up a still gorgeous but alcoholic blonde of easy virtue whose career goes downstairs in Ziegfeld Girl.  Judy Garland and Hedy Lamarr co-starred in the 1941 movie.

She was luscious as the society girl who falls for a gangster called Johnny Eager.  Robert Taylor starred as the hoodlum in this very good 1941 crime drama.

She's the young babe married to an older man who owns a diner.  She wants better business, more excitement.  She and her lover served up burgers and murder in The Postman Always Rings Twice, a film noir classic co-starring John Garfield in 1946.

The best Lana Turner MGM characters merged Lana the MGM Hollywood star.  They didn't seem content to stay within the margins of society's and Hollywood's production codes of conservative, proper behavior.  They wanted to have fun while they were young and pretty.  But straying outside those margins often caused high drama.

Georgia was the perfect character for Lana Turner to play.  She got deeper into that persona and came up with new acting power.  She stretched her limited acting range.  Hollywood has pretty much kicked Georgia to the curb as a drunk and a tramp.  Jonathan Shields gets into her pitiful apartment and sees why she drinks.  There's a hole in her heart put there by her hard-drinking, delinquent, show biz legend/actor father.  Nevertheless, she's practically made one wall in her apartment to a shrine to him.

Dad didn't seem to need her.  Jonathan knows that there's talent, true talent in Georgia that can only bloom if she pulls herself out from her father's shadow.  Even in a bit part with a lousy script and a dull leading man, she's got definite star quality onscreen.  In The Bad and The Beautiful, there's talk of "the Jonathan Shields touch" in his acclaimed movies.  This film is rich with the Vincente Minnelli touch.  We see a peak moment of Georgia Lorrison insecurity and co-dependence.  She goes on a bender and trashes her miserable apartment.  She's afraid of failing in the plum role Jonathan got for her.  He's given her a diamond necklace as a gift.  She feels weight from those rocks -- the weight of pressure to be good.  That's why she falls off the wagon for one night and wrecks her apartment.  The inside looks like a hurricane hit it.  Jonathan breaks in to find her totally plastered.  But, in all that mess, she's clutching the gift from the man she loves.  Jonathan now knows how to deal with her.  He needs a star.  He needs to guide her from being needy to feeling that she's needed to rescue someone the way she wished her father would've rescued her.  Jonathan act needy and under pressure from the studio.

He can manipulate Georgia's move from under papa's shadow.  It works.  He will break her heart but when she gets over him, she will be her own woman.  Independent, strong, a star...and sober.  Look at Lana's Georgia in her first apartment encounter with Jonathan Shields.  She arrives home late and drunk.  He's in her apartment.  She's angry at first.  Then the friction settles down to a producer and actor meeting.  Turner tosses off the cynicism of Georgia so deftly.  She portrays an understanding of the basic loneliness and self-loathing hidden behind the beauty.  It's an act on top of camouflage.  Jonathan sees through Georgia.  When she gets into bed and extends a weary invitation to him to join her, he knows it's not for sex.  It's to cover up the loneliness.  There's a look of defeat in her eyes.

He gets a star performance out of her.  She's Hollywood's new "It" girl.  She races to his mansion to be with him, unaware that he's upstairs with a background actress booty call.  Like Georgia, it's not for sex.  It's to cover up the loneliness.  As Georgia was addicted to liquor, Jonathan is addicted to his career.  She tenderly pleads with him not to shut her out.  We know that her father shut her out.  Then the other woman appears.  Jonathan, in a rage, humiliates Georgia to such an extent that it sends her into auto-hysterics.  Again, we get "the Minnelli touch."  Georgia's breakdown behind the wheel.  She seems to be speeding recklessly in the wrong direction.  It's light, shadow, hysterics and glamour.

The sudden rainstorm outside matches her inner emotional storm.  This is a difficult scene.  Lana's not just screaming the way an actress would scream at a monster in a low budget sci-fi movie.  All the pain and frustration and wrong decisions of Georgia's life have been called up by Jonathan's rejection.  Within the same night, she has gone from the zenith of her professional career, so far, to a personal nadir.  But this is the casting out of demons.  Georgia will survive the storm.  Lana Turner lets loose in this scene.  When MGM executives saw this scene as they sat in the audience for the movie's premiere, they should've made mental notes to start a campaign to get Lana an Oscar nomination.  She truly understood Georgia Lorrison.  She was quite believable taking us on Georgia's journey from angry teen to insecure, hard-drinking young woman to sober, confident, top box office star.  She's now a respected, sought-after Hollywood actress.  She can now separate business from personal feelings and get on with the work.
For Lana's character and for the men played by Barry Sullivan and Dick Powell, legendary Hollywood producer Jonathan Shields was the worst and best thing to happen in their careers.  They wouldn't be the big successes they are now without the drama he caused in their lives.  Vincente Minnelli was one of the best things to happen in Lana's MGM career when he directed her in this movie.  She's great as Georgia Lorrison.
The Bad and The Beautiful was a hit for her.  Off-screen, she was dating a bad boy.  He was a known hood named Johnny Stompanato.  The relationship would lead to drama.  Lana and Johnny are characters in the Oscar-winning 1997 crime story, L.A. Confidential.  The story takes place in the 1950s.  Brenda Bakke played Lana Turner.  Stompanato, a bodyguard for gangster Mickey Cohen, and Lana are in a booth holding hands.  Kevin Spacey's cop character walks under her movie marquee and, in a Hollywood restaurant, has an encounter with the bad and the beautiful -- for real.

I wish Minnelli's The Bad and the Beautiful had gotten Lana Turner into the Best Actress of 1952 Oscar race.  The nominees were Bette Davis for The Star, Joan Crawford for Sudden Fear, Susan Hayward for With a Song in My Heart, Julie Harris for The Member of the Wedding and Shirley Booth for Come Back, Little Sheba.  Shirley Booth won.

The Bad and The Beautiful and L.A. Confidential -- that's a good weekend DVD double feature.

Lana Turner gets star treatment during the TCM Summer Under the Stars.

For the whole August line-up, go here:

To see some of my 1980s VH1 time with Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, play this:


  1. Thanks for your insights re: Bad & Beautiful and Postcards. I never would have gotten it on my own but now that you point it out it's very clear. How wise of you!

  2. Bobby,

    So sorry it has taken me a bit to get over here.

    I love the comparison between Bad and the Beautiful and Postcards. I'm with The Gal Herself: I would have never gotten it own my own, but now that you've pointed it out it is screaming at me!

    As for Turner's performance in Bad: It is a shame she didn't receive a nomination. I believe it is her finest performance. The entire film is a masterpiece from start to finish.

    Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us. I really appreciate it. And thank you for contributing to the blogathon. It means the world to me.

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