Lana Turner’s Imitations of Life — Bad Behavior Paid Off!

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"An empty purse can make a good girl bad!" — Susan Kohner “passing” as a white woman in the 1959 version of “Imitation of Life.”

“THE loneliest word I’ve heard of is empty/anything empty is sad / an empty purse can make a good girl bad — you hear me dad?

“The loneliest word I’ve heard of is empty, empty things make me so mad, so fill me up with what I formerly had!

“Now Venus you know was loaded with charms and look what happened to her/waitin’ around she’s minus two arms, could happen to me, no sir! Now is the time to fill what is empty, fill my life brim full of charms. Help me to fill these empty, empty arms!”

Susan Kohner portraying a multiracial woman who “passes” as white in Imitation of Life.

One might be tempted to recall Susan Kohner’s nightclub performance of “Empty Arms,” as the sordid high point of her performance as the tragic Sarah Jane in Ross Hunter’s slick 1959 remake of Fannie Hurst’s “Imitation of Life.” (First, it was a 1933 novel, then a 1934 movie with Claudette Colbert, and finally 1959’s fantastically smart and cynical vehicle to both restore and play up Lana Turner’s soiled image.)

But the truth is that every one of Kohner’s scenes in “Imitation” is big.

As the identity-challenged, light-skinned daughter of Lana’s African American maid (the great Juanita Moore) Kohner rips into the juiciest role of her brief career with thrilling assurance. (Kohner was like a sexier, less delicate, even more on-the-edge Natalie Wood.  She shared some electric screen time with Wood in “All The Fine Young Cannibals” playing Natalie’s manic sister-in-law, given to whipping her men with riding crops.)

Natalie Wood, George Hamilton, Robert Wagner, Susan Kohner, and Jack Mullaney in All the Fine Young Cannibals (1960).

A number of years ago, Kohner, who retired from moviemaking after marrying designer and writer John Weitz in 1964, called Liz Smith’s office.  I think it had to do with some charity they were both involved with. I was NOT interested in charity. “Yeah, starving children who can’t read — good for you, Susan. But tell me, was that your voice on ‘Empty Arms?” (OK — I was slightly more sensitive than that, but only slightly.)  Mrs. Weitz laughed and said, “I wish!  It was Jo Ann Greer, who also dubbed Rita Hayworth a lot.”

I was a bit disappointed but being a particular kind of rabid movie fan, I’ve come to believe it was Susan Kohner’s voice.  And Rita’s too!

“Imitation of Life” recently aired on Turner Classic Movies.  I was alerted to this by my pal Rick Gould who writes an extremely smart blog on film, “Rick’s Real/Reel Life.”

What struck me this time around was realizing that “Imitation” was the true beginning of bad behavior paying off for a female star involved in the worst kind scandal. (A decade previously, Ingrid Bergman had been banned from Hollywood after an extramarital affair and a child born before Bergman could marry her new love, director Roberto Rossellini.)

Many film historians and fans of girls gone wild, look to Elizabeth Taylor’s brazen husband-snatching — twice in a row! — as the turning point. Despite the condemnation of Hollywood columnists and even the Vatican (after she snatched Eddie Fisher’s scalp from her belt, flung it in Fisher’s face and took up with married man Richard Burton) Taylor became an even greater star — much greater, in fact.

But it was another MGM alum, another femme fatale reared in the hothouse atmosphere of MGM, who laid the groundwork, so to speak — Lana Turner. (We can give props to Ava Gardner in the matter of Frank Sinatra leaving his wife and three children, but Gardner appeared to be completely unconcerned about her career and the Sinatra relationship was so obviously doomed that despite all the news reports and puritanical clucking, Ava never seemed in danger of losing anything — or wanting anything. She was a restless erotic force of nature — a lone panther in the wild.)

ON April 4th, 1958 (less than two weeks after the death of Elizabeth Taylor’s third husband, Mike Todd, in a  plane crash) police were called — eventually — to the Hollywood home of Lana Turner, a star since her teens, a veteran of four husbands already, and still glamorous despite encroaching middle-age (her much ballyhooed role as the mother of a teenage girl in “Peyton Place” had won her an Oscar nomination).

There in Lana’s pink-toned boudoir lay the body of her recent companion, the handsome and thuggish Johnny Stompanato, stabbed once in the stomach. Although Turner would later say she wanted to take the blame, she didn’t. The truth was, said Lana, Johnny was abusing her, and her panicked 14-year-old daughter, Cheryl (her one child from second husband Steven Crane), flew to her mother’s defense, armed with a kitchen knife.

Not since the bad old days of Fatty Arbuckle, who was accused of raping a starlet, Virginia Rappe so violently that it led to the girl’s death, or the mystery death of comedienne Thelma Todd or the unsolved murder of director William Desmond Taylor, had the Grim Reaper come visiting in such a manner.

Not only was Lana branded, at first, a shockingly bad, unfit mother, the “inside skinny” was that Turner herself had wielded the knife.  Stompanato’s mob-connected friends believed it, and so did many in Hollywood.

Helping this theory was the fact that Cheryl was a tall, mature-looking 14. Had there been a rivalry for Johnny’s attention between the attractive teen and her maturing mama?  It was fantastically ugly and even more humiliating when Lana’s love letters to Stompanato were published.  Signed “Lanita” the letters revealed the sophisticated star of so many onscreen melodramas to be more of a besotted teenager than the predatory woman she — and her studio — cultivated for films.

Whatever the truth — and Cheryl Crane has always maintained the official version, even when revealing her mother as less than an ideal parent in the autobiography, “Detour” — Lana, thin and glamorously ravaged, gave the performance of her life during the inquest.  The court ruled Cheryl’s action justifiable homicide.  (Cheryl had already been molested by Turner’s fourth husband Lex Barker, she later claimed, and she suffered many years in the wake of that, and the Stompanato incident. Miraculously Cheryl survived, building a good life, and remained close to Lana, till the end.)

“Face it, Mama — Annie’s always been more like a mother to me than you have!”

BUT what to do with Lana’s career? Despite the success of “Peyton Place” it looked to Hollywood that Lana — with a dead gangster and a troubled daughter with a steak knife in her wake — could never again woo her once-devoted but by now aging female audience.  Producer Ross Hunter disagreed. Hunter bought up Fannie Hurst’s old mother love weepie, changed some plot points, dressed it up in Jean Louis costumes and drenched it in director Douglas Sirk’s richly colored, wildly neurotic, female-centric style (Ross and Sirk had previously collaborated on “All I Desire,” “Magnificent Obsession,” “All That Heaven Allows, “There’s Always Tomorrow.”)

Viewed today, the story of  Susan Kohner’s character (“I’m white, white, WHITE!”) is far more compelling than the shallow actress played by Turner, whose ambition leads her to neglect her daughter, leading said daughter (the insipid Sandra Dee) to become infatuated with one of mama’s beaus. (“You mean, I haven’t been a good mother?” declares Lana to her old friend and perpetual servant, Juanita Moore, aka Annie Johnson.  Moore is required to faithfully reply, “You meant to be the best kind of mother,” but one really yearns for her to scream “Yasss, Queen!” at the clueless Turner.)

“You mean, I haven’t been a good mother?”

But 1959 audiences cared less about racial inequities and issues of identity than gasping over Lana’s sleek gowns, her jewels, and wondering over how the hell she accepted a role in which she plays a selfish actress whose daughter seeks love in at least one very wrong place.  Nobody ends up murdered, but the similarities were unmistakable and irresistible.  One might say Lana was brave to take the role — or incredibly cynical, or brutally stupid. (Cheryl Crane was appalled by the film.)

The heartbreaking hotel scene between Susan Kohner (Sarah Jane, aka “Miss Linda”) and Juanita Moore as the mother who wants to hold her “beautiful baby” one last time.

There were one or two more reasonably successful movies for Turner — including her most potent wallow in melodrama and degradation, “Madam X” — and having taken a slice of “Imitation’s” grosses, she was set for life.

But soon Lana’s shocking scandal was but a dim memory, replaced by the antics of Elizabeth Taylor.  All La Liz did was break up marriages — as much as one can really “break up” a marriage.  After all, ET didn’t hold a gun to Fisher or Burton’s heads.  But she did it with such shameless lack of concern (“I didn’t take anything away from Debbie Reynolds because she never had it anyway!”) And then she kept getting million dollar movie contracts, almost dying, being “forgiven,” winning tracheotomy Oscars and then doing it all over again, with Sybil Burton’s husband while playing one of the world’s most notorious women, Cleopatra.

But for better or worse it began with Lana Turner, a guy named Johnny, and Miss Turner’s own personal imitation of life.

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