I finally got tired of making movies where all I did was walk across the screen and look pretty. I got a big chance to do some real acting in The Postman Always Rings Twice, and I'm not going to slip back if I can help it. I tried to persuade the studio to give me something different. But every time I went into my argument about how bad a picture was, they'd say, "well, it's making a fortune". That licked me.
Lana Turner was born Julia Jean Turner on February 8, 1921 at Providence Hospital in Wallace, Idaho, a small mining community in the Idaho Panhandle region. She was the only child of John Virgil Turner, a miner from Mt. Pleasant, Tennessee (September 11, 1894 – December 14, 1930), who was 26 years old when Turner was born, and Mildred Frances Cowan from Lamar, Arkansas (February 12, 1904 – February 22, 1982), who was 16 years old when Turner was born. She was of Dutch, English, Irish, and Scottish ancestry.
Mayer helped further Turner's career by giving her the leads in several youth-oriented films in the late 1930s and early 1940s, such as Dramatic School (1938), These Glamour Girls (1939) and Dancing Co-Ed (1939). In early 1940, she was also set to star in a remake of Our Dancing Daughters, but the film was never made. During World War II, Turner became a popular pin-up girl after her appearances in such films such as Ziegfeld Girl (1941), Johnny Eager (1942), and Slightly Dangerous (1943). Following the scrapped The Sea-Wolf project, Turner and Gable were set to star in The Uniform in December 1940. Turner was eventually replaced by Rosalind Russell, and the film was released as They Met in Bombay (1941). The same year, she had a supporting role in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941), a Freudian-influenced horror film, with Spencer Tracy and Ingrid Bergman.
Turner was discovered in 1936 at the Top Hat Malt Shop in Hollywood, California. At the age of 16, she was signed to a personal contract by Warner Bros. Director Mervyn LeRoy, who took her with him when he moved to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1938. Turner attracted attention in her first film, LeRoy's They Won't Forget (1937), and she later starred in featured roles, often as an ingénue. Her Auburn hair was bleached blonde for a 1939 film at MGM, and she remained blonde for the rest of her life, except for a few film roles.
Her first picture with Warner Bros. was James Whale's comedy The Great Garrick (1937) in a supporting part. LeRoy then cast Turner in They Won't Forget (1937), a crime drama in which she played a teenage murder victim. Though the part was minor, william Wilkerson wrote in The Hollywood Reporter that Turner's performance was "worthy of more than a passing note." Turner earned the nickname "the Sweater Girl" from her form-fitting attire in a scene in They Won't Forget. According to her daughter, this was a nickname Turner detested throughout her entire career. In late 1937, she signed a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for $100 a week, and graduated from high school in between filming. The same year, she was loaned to United Artists for a minor role as a maid in The Adventures of Marco Polo.
According to LeRoy, she made the switch thanks to him, for he left Warner Bros. to work at MGM and was advised by studio head Jack L. Warner to take her with him, because Warner believed that she would not "amount to anything." Her first starring role for MGM was scheduled to be an adaptation of The Sea-Wolf, co-starring Clark Gable, but the project was eventually shelved. Instead, she was assigned opposite teen idol Mickey Rooney in the Andy Hardy film Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938). This appearance, as a flirtatious girl described as "the kissing bug," convinced Louis B. Mayer that LeRoy's protégée Turner could be the next Jean Harlow, a sex symbol who had died six months before Turner's arrival at MGM.
During the early 1940s, Turner established herself as a leading Actress in such films as Johnny Eager (1941), Honky Tonk (1941), Ziegfeld Girl (1941), and Somewhere I'll Find You (1942). She appeared in the 1941 horror film Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and her reputation as a glamorous femme fatale was enhanced by her performance in the film noir The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). Her popularity continued through the 1950s in such films as The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) and Peyton Place (1957), for which she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress.
Turner also appeared in four films with Clark Gable between 1941 and 1954, beginning with Honky Tonk (1941). The Turner-Gable films' successes were heightened by gossip-column rumors about a relationship between the two. In January 1942, she began shooting her second picture with Gable, titled Somewhere I'll Find You; however, the production was halted for several weeks after the death of Gable's wife, Carole Lombard, in a plane crash. Meanwhile, the press continued to fuel rumors that Turner and Gable were romantic offscreen, which Turner vehemently denied. Consequently, the publicity generated by this would lead MGM to play up her image as a sex symbol in her following film, a romantic comedy titled Slightly Dangerous (1943). In promotion of Somewhere I'll Find You, Turner embarked on a nationwide war bond tour, during which she returned to her hometown of Wallace, Idaho with her mother, where she was greeted with a large celebration: "We checked into our hotel, and were told that the Mayor had declared a holiday in my honor," she recalled. "A banner stretched across the street read, in large letters, WELCOME HOME, LANA. We'd been in our rooms only a few moments when people who claimed to have known us when we lived in Wallace began knocking on the door."
Turner had a very close relationship with her only daughter Cheryl (b. 1943). As a teenager, Cheryl came out as a lesbian to her mother and father, Steve Crane; reflecting on it, Cheryl recalled: "I always felt I had the full support of my parents ... I was never made to feel that it was anything strange."
Turner was a lifelong Democrat who was involved in the Hollywood Democratic Committee and campaigned for Franklin D. Roosevelt during the 1944 presidential election.
Later that year, Turner headlined Cass Timberlane, a role for which Jennifer Jones, Vivien Leigh, and Virginia Grey previously were considered. As of early 1946, Turner was set for the role, but schedules with Green Dolphin Street almost prohibited her from taking the role, and by late 1946, she was almost recast. Production of Cass Timberlane was very exhausting for Turner, as it was shot in between retakes of Green Dolphin Street. Nevertheless, she took the female lead in Homecoming (1948) in August 1947, only moments after finishing Cass Timberlane. She was the studio's first choice for the role, but they were reluctant to offer her the part, considering her overbooked schedule. Paired again with Clark Gable in Homecoming, their chemistry projected on the screen was well received by the audience, and they were nicknamed "the team that generates steam." By this period, Turner was at the zenith of her film career, and was not only MGM's most popular star, but also one of the 10 best-paid women in the United States.
In 1948, Turner appeared in her first Technicolor film, as Lady de Winter in The Three Musketeers, with Gene Kelly, Van Heflin, and June Allyson. In November 1947, she agreed to do the film, thereby giving up an unfinished film project called Bedeviled. However, in January 1948, it was reported that she had withdrawn from the film. Initially, Louis B. Mayer gave her permission for doing so because of her schedule, but she was later that month put on suspension. Eventually, Turner agreed to make the film, but did not start production until March due to having to lose weight.
In 1946 after her divorce from Steve Crane, Turner briefly dated Howard Hughes, an affair that lasted for twelve weeks. She was also romantically involved with Tyrone Power for several months, and she considered him to be the love of her life. In her 1982 autobiography, Turner claims to have become pregnant with Power's child in 1948, but she chose to have an abortion. While on a goodwill trip to Europe and South Africa the same year, Power fell in love with Linda Christian in Rome. Power and Christian were married on January 27, 1949.
For her contribution to the motion-picture industry, Turner has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6241 Hollywood Boulevard. On May 24, 1950, Turner left hand and footprints in front of the Grauman's Chinese Theatre.
Turner has been cited as one of the most glamorous film stars of all time, and her reputation as the "sweater girl" rendered her a film icon prior to her establishing herself as a serious Actress. In 1951, the Academy of Contemporary Arts named her the "most glamorous woman in the history of international art." Over the course of her career, Turner's heightened level of media attention was largely fueled by her publicized personal life; film scholar Richard Dyer cites her as an Example of one of Hollywood's earliest stars whose publicized private life perceptibly inflected their careers:
In 1954, she was then cast in The Prodigal (1955), followed by The Sea Chase (1955). After starring in the period drama Diane (1956), MGM opted not to renew Turner's contract. This was a difficult time for Hollywood's major studios because a recent court decision forced them to divest themselves of their movie theaters. In addition, television had caught on in a big way; the public was staying home. Turner was just one of MGM's star roster to be let go. Her career recovered briefly after she appeared in the hugely successful big-screen adaptation of Grace Metalious's best-selling novel Peyton Place (1957), for which she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress. Another few box-office failures followed (Another Time, Another Place, for example) when the 1958 scandal surrounding her daughter's killing of Johnny Stompanato threatened to derail her career completely.
In the fall of 1957, Stompanato visited Turner in England, where she was filming Another Time, Another Place (1958), co-starring Sean Connery. In her autobiography, Turner said that she arranged for Stompanato's visit because she was lonely and having a difficult time filming. Their reunion was initially happy, but the two soon began fighting. Stompanato became suspicious when Turner would not allow him to visit the set and, during one fight, he choked her, causing her to miss three weeks of filming. Turner later wrote that she and her makeup man, Del Armstrong, called Scotland Yard in order to have Stompanato deported. Stompanato got wind of the plan and showed up on the set with a gun, threatening her and her co-star Sean Connery, whom he warned to keep away from Turner. Connery answered by grabbing the gun out of Stompanato's hand and twisting his wrist, causing him to run off the set sheepishly. Turner and Armstrong later returned with two Scotland Yard detectives to the rented house where she and Stompanato were staying. The detectives advised Stompanato to leave and escorted him out of the house and also to the airport, where he boarded a plane back to the United States.
On the evening of April 4, 1958, after the Oscar telecast which she had attended without him, Stompanato arrived at Turner's rented house at 730 North Bedford Drive in Beverly Hills. The two began arguing heatedly in the bedroom, during which Stompanato threatened to kill Turner, her daughter, and her mother. Fearing that her mother's life was in danger, Turner's fourteen-year-old daughter, Cheryl, grabbed a kitchen knife and ran to Turner's defense. According to testimony provided by Turner at the coroner's inquest, Cheryl, who had been listening to the couple's fight behind the closed door, stabbed Stompanato in the stomach when Turner attempted to usher him out of the bedroom. "[At first] I thought [Cheryl] hit him in the stomach," Turner testified in court. The killing was ultimately deemed a justifiable homicide.
In the trail of the related negative publicity, Turner accepted the lead role in Ross Hunter's remake of Imitation of Life (1959) under the direction of Douglas Sirk. Universal Studios capitalized on her new-found notoriety; the result was one of the biggest hits of the year, and the biggest of Turner's career; she owned 50% of the earnings of the picture and during just the first year of the film's release she earned $11 million. According to Hunter, the film made an excess of $50 million in box office receipts. Critics and audiences could not help noticing that the plots of Peyton Place and Imitation of Life each seemed to mirror certain parts of Turner's private life. Specifically, both films depicted the troubled, complicated relationship between a single mother and her teenaged daughter.
She made her last film at MGM starring with Bob Hope in Bachelor in Paradise (1961), which received mostly positive critical reception. Turner's projects of this era include By Love Possessed (1961), based on James Gould Cozzens' novel. On July 19, 1961, it became the first in-flight movie to be shown on a regular basis on a scheduled airline FLIGHT, by Trans World Airlines (TWA) to its first-class passengers. Other highlights of this period include two Hunter productions (for whom she did Imitation of Life), Portrait in Black (1960), a box office success, co-starring Anthony Quinn and Sandra Dee, and Madame X (1966), which proved to be her last major starring role.
Turner stated that she was on a "downhill slide" for much of the 1970s, drinking heavily, not eating, missing performances, and weighing only 95 pounds. "I was a sipper but I never got high or drunk," Turner said in a 1982 interview. "It was much more insidious. It was starting to affect my liver and my health ... I was very sick." She decided to stop drinking, and began eating all organic food; she would credit herbalism as helping her overcome her alcoholism. Turner claimed she was chaste for the remainder of her life after her final divorce in 1969 and had no Desire to marry again.
In 1969, Turner appeared in her only lead starring role on television in Harold Robbins' The Survivors; the series was given a major national marketing campaign, with billboards featuring life-sized images of Turner. Despite ABC's extensive publicity campaign and the presence of other big-name stars, the program fared badly, and it was cancelled halfway into the season after a 15-week run. In the 1970s and 1980s, Turner appeared in several television roles, most notably as a guest star for several episodes on the series Falcon Crest, marking her first television appearance in twelve years. She also appeared as the mysterious Jacqueline Perrault on The Love Boat, but the majority of her final decade was spent out of the public eye. On October 25, 1981, the National Film Society presented Turner with an Artistry in Cinema award. In 1994, she received the Donostia Lifetime Achievement Award at the San Sebastián International Film Festival in Spain. In 1982, Turner released an autobiography entitled Lana: The Lady, The Legend, The Truth.
Turner has been depicted and referenced in numerous works across literature, film, and music. In literature, she is the subject of the poem "Lana Turner has collapsed" by the poet Frank O'Hara, and she and Stompanato appear as minor characters in James Ellroy's novel L.A. Confidential (1990). Portrayals of Turner have also appeared in film; Actress Brenda Bakke portrayed Turner in a scene in L.A. Confidential (1995). Woody Allen wrote and directed September that deals with a troubled relationship between mother and daughter haunted by a Stompanato-like scenario.
A lifelong heavy smoker, Turner was diagnosed with throat cancer in May 1992. At the urging of her daughter, Turner underwent radiation therapy to treat the cancer, and in February 1993, announced that she was in remission. Despite treatment, the cancer returned in July 1994. In September 1994, she made her final public appearance at the San Sebastián International Film Festival in Spain to accept a Lifetime Achievement Award, and was bound to a wheelchair for much of the event. Turner died nine months later at the age of 74 on June 29, 1995, of complications from the cancer at her home in Century City, Los Angeles, California. Her remains were cremated and scattered in Oahu, Hawaii.
Film Historian Jeanine Basinger echoes similar sentiments on Turner's career in her book The Star Machine (2008), noting that Turner "accepted limited roles and became a true sex symbol—an Actress who played roles for which the meaning of the character came from a source other than the script, her own private life. She was cast only in roles that were symbolic of what the public knew—or thought they knew—of her life from headlines she made as a person, not as a movie character ... Her person became her persona." Contemporarily, she has also been frequently associated with film noir and the femme fatale archetype among scholars for her role in The Postman Always Rings Twice.
Turner was survived by Cheryl Crane, her only child, and Crane's life partner John LeRoy, whom she said she accepted "as a second daughter." They inherited some of Turner's personal effects and $50,000 in Turner's will (her estate was estimated in court documents to be worth $1.7 million [$3.0 million in 2017 dollars]) with the majority of her estate being left to Carmen Lopez Cruz, her maid and companion for 45 years and her caregiver during her final illness. Crane challenged the will and Lopez claimed that the majority of the estate was consumed by probate costs, legal fees, and medical expenses.