Have the Democrats ever thought about swapping out Charlie Rangel for Kathleen Turner, another liberal Manhattanite — but with fewer ethics violations? Or at least installing Turner as an honorary minority whip? Because she would kick the tar out of the mewling progressive caucus in the loathed and paralyzed 112th United States Congress, whose approval rating sputters at 17 percent. What the political process needs, says Turner, are stern voices of practicality.
“I’m a shut-up-and-do-it woman,” the actress says in her rolling-thunder voice, Bacall on steroids, baritoned over the years by age and booze and chemo and cigarettes. “You think something should be done? Do it.”
Gulp. Go on.
“One of my fears,” says Turner, 58, rumbling onward, “is that after the Republican convention — after everyone has been placated as best they can — they’re going to turn their focus to pacifying women, to telling us, ‘No, we wouldn’t actually defund Planned Parenthood and health clinics . . . and yes, you will have equal pay. Wait, honey.’ ”
She scoffs, and continues: “I want to keep women awake in September and October so that they don’t forget that this is, in fact, the Republicans’ agenda. Now, I’m not saying I can do this myself. But I can raise my voice.”
Let me tell you.
The voice could smite a filibuster.
The voice achieves its own quorum.
The voice is in contempt of Congress.
You’re not too smart, are you? I like that in a man.
You know the voice. You knew it as early as 1981, when she was in that white dress, and then out of that white dress, and then suddenly William Hurt was in jail and she was on a Brazilian beach with her dead husband’s fortune, knowing she’d gotten away with murder, and it was all so damn hot.
Thirty years after “Body Heat” and she’s just as seductive, even here in the chilly lofted cafe at Arena Stage , but her lure today is not murderous lust but passion for progressive causes. She will play the late Texas columnist Molly Ivins from Aug. 23 to Oct. 28 in the one-woman show “Red Hot Patriot,” by Margaret and Allison Engel. As the general-election cycle reaches its climax, Turner, as Ivins, will inveigh against the hypocrisies of our time from a stage two miles from the White House.
“Hi, honey!” Turner says as Arena’s artistic director, Molly Smith, pops by the cafe to say hello. “I am so glad this worked out. I am so excited. Wait till you see it now. It’s swell.”
“I can’t wait,” Smith says, embracing Turner’s imposing frame. “I can’t wait.”
“We’re just going to make a helluva splash,” Turner says. “That’s my intention.”
Turner made a literal splash in her Arena Stage debut in 1981, when she did backflips into an onstage pool as Titania in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” As for symbolic splashes, here’s a passage from the final pages of “Red Hot Patriot,” as Ivins — who was a perpetual burr in George W. Bush’s saddle — starts marshaling her audience:
These are some bad, ugly and angry times, and I am so freaked out. Hate has stolen the conversation. The poor are now voting against themselves. Politics isn’t about left and right; it’s about up and down. The few are screwing the many. Not that hard to figure out how to fix things. Stop letting big money buy our elections.
Kathleen Turner is not a flitty, in-name-only activistwho memorizes other people’s talking points. She got her first taste of public service as the daughter of a Foreign Service officer stationed in Venezuela, where she volunteered at a Caracas children’s hospital. She advised impoverished women at a Planned Parenthood office in Baltimore in 1977, her senior year at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, and stayed involved with the nonprofit after driving her $800 Datsun to New York to chase Broadway stardom.
She makes house calls to Citymeals-on-Wheels clients. She hailed a firetruck on Sept. 11, 2001, and rode downtown with the recovery squad. She has been on the boards of Planned Parenthood Federation of America and the liberal group People for the American Way since the 1980s, a decade whose popular cinema belonged to her. In a span of five years she made “Romancing the Stone,” “Crimes of Passion,” “Prizzi’s Honor,” “Peggy Sue Got Married,” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” and “The War of the Roses,” and she also lobbied Congress to limit funding restrictions on the National Endowment for the Arts.
“I almost punched Strom Thurmond,” Turner recalls wistfully.
After the late senator dismissed her lobbying efforts and said, “Little lady, I’ve always liked blondes,” she cocked her arm and prepared to slug him, according to her 2008 memoir, “Send Yourself Roses.” The theater producer Joe Papp grabbed her wrist, curtailing a potentially scandalous episode.
“Think of a nature film where you see a lioness at rest with her cubs, and then you see danger approach, and then you see the lioness get the f--- up to protect them — that’s Kathleen,” says actress Holland Taylor, who played another outsize Texas personality, Ann Richards, in her own one-woman show and is a good friend of Turner’s since they co-starred in “Romancing the Stone.” “She is a force of nature.”
Turner set out to finally conquer Broadway in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” in 1990, around the time rheumatoid arthritis started to upend her life. Unspeakable pain and alcohol abuse followed, as the disease — and steroids and chemotherapy and drug cocktails — ravaged her body. Rehab and a proper regimen of medicine delivered her from ruin, and her 2005 Broadway triumph as Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” which toured at the Kennedy Center, propelled her into this latest, most-grateful phase of her career.
And now, she has a D.C. pulpit as the election approaches.
“It’s terribly dispiriting,” she says of the recent political fights over women’s reproductive rights and Planned Parenthood. “I will be speaking out very loudly while I am here in Washington about this.”
It seems like a threat, the way she says it, in that voice of hers. Her fierce sky-blue eyes mean business.
After “Red Hot Patriot,” Turner will direct and star in “The Killing of Sister George” at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Conn. And then she might disappear for a while, losing herself in novels on her daybed overlooking the Hudson River, or taking winding drives through the Hamptons in her 1971 Mercedes two-seater.
“I sense some big changes coming,” she says of her approaching seventh decade. “I’m thinking I should take some time off from acting altogether. I don’t want it to get easy. I don’t ever want to lose the challenge of it, d’you know?”
Speaking of challenges, has the president ever thought about making Kathleen Turner the ambassador to Britain, where her father was stationed in her teens and where seeing Angela Lansbury in “Mame” pointed her toward acting? She has mused about desiring such a post. Practicing diplomacy in London by day and treading the boards of the West End by night . . .
“That would be absolutely f---ing glorious!” she says. “But I could never do it because a post like London you’d have to buy. You’d have to be a major contributor to a presidency. I’ve been doing theater too long, and it doesn’t pay anything.”
at Arena Stage, Aug. 23 through Oct. 28. Tickets: $79-$109. Call 202-488-3300.