Tarnished Lady A lioness dressed in black, Kathleen Turner exudes more strength than glamour. This image suits her onstage portrayal of Tallulah Bankhead, the iconoclastic bisexual actress who made her name in the 1920s. "I don't approve of the kind of excessive behavior she indulged in hugely -- the drinking, the drugs, the sex," Turner declares. "I'm much more conservative, and I thought, "Oh, get your act together, honey. Stop this crap.' But she needed people desperately. I think she was an intensely lonely woman with no home life. So she had to escalate her behavior continually to keep getting the attention she so craved." Told that a Chronicle film critic had played Tallulah a couple of years ago in a short-run (but still notorious) drag show, Turner's eyes widen. "John Waters, who I worked with in Serial Mom, came to Tallulah when we were in Baltimore. He said, "She was considered an honorary queen by the gay community.'"
Turner is onstage at the Curran through Feb. 11 in the one-woman show. "I wish we had more record of Tallulah's stage work, because she must have truly been a very powerful and good actress onstage. I suppose Lifeboat  would be the film I recommend because it's very close to her. She's very honest, very matter-of-fact, very hard in some ways, very witty. She has no ability to suffer fools easily, she has no patience -- and I really like that." Sounds a lot like Turner, who also identifies with her character on another level. "Tallulah says more about acting than any material I've been involved with, because it deals with issues we deal with every day: When are you onstage and when are you off? How much are you known as a celebrity versus for your work as an artist? Do you want more respect or do you want more attention? These things that Tallulah is going through [remind me of] day[s] I should have kept my mouth shut and just said, "I'm off-duty here.'"
Turner recently played another film icon, Mrs. Robinson, in a London staging of The Graduate. "She takes over a very impressionable, very inexperienced young man, so it's no risk to her, at first," Turner muses. "Tallulah would not have played it safe. Nor would she have manipulated in the same way. She used to invite someone up to her room and open the door naked. If they came in, that meant they were ready to have sex. If they didn't, then she'd go on to the next. But she didn't play games."