Lana Turner Proves She's an Actress, Stuns at the Academy Awards, and Escapes the Grasp of Johnny Stompanato. Thanks to Her Brave Daughter...from 1957, it's Peyton Place.
Peyton Place (1957), Lana Turner and Johnny Stompanato
1957’s Peyton Place was the precursor to the modern soap opera. A sanitized version of Grace Metalious’ controversial novel of the same name, the film exposed the seamy underside of small town life. Peyton Place addresses some heavy-hitting subject matter that was particularly taboo in 1950s America: teenage love, sexual repression, rape, and abortion to name just a few. But what makes this pioneering film even more interesting is that the real life of its star, Lana Turner, was perhaps just as sensational as the film by the time of its release.
Have I hooked you yet? If so, read on!
Peyton Place is a small New England town. It’s 1941, and Allison MacKenzie (Diane Varsi) is a good girl about to begin her final year of high school. Allison dreams of moving to New York and becoming a writer after she graduates, but she’s only shared her stories—based heavily on the small town life of gossip and intrigue she sees in Peyton Place—with her friend Norman Page (Russ Tamblyn).
Allison’s mother, Constance MacKenzie (Lana Turner), is a gorgeous (of course she’s gorgeous, it’s Lana!) single mother. Constance, or Connie as she goes by, runs a dress shop in town, and has basically sworn off men since the passing of her husband. Connie’s own sexual repression has made her very fidgety about the subject with her daughter, who has started to ask questions and, well, innocently experiment. Connie’s attitude is very indicative of how the whole town acts, especially regarding anything to do with romance or sex, and it seems the residents of Peyton Place live in constant fear of becoming the subject of their own gossip mill.
The arrival in town of Michael Rossi, the new principal at Allison’s school, shakes up Connie’s love life. There’s an obvious mutual attraction between Connie and Michael, but Connie will not allow herself to fall for him. Connie tells Michael she’s not interested after a few dates. Michael knows this is not true, but respects Connie’s wishes, and the two pine for each other from afar.
The Biggest Creep in Town
The biggest creep in Peyton Place has got to be Lucas Cross (Arthur Kennedy), the stepfather of Selena Cross (Hope Lange), Allison’s best friend.
Lucas is an alcoholic, and one night, in a drunken rage, he rapes Selena. Selena is ashamed of the incident, and does not tell anyone what happened for fear of the gossip that would inevitably result. But when Selena realizes she’s pregnant, she confides in Dr. Matthew Swain (Lloyd Nolan), who offers his support, but refuses to assist the 3 months pregnant Selena in an abortion.
Selena ends up miscarrying the baby naturally after suffering a major fall in the woods while trying to escape another attack by her stepfather. Dr. Swain, to save Selena from town gossip, puts the care she receives after the miscarriage down in his records as an appendectomy. Dr. Swain does manage to get a signed confession from Lucas Cross that he raped Selena. Then Lucas leaves town. Good riddance!
After high school graduation, some more major drama goes down in Peyton Place:
First, Allison and Norman are accused of skinny-dipping together by a gossipy neighbor, and Connie believes the neighbor instead of her daughter’s true version of events—that her and Norman did go for a swim, but they were wearing their suits. While arguing over the incident, Connie reveals to Allison that she and Allison’s father were never married. This shakes Allison’s world, and she decides to make good on her threat to leave Peyton Place, and heads for New York to become a writer.
Then the US enters World War II. Norman and all the young men of Peyton Place enlist, and go off to battle.
We find out that Lucas Cross has also enlisted. On Lucas’ Christmas leave, he decides to come back to Peyton Place, and have at Selena again. He’s drunk, and this time Selena is prepared to overpower him: out of fear for her life and virtue, Selena strikes the drunken Lucas with fireplace tongs.
And she kills him.
Selena and her eight year old brother, a witness to the homicide, bury Lucas’ body and don’t tell a soul: Selena worries that by coming clean to the authorities, she’ll open her life up for questioning, and her secret pregnancy by her stepfather will be revealed, ruining not just her reputation, but the reputation of her long-time love and fiancé, Ted Carter.
Selena's Secret is Discovered
But a year and a half later, the military authorities come looking for Lucas, and the truth is found out. Selena is put on trial for the murder of Lucas Cross.
Allison comes back to Peyton Place to testify, and meets up with Norman on the train home. But she has no desire to mend things with her mother.
The Hero of Peyton Place
Dr. Swain realizes that unless he testifies about Lucas’ despicable abuse and rape of Selena, and shares Lucas’ signed confession, Selena will spend the rest of her life in jail. So against Selena’s wishes—she’d rather go to prison than risk the judgment of the citizens of Peyton Place—Dr. Swain takes the stand.
He saves Selena’s life by telling the judge and jury the motivation behind Selena’s murder of Lucas Cross, and the fear that led her to hide the body.
All ends well, and Selena is acquitted. Her fiancé sticks with her, and the town seems to turn over a new leaf as everyone supports Selena, and congratulates her on the verdict.
Connie and Michael decide to give their relationship a go, and Allison comes home to work things out with her mother. (Oh and it seems like Allison and Norman get together finally as well!)
Lana's New Career
Lana Turner’s film career was largely based on her glamorous, drop dead gorgeous appearance. There had been a few films in Lana’s career that allowed her to show her acting talent—such as Ziegfeld Girl (1941), The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), The Three Musketeers (1948), and The Bad and the Beautiful (1952). But for the most part, MGM (Lana’s home studio) was content to merely capitalize on their star’s great beauty and the public fascination with her life. Lana would have liked meatier roles, but she didn’t fight for them, and almost always accepted the films MGM assigned her.
But things changed in Hollywood during the mid 1950s with the official end of the “studio system”: quite abruptly it seemed, Hollywood stars—even “the King” Clark Gable!!!—found themselves without a home studio: long term star contracts were ending and not being renewed. Lana Turner was not spared from this new trend that forced Hollywood stars, big and small, to take more initiative in the film roles they sought and accepted.
To add even more stress to this changing time in Lana’s career, her personal life was also in tatters: Lana had just discovered that husband number four, Lex Barker, had sexually abused her daughter Cheryl. Lana began divorce proceedings, and was understandably at an all time low in her personal and family life.
Lana Accepts the Role
When Jerry Wald offered Lana the role of Constance MacKenzie in Peyton Place, she wasn’t really feeling it. Lana knew it would be a great career move in these changing times of the studio system, but it took lots of encouragement, including that of her thirteen-year-old daughter Cheryl, for Lana to accept the role in this film version of the nation’s most sensational novel. As Cheryl writes in Lana: the Memories, the Myths, the Movies [aff. link]:
“I gave her my own professional counsel: ‘Mom, you’ve gotta do this!’ It was a film that was generating excitement far beyond Hollywood. Mother realized she couldn’t afford to say no, so she bit the bullet and told her agent, Paul Kohner, to accept the role. Wald was offering $125,000, but in fact, the part was priceless.”
So at age 36, glamour girl Lana Turner played the mother of a teenager onscreen for the first time. She really was a little too young to be the mother of high school senior, but Lana accepted the role and performed it flawlessly. The scenes between Lana and Diane Varsi—her daughter in the film—are just beautiful. Lana perfectly conveys a loving mother who is unsure about how do deal with the coming of age of her daughter, and her conflicted feelings about her own past and just how much of it to share.
Talent and Beauty
And can I just say really quick, how cool is it that an actress whose career was founded on youth, glamour, and physical beauty was willing to accept a role playing a mother of an almost grown woman?!! I think that speaks volumes of Lana’s character.
Also, it’s pretty noteworthy that though Lana did agree to de-glamourize herself a bit for the role—her outfits are more subdued and her hair color is a couple shades darker in the film than usual—she was not about to completely lose her glamorous appeal, and still desired to be very attractive onscreen.
It’s common for us to applaud actresses who completely sacrifice their appearance for a role—think how The Academy awards the coveted Oscar to actresses who don a prosthetic nose (Nicole Kidman) or gain weight and forgo make-up (Charlize Theron)? Nothing wrong with that, I’m certainly among those applauding these actresses!
But isn’t it also really noteworthy when an actress like Lana Turner doesn’t hide behind a fake nose and frumpy clothes, and gives a really stellar performance while still looking beautiful? I really admire Lana for not going for the all-out spinster look in Peyton Place. I think it lends an extra dimension to her character, and adds to the question of why Constance MacKenzie is so sexually repressed when she is so gosh darn beautiful! Of course, we find out the answer to this question towards the end of the film, but Lana’s beauty just makes her character’s reluctance to romance all the more burning and mysterious.
Lana's Real Life Soap Opera
So while Lana was filming the melodramatic Peyton Place in the summer of 1957, she discovered there was some even bigger drama in her real life: Lana’s boyfriend, the man who had revitalized her after the breakup of her fourth marriage, was, as it turned out, a notorious mobster.
When John Steele introduced himself to Lana in April of 1957, he seemed like a nice, romantic guy. During their courtship, Steele was constantly showering Lana with flowers and expensive, thoughtful gifts. As Lana shares in her autobiography [aff. link], John sent her flowers almost daily,
“…followed by record albums of exactly the kind of sweet, melodious music I liked. How did he know what kind of music to send me? It seemed that he had managed somehow to reach the young woman in charge of playing my music on the [film] sets. He knew how to get things done. He had mysterious ways of obtaining information and access, as I was to learn to my bitter cost.”
Eventually John Steele gained Lana’s trust, and they became a couple. In Peyton Place, Lana even wore some of the jewelry John gifted her, a fact that would come to haunt Lana when she’d catch the film on television in later years.
The True Identity of John Steele
A friend of Lana’s who recognized John Steele finally told her that her new boyfriend’s name was actually John Stompanato, and he was one of mobster Mickey Cohen’s right-hand men.
Lana approached John immediately with this information, and told him that she wanted out of the relationship. His response?
“‘Lana darling, just try and get away from me!’ And he laughed in my face.”
The Obsessive Boyfriend
Lana began dating other men in hopes of getting the message across to John that the relationship was over, but he just kept calling her. Stompanato even broke into Lana’s apartment one night and tried to smother her with a pillow. Stompanato knew Lana’s threats to call the police were shallow: he’d threatened to harm her mother and Cheryl if Lana ever contacted the police for help. The terrible publicity that would result was another card he could play. As Lana shares in her autobiography [aff. link],
“Most of what I felt at this time was fear. I felt trapped, and John took pains to remind me that he had the power to harm me and my family. His threats were vague in the beginning—that rather than let me go, he would see me dead first.”
Stompanato followed Lana to London where she filmed her next picture. Then he followed her to Acapulco, where she had hoped to get away from him and plan her next move. Every time Stompanato caught up with her, physical abuse followed. Bruises and camoflague by make-up became a part of Lana’s daily existence.
There seemed to be no way out until Lana heard she was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar for her work in Peyton Place. The ceremony would be held March 26, 1958, and Lana wouldn’t miss it for anything.
The 1958 Academy Awards
Perhaps it was because he hoped to be her date to the Oscars that John Stompanato momentarily stopped abusing Lana? He surely didn’t take it well when Lana informed him that Cheryl would be her date for the evening, but he accepted it.
And quick side note, Lana looked absolutely gorgeous that evening in a mermaid tail gown tailored to fit her perfectly! Cheryl also looked beautiful in her own custom gown and a pair of the popular 1950s shoes known as “springolators.”
But when Cheryl and Lana came home from the Oscars late that night, Stompanato was waiting for Lana in her room. The beating he gave her was so intense, Cheryl could hear it through the walls. And for the first time in her mother’s year-long relationship with John Stompanato, Cheryl realized what was going on.
Good Friday 1958
So when Stompanato began another intense beating of her mother just over a week later on Good Friday, April 4, 1958, Cheryl ran downstairs and grabbed the only means of defense she could find: a kitchen knife. I’ll let Cheryl tell the story from here: [ aff. link]
“The thought of scaring him away flashed into my mind. I went back up the stairs to Mother’s bedroom and stood outside of her door for a few moments as Stompanato continued threatening to disfigure her. Suddenly Mother threw open the door. John came up from behind, his arm raised as if to strike. I took a step forward and he ran on the knife in my hands. Stompanato looked at me and said, ‘My God, Cheryl, what have you done?’ before falling to the floor. He was dead within moments.”
It was a completely chance, perfectly placed, fatal stab to his aorta.
Reading Lana’s later analysis of her first thoughts and feelings [aff. link] just moments after “the happening,” as she and Cheryl began referring to the Stompanato homicide, brings me to tears every time:
“I began to grasp the enormity of what Cheryl had done and began to understand why. She had heard John say he was going to destroy my face, and she had brought the knife to protect me. A young girl, a child, against a big man. The thrust of the knife piercing the aorta was fatal by chance. She was trying to protect me. She was now in terrible trouble. Nothing seemed to matter except protecting her.”
And that is what Lana, her mother Mildred, Stephan Crane, and attorney Jerry Geisler spent the next month doing. There would be no special treatment for Cheryl however, and she spent the time between the homicide and her eventual acquittal at the end of April 1958 behind bars at the Beverly Hills Police Station and juvenile hall.
That’s three weeks in prison for a fourteen-year-old girl.
Cheryl was acquitted on the grounds of “justifiable homicide,” but how could such an event not shake even the most well-grounded young woman? Cheryl’s teenage years that followed “the happening” were understandably rough and rebellious, but, as Lana proudly states in her autobiography [aff. link], as an adult,
“…Cheryl began to appreciate her own intelligence and to use her innate abilities…She developed an interest in Stephan’s [Cheryl’s father] restaurant business…so she entered the Cornell University hotel and restaurant management school and graduated with straight A’s. She became one of Stephan’s partners…today [Cheryl is] a highly successful business woman in real estate…whenever I’m with Cheryl I’m impressed at how effectively she’s taken charge of her life. It’s been a long, hard journey for her, but she’s made it—made me proud, too, to be her mother.”
And Lana, ever the survivor, rose from the tragedy of Good Friday 1958, and yet again revitalized her film career with the smash hit, Imitation of Life (1959), which catapulted Lana into yet another successful decade of her career.
“The happening” will forever be part of the Lana Turner legacy. But think what would have happened if it weren’t for Cheryl and her bravery that day? As Lana herself gratefully told her daughter,
“Cheryl, have I never told you how you saved my life? Gran’s life? Your own life? How if it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t be here today?”
A fourteen-year-old girl risked her own life for her mother’s, and both survived, becoming stronger women for it. There are few things in this world more deeply moving than such a great sacrifice and demonstration of love.
I think it is so inspiring how Cheryl and and Lana both refused to let “the happening” define their lives. I greatly admire them both for it.
Next Week: The Three Musketeers!
And that’s it for today!
Be sure to come back next week when I review Lana’s spectacular performance as the beautiful and villainous Lady de Winter in what I think is the best version of The Three Musketeers (1948) ever put on film! Lana Turner? Gene Kelly? Van Hefflin? Vincent Price? You know this is a good one! Be sure to check out the TCM film schedule for showtimes!