Kathleen Turner and Alicia Silverstone escape Hollywood by bringing a movie classic to Broadway.
March 24, 2002
By Frank Bruni
Photograph by Mary Ellen Mark
Kathleen Turner strides into the restaurant with her hips forward, shoulders back and chin up. She arrives, and there's no mistaking it, especially because she garnishes the event with that inimitable voice ‑ like Bankhead after a smoking binge, Bacall with a sinus infection. "I'm starving," she bellows, in a way that suggests she might take a knife and fork to you if you strayed too close to a bottle of A1. She grabs the menu, then frowns: she must order carefully, so as not to offend the other guest, who will soon bubble into view.
Enter Alicia Silverstone, once "Clueless," now brimming with self‑proclaimed wisdom about the ways of the world, especially as they concern the digestive tract. She is a meatless, milkless vegetarian ‑ a vegan, she will tell you, and she tells you with little prodding. For that reason, she has called ahead to ask the chef to prepare something special and animal‑free for her. When Turner decides on the pasta, she makes yummy, cooing noises about the artichokes and marinara sauce, neglecting to mention the prosciutto in the mix.
These onetime screen sensations would seem to have little but eroded fame in common. Yet they find themselves side by side at a table on the second floor of the Ritz‑Carlton in Boston and onstage together in a production of "The Graduate," based on the cult novel that also became the seminal film. It's Broadway bound, after sold-out houses in Boston led to astonishingly brisk advance ticket sales in New York. The show officially opens on April 4.
Turner plays Mrs. Robinson, who comes across in this production like a sexual velociraptor. Silverstone plays her daughter, Elaine, an ingenue smitten with the same disaffected young man (Jason Biggs) her mother has turned into bedroom prey. It is the kind of stunt casting that recently landed Brooke Shields and later Molly Ringwald in "Cabaret," that gives performers no longer cherished in Hollywood a shot at a different spotlight.
For Turner and Silverstone, it is also a reprieve from the movie industry's narrow expectations of how an actress should look. Both went from sex object to object of whispers about the degree to which they were ‑ or weren't ‑ staying sexy. Turner says she endured rumors that excessive drinking was bloating her face, when the problem, she explains, was the medicine for her rheumatoid arthritis. Silverstone signed on to play the Caped Crusader's female sidekick, only to have tabloids dub her "Fatgirl."
"That's all it's about there," Turner says, meaning appearances and Hollywood. "The first thing anyone always says is: 'Oh! You look ... good."
"Or, 'You look really skinny, you've lost weight,"' Silverstone adds. To which she says she always feels like responding: "I wasn't keeping track. Glad you are!"
"I don't actually get that," Turner cackles. "I usually get 'You're as big as I thought you were.' I'm not little."
In "The Graduate," Turner's daring is certainly outsized. For about 20 seconds, after dropping a towel, she stands facing the audience with nothing between her neck and ankles but skin. It's a function of the plot, but it's also personal, a gesture that Turner proudly labels "in your face."
Turner, 47, is all appetite, game for anything, like lampooning her quasi‑campy voluptuousness with a guest appearance as an aging drag queen on the television series "Friends." She also provided husky voice‑overs for commercials for Burger King.
"What did you do?" Silverstone asks, alarmed. "Burger King?"
"That was two years ago," Turner says in her defense.
Is she saying she doesn't eat meat anymore?
"Ummmm," Turner hedges. "I don't eat there."
Silverstone, 25, asserts that personal growth, not professional advancement, has always been her compass. (Though that doesn't quite account for the trio of Aerosmith videos in which she cavorted.) "Often," she says, pronouncing the word with a hard "t," "I go through periods where I'm not sure why I'm an actress. I go, 'Why am I acting?' I don't know that I'm getting a lot out of it at certain times."
"I don't go through that," Turner replies. "I just love it." She says "love" like she's licking her chops.
Making a big movie‑star salary, Silverstone says, pales in importance next to her political causes, like supporting People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. She says she doesn't need money.
"I do," Turner counters. "I want a great bed. I want beautiful paintings."
Turner also seems to want Silverstone to put a lid on it, at least when her testimonials about her vegan dog and her vegan bliss tip into vegan overload.
"People, when they die, they open them up they've got too much protein in them," Silverstone observes.
"Let's not talk about that," Turner cuts her off.
'I consider myself a cancer activist, a heart‑disease activist," Silverstone says, because those maladies "would not be around" if everyone was a vegan. Doctors, she complains, are quicker to remove a patients colon than to "ask you what you're putting in your colon."
"That's enough!" Turner exclaims. "Can't take any more!" Her pasta bowl is empty, while Silverstone's Bento box of squash and brown rice is still half full. Not a bad metaphor for the different ways in which these actresses chomp or nibble into life's experiences, dealing with the fare that they have been served.