My sister and I are galloping around the living room in the spring of 2001, casting charms on our parents with wooden spoon wands and tripping each other up. She stops in front of an open window and recites the fearsome line with her nose in the air and hair thrown behind her head as though she’s perched on an escarpment. I stand as tall as I’m able and shake out my own imaginary tresses before hissing it back to her. I narrow my eyes and gnash my teeth as I speak and a good amount of spit ends up landing in her eye. We’re both pretending to be Kathleen Turner.
Released four years earlier, Michael Ritchie’s A Simple Wish follows the spellbound hijinks of precocious 8-year-old Annabel (Mara Wilson) and her bumbling “fairy godfather” Murray (Martin Short) as they attempt to help the girl’s down-and-out dad with some practical magic. Standing in their way is Turner’s malevolent Claudia, a formerly good witch with a taste for the dark arts and a pet terrier played by Amanda Plummer.
We would wear out the VHS tape on weekends with feral delight, watching Claudia deliver a poisoned apple to Teri Garr, flatten Ruby Dee into a pancake and turn Martin Short to jelly. All manner of hateful spells could erupt from her fingertips, spiraling across the room in a whoosh of plum-coloured stars. And then there was our favorite moment: Claudia threatening to snap a victim’s spinal cord with all the saucy hauteur of a Charles Busch heroine.
Of course, we didn’t know who any of these people were. We had no context for Turner, Garr, or Dee. It would still be years before we saw them in Prizzi’s Honor or Tootsie or A Raisin in the Sun. Sitting on the couch with ham sandwiches in our laps, we only knew what we had been shown thus far—that these glamorous adults were conjuring something downright magical, something that glistened. They were each like fresh pearls.
For the same reason, we weren’t to know that this particular film—and the kind of roles it offered those women—would generally be considered a low-rent venture. For Turner it was another in a string of increasingly minor projects made throughout the late 1990s, following years of severe rheumatoid arthritis and fabled on-set difficulty. When she’d first blazed into international consciousness opposite William Hurt in 1981’s Body Heat, she was received as an impenetrable ingenue. For years it would remain the category by which she was forcibly defined; writing for Film Comment, Richard Schickel described her vocal tone as “a velvet-satin blend produced in laboratories no man is permitted to enter,” dubbing her as the “first authentically mysterious female presence since Garbo…May she never write an exercise book or state her position on nuclear power.” Of her performance as duplicitous Florida housewife Matty Walker, Roger Ebert likewise gushed, “To see her is to need her.”
As a child, I would next catch her onscreen as corrupt scientist Dr. Elena Kinder in the CGI-tinged family comedy Baby Geniuses. By this time—the year 1999—Turner was now a known entity to critics and audiences alike, no longer formed from the mysterious stuff that fuels lusty daydreams. There was the notorious infighting with Burt Reynolds on the set of the His Girl Friday remake, Switching Channels. There was the time Eileen Atkins christened her “an amazing nightmare” during the Broadway production of Indiscretions in 1995. There were her well-publicized altercations with serial oddballs Nicolas Cage and William Hurt. And there was her prescription for prednisone, an anti-inflammatory medication that was an essential, if disorienting, method of controlling her rheumatoid arthritis. Its myriad side effects—dizzy spells, mood swings, weight gain—fueled tabloid rumors of unprofessionalism and drug addiction. She patiently explained her predicament many times, but was rarely taken seriously in an age where autoimmune diseases were even more of an enigma than they are now. Chronic sickness is surely much less exciting than behind-the-scenes gossip. “Nobody Burns a Bridge Like Kathleen Turner” announced a 2018 Vanity Fair headline.
In a showy film like Baby Geniuses, her still-potent ferocity was now considered old hat and even off-putting. The San Francisco Chronicle labeled the performance “brutally bad,” while, in an F-grade review for Entertainment Weekly, Ty Burr lamented her “officially landing at barrel’s bottom.” For me, squealing with glee under a fleece blanket, her return to my life was something like candy. “That’s the lady who broke the man’s bones,” I thought aloud, both thrilled and alarmed by Turner’s nightmare-inducing malice.
For an adult viewer who had lived through her sweltering arrival in Body Heat or her turbulent chemistry with Michael Douglas in the 1984 swashbuckler Romancing the Stone, these scenery-chewing antagonist roles connoted a nosediving career trajectory. They also happened to represent an industry trend. Whether it was Eartha Kitt in Harriet the Spy, Anjelica Huston in The Witches or Glenn Close in 101 Dalmatians, this was a decade ripe for the second act revival—albeit on limited terms. Celebrated screen veterans enjoying late-career turns in children’s movies was nothing new for the period—whether Walter Matthau in Dennis the Menace or Christopher Walken in Mouse Hunt—but the ruthless villainess was an altogether separate operation.
In casting Faye Dunaway as wicked hotelier Mrs. Dubrow in Dunston Checks In or Elizabeth Taylor as the pugnacious Mrs. Slaghoople in The Flintstones, major studios were trading on negative perceptions of their public personae in order to raise a knowing eyebrow at the parents forced to tag along to the multiplex. That’s not to suggest that these actors were unaware of this predicament—it is certainly a special treat to bring joy to a kid, not to mention to make a quick buck—but rather that the bargain was demeaning by design.
When Dunaway’s character is unceremoniously pushed into a wedding cake in her final scene (salmon-pink frosting smeared across her immaculate skirt suit and clumped in the tendrils of her hair) the victory is not just for the film’s titular orangutan but for a viewing audience taught to resent her storied real-life arrogance. Dunaway, whose gift for arch savagery had once won her an Oscar, was now something of a monstrous joke. Taylor too was “cartoonish” (Los Angeles Times) and “an embarrassing spectacle” (Empire), while even Glenn Close’s Cruella de Vil was critiqued for “excessive vamping…more twisted and pathetic than scary and funny” (Austin Chronicle). Common to all of these commentaries is a mournful tone of “How could this happen?” as if newspaper columns weren’t complicit in the machinery that chewed these women up and spat them out again a decade or two after their heyday. It is to the great credit of children that, for all their hyperactive impatience, they don’t tire so easily of the things that they love.
To the eyes of a toddler, these performances are a raucous pleasure, satisfying in much the same way as hurling a bowl of yogurt off a high chair and rubbing your fingers through the mess. And therein lies the incidental beauty of these casting maneuvers. Here the earnest innocence of childhood undercuts the callous motivations of a misogynistic industry. Contradicting the potential indignity of playing paper thin villains in swishy gowns and opalescent fabrics, there is possibly nothing more dignified in the mind of a young person than a fancy looking woman with a contemptuous laugh and a trim outfit. For my sister and I, Claudia was a deviously appealing figure. We enjoyed her casual brutality, just as we reveled in the uptight severity of Anjelica Huston in Daddy Day Care, or the deliciously evil line readings from Eartha Kitt in The Emperor’s New Groove. We absorbed their performances as any infant would—on face value, without a drop of cynicism.
It wasn’t empty-headed adoration either. Watching these films as a child begins teaching you how to appreciate celebrity, and popular culture in general, as being more than one thing. If you first encounter Glenn Close as Cruella—all wigs and furs and bared teeth—and then later come to understand her as the award-winner who danced around the kitchen table in The Big Chill or precariously mothered Robin Williams in The World According to Garp, then you’ve upended the normative process of cumulative quality. If we can perceive a public figure as a revered talent and also a ridiculous spectacle at the same time, then we’re no longer conditioned to make a value distinction between those two positions. Downward spirals are reframed as second comings.
This is the great equalizing purity of childhood taste. Most youngsters would be instinctively captivated by the nonsense charm of a Beatles track like “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” for example. It wouldn’t matter to them that this song is regularly ridiculed for its somewhat unbearable novelty and scattershot percussion. It would continue not mattering to them until they develop an adult’s appetite for shame or are eventually cowed by the will of critical consensus. Try telling a kid not to enjoy “The Lonely Goatherd” from The Sound of Music and they will likely yodel back in your face. But give them time and they might come to disregard it as cacophonous guff. This isn’t just a phenomenon of growing up, or of taste maturing. It’s about learning to submit to generally accepted cultural guidelines. It’s making hierarchies out of the different strains of enjoyment—as if it were better to be somewhat tickled than to be doubled over with a detonating laugh.
The fact is, for the first few years at least, children see people as they are. They observe not with a discerning eye but with an inviting one. And so, without a snobbish awareness of cultural worth, they consume everything at once. And gladly. Most importantly, they understand that anything crafted for their own enjoyment is a gift quite distinct from questions of good or bad art. Few acts are more generous than stomping around in front of a camera, arms flailing and face mugging, in order to get a smile out of a kid lying on the carpet.