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A Night with Johnny Stempanato by Jonathan Holloway

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BBC Radio 4, 12 July 2008
 

The story behind this play is straightforward enough. Lana Turner (Laurence Bouvard), having been married four times, meets another man who calls himself John Steele, but eventually turns out to be a small-time mobster Johnny Stampanato (John Guerrasio). Steele woos her with protestations of love and feigned concern for her daughter Cheryl (Georgia Muffett). The love-affair develops; but eventually Steele/ Stampanato turns out to be an obsessive, who will neither let Turner live her own life, nor allow her to see other man. He imposes his will on her by frequent beatings. After one particularly violent confrontation at her house, Cheryl stabs him to death with a kitchen-knife. At the subsequent trial, Turner’s private life is exposed in front of the public gaze; but eventually she is cleared, as the jury return a verdict of justifiable homicide. The entire case was a cause cÚlebre in 1957; but it was not until several years later that people knew the real truth about what happened, after Cheryl Turner went public.

 

This kind of subject-matter made for a gripping - if sometimes melodramatic - play. But Holloway was not satisfied just to re-tell past events; rather he used them to provide us with a fascinating study of obsession. If Stampanato was an obsessive in his desire to control Turner, then Turner was equally so, as she desperately sought to maintain her public image as a glamorous Hollywood star. We never got to know the ‘real’ Lana Turner; what we were given instead was a series of performances. At the Oscar ceremonies, for instance (where she lost the Best Actress award to Joanne Woodward), Turner made sure that she was seen with all the A-list Hollywood stars – and made every effort to get herself photographed with them. During the trial, Turner gave a melodramatic performance strongly reminiscent of her award-winning role in Peyton Place (1957). Her voice quavered as she recounted the events of that fateful night, and the suffering both she and her daughter experienced at Stampanato’s hands; and she made no effort to conceal her grief that such a terrible thing should have happened in her own house. As listeners, we were treated to another Turner performance, as she recounted to us through soliloquies the events leading up to and following the murder, making every effort to portray herself in a favourable light. As she observed at the end of the play, Hollywood made her in its own image (‘Lana Turner’ was not her real name; she was born Julia Jean Mildred Frances Turner), and it was up to her to conform to that image, whatever the cost.  If she could not achieve this, then her only solution was the whisky-bottle. Like Stampanato, she appeared to have no other life outside herself; her daughter was just there for window-dressing, to provide another photo-opportunity for the media.

 

If Turner and Stampanato were emotionally similar, then it naturally followed that they could never escape one another. Holloway was careful to stress that, in spite of the beatings, Turner could never tear herself away from him. She would always come back to him, or pay for him to visit her on a film-set (at one point, she even financed him to come to England, where she was making a film with Sean Connery). When Stampanato died, something in her died with him; in spite of her protestations that she always had a bad time with men, and that she kept making mistakes, we were well aware that she was emotionally lost. It was thus not surprising that, during the rest of her life, she should move aimlessly from marriage to marriage in a fruitless search for another Stampanato.

 

Sara Davies’s production was played a full throttle throughout; it grasped the listener’s attention and never let it go. The two central performances by Laurence Bouvard and John Guerrasio were particularly convincing; vocally speaking, the actors were very similar, which further emphasized the emotional bonds linking them. Ultimately, however, we were left feeling very sorry for Lana Turner; she might have been a sex-symbol for several decades, but she had little or no private life to speak of. Like Monroe, she was ultimately consumed by the need to conform to her (Hollywood-constructed) star image.

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