Acting is an art form, and behind every iconic character is an artist expressing themselves. Welcome to The Great Performances, a recurring column exploring the art behind some of cinema’s best roles. In this entry, Jacob Trussell explores Kathleen Turner’s performance in Serial Mom.
In John Water’s satirical spoof on suburban society, Serial Mom, Kathleen Turner plays Beverly Sutphin, a picture-perfect housewife, utterly devoted to her husband and two children. She appears to be the ideal homemaker, cut from the cloth of the American Dream. But just like that Dream, there’s a seedier side to Beverly her family doesn’t know about. Because beneath her veneer of domesticity, Beverly is a twisted serial killer. Her fanaticism for her family drives a fierce desire to protect them at all costs. She explodes with sudden outbursts of extreme violence, becoming increasingly unhinged as the dark comedy grows pitch black.
Despite her murderous tendencies, Turner plays Beverly as irresistibly charming and charismatic. She has an infectious laugh and magnetic personality that is completely enchanting. But behind her June Cleaver-esque facade hides a stone-cold movie maniac. This contrast she creates is one of the central reasons why Turner’s performance is both compelling and memorable.
Except that wasn’t exactly how famed critic Roger Ebert felt when Waters’ film was first released. As he wrote in his two-star review,
“It’s not so much that Turner’s performance doesn’t succeed, as that there’s something sad about it that works against the humor… Turner’s character is helpless and unwitting in a way that makes us feel almost sorry for her — and that undermines the humor. She isn’t funny crazy, she’s sick crazy… She gets a weird light in her eyes that I guess we’re supposed to laugh at, but, gee, it’s kind of pathetic the way she goes into murderous action… this is a movie where the comedy doesn’t work because at some underlying level the material generates emotions we feel uneasy about.”
But I find Ebert’s criticism of the film, and specifically Turner’s performance, to be the exact reason why this film has become a beloved cult classic. Because those uneasy feelings the film instigates in the audience are the point. There’s an underlying sense of repression inside the traditional nuclear family, and what Waters aims to do is show us that yes, we’re right. There is something more salacious happening behind those white picket fences. But rather than leaning into the crazy, Turner chooses to play Beverly straight as an arrow. And it makes her murderous rage feel funnier through incongruity.
Though the film may be a riff on exploitation movies, like much of Waters’ oeuvre, Turner resists playing Beverly in the same key as, say, Joan Crawford’s performance in Strait-Jacket. That’s because Turner understands the humor of the film comes out of how tender and earnest she plays Beverly’s madness. Because what’s more darkly humorous? A killer who acts as unhinged as they appear, or in a way you would never expect they were secretly harboring murderous intentions?
Even with it’s exploitation undertones, Serial Mom is still a wry comedy. This is made resoundingly clear in the opening moments as we’re introduced to Beverly. Eying a fly buzzing around her eat-in kitchen, Beverly reaches for a swatter to kill the bug. As she does so, her family discusses the merits of the death penalty. They’ve just learned a murderer has received a college diploma while behind bars.
“He killed people mom,” says Beverly’s daughter Misty (Ricki Lake). Without missing a beat, or taking her eyes off her prey, Beverly casually replies, “We all have our bad days!” She then brings down the swatter, squashing the fly. Waters’ camera lingers on the blood stain left behind, before we see Turner’s triumphant face light up with genuine pride. She then suddenly switches gears from predator back to mama. “Scrambled eggs, anyone?” she asks, radiating a likability that cranks Beverly’s sunshine cheeriness up to eleven.
This opening scene gets to the heart of Turner’s entire performance. She conveys a zen-like calm in her violent moments. Even when that violence is directed to something as innocuous as a common house fly. This is Waters’ way of easing us into the dark and zany humor we’re about to see over the next 90 minutes. From moment one, Waters’ holds our hand as we wade into his deliciously mucky brand of comedy.
Beverly’s satisfaction from killing a fly extends to all her murders. But Turner doesn’t play Beverly as someone compelled to kill on some subconscious, psychological level. It’s more simple than that. What keeps Turner grounded is that she is able to square away all of the differences to Beverly’s outward persona. Because, in her mind, she’s just doing what any mom would do to protect her family. Even if it’s from life’s most minor indignities, whether that be gum chewers, or suburban litterbugs. This discordance is what Turner brings to her performance as Beverly, and it surfaces much of the dark humor Waters buries in the foundation of all his films.
On a reported budget of $13 million, Serial Mom would gross only $7.8 million, sequestering it in the early 1990s to the realm of box office bombs. But in the years following its release, Serial Mom has grown a cult following that goes beyond just John Waters stans. The film embodies the saccharine vibes of his family-friendly fare like Hairspray, but injected with all the delightful perversity of his more radical works, like Polyester. This mashup of sensibilities make Serial Mom an excellent starting point for cinephiles who want to get hip to Waters’ filmography. But the film wouldn’t be what it is if it didn’t have Kathleen Turner delivering a commanding–and criminally underrated–performance as Beverly Sutphin.