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Based on a 1909 French play by Alexandre Bisson, Madame X was first filmed in 1916, with Dorothy Donnelly in the title role. In a 1920 remake, the celebrated stage actress Pauline Frederick played her. The first talkie version, in 1929, earned an Academy Award nomination for Broadway star Ruth Chatterton. MGM remade it in 1937 with Gladys George as the doomed lady, and there was a British version in 1948. Tuesday Weld received excellent reviews in the 1981 television adaptation. Perhaps the best of the lot -- and certainly the one with the highest production values -- is the 1966 version of Madame X starring Lana Turner.
Turner plays Holly, the neglected wife of a diplomat and mother of a young son. She has an affair with a playboy, and is implicated in his death. To avoid tainting her family with scandal, Holly disappears, leaving them to believe she's dead. Over the years Holly sinks into a life of degradation, until another death leaves her on trial for murder...defended by the son who's unaware of who she is.
By the mid-1950's, Lana Turner had segued from sexpot roles into romantic melodramas such as Peyton Place (1957), which earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. The real-life melodrama of her mobster lover's murder by her daughter (Cheryl Crane) not only increased Turner's notoriety, but also her popularity. She then teamed up with director Douglas Sirk and producer Ross Hunter, who specialized in lavishly-produced women's pictures, for Imitation of Life (1959), a tearjerker about a conflicted mother-daughter relationship. It was a huge hit and was quickly followed by another, equally glossy Turner and Hunter collaboration, Portrait in Black (1960).
In 1962, Turner, who had her own production company, bought the rights to Madame X from MGM and entered into a co-production deal with Ross Hunter. But from the start it was a troubled film. It took three years for Hunter and writer Jean Holloway to come up with a script, and even then, it seemed corny and old-fashioned. Hunter approached Douglas Sirk to direct, but Sirk in poor health was unable to accept. David Lowell Rich, a television director, was hired instead. By the time Madame X went before the cameras in 1965, the 45-year old Turner was faced with a role that would not only make enormous demands on her acting skill, but would have her aging from 30 to 55.
All went well during the filming of the early scenes, when Holly is a young and glamorous woman, in a Jean Louis wardrobe and jewels galore. But as Holly deteriorated, so did Turner's spirits. Already self-conscious about aging, she dreaded the unflattering makeup, and feuded with her longtime makeup man and friend, Del Armstrong. "When I thought he'd made me look horrible enough, he said 'You ain't seen nothing yet,' and he meant it. I mean, I've had some bad mornings in my time, but I've never looked like that." Turner insisted on wearing a veil going to and from the set. Columnist Sheilah Graham made matters worse when she visited the set and reported that Constance Bennett, who played Turner's mother-in-law and was in her late fifties, looked younger than Lana...who wasn't wearing her old-age makeup that day.
Turner even fought with Ross Hunter, a courtly man known for the deference with which he treated his aging divas. Exasperated by the delays for which he blamed Turner, Hunter stomped off the set and did not speak to the star for the rest of the picture. Both later denied a feud, and Turner took out an ad in trade papers thanking Hunter and the cast and crew for helping her get through a difficult role.
Although some critics sniped that Madame X was hopelessly old-fashioned, others praised the film, and Turner's performance. James Powers wrote in the Hollywood Reporter, "a superb cast of players take this rather shabby old piece and give it immediacy, vigor and credibility." And Charles Champlin wrote in the Los Angeles Times, "the unsparing, guileless honesty of [Turner's] performance is very touching." Those who called the film pass may have been right - Madame X did not do well at the box office. But it remained among Lana Turner's personal favorites, and one of the performances of which she was proudest.
Director: David Lowell Rich
Producer: Ross Hunter
Screenplay: Jean Holloway, based on the play by Alexandre Bisson
Editor: Milton Carruth
Cinematography: Russell Metty
Art Direction: Alexander Golitzen and George Webb
Costume Design: Jean Louis
Music: Frank Skinner
Cast: Lana Turner (Holly Parker), John Forsythe (Clay Anderson), Ricardo Montalban (Phil Benton), Burgess Meredith (Dan Sullivan), Constance Bennett (Estelle Anderson), Keir Dullea (Clay Anderson, Jr.).
C-101m. Closed captioning.
by Margarita Landazuri