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A star remembered

Lana Turner, who died Thursday night of throat cancer at age 75, was a star long before she was an actor and, so appropriately enough, what she did off the screen loomed as large in her legend as what she did on it.

Even when what she did off screen never really happened.

Although the "Sweater Girl" could certainly fill out the cashmere, the whole story about her being discovered wearing a tight pullover at Schwabs, the famed Sunset Strip drugstore and soda fountain, was a publicist's invention. After a while, it didn't matter anymore: the story became a Hollywood legend.

Much of Ms. Turner's life was the stuff of Hollywood legend; she had seven husbands, one of whom, a gangster, was stabbed to death by her daughter. She became an icon, a symbol of Hollywood's more glamorous era, and in that way her life eclipsed her career.

Perhaps more than any other star of Hollywood's Golden Age, Ms. Turner was a creation of her studio, in this case MGM. She had appeared unimpressively in a few other movies when the studio cast her in Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938) as the sexiest girl in Carvel, the mythic American hometown for the quintessentially All-American movie series.

Working her way up, she landed a substantial part as a lovely innocent menaced by Spencer Tracy in 1941's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and then played another innocent, this time cozying up to Clark Gable in Honky Tonk.

In three short years, she had gone from ingenue to co-starring roles with the studio's two principal leading men, embodying the dream of every Hollywood wanna-be.

But could she act? Well, sometimes.

MGM used Ms. Turner mostly in melodramas tinged either with crime or exoticism and how she came off was extremely variable. The less she emoted, the better she came off, an idea well understood by director George Sydney, who used her as his one subdued note in an effusive version of The Three Musketeers (1948) in which as Lady de Winter, Ms. Turner menaced Gene Kelly and his three fellow swashbucklers.

Her best performance of the decade, however, was in Tay Garnett's version of James M. Cain's nasty noir mystery The Postman Always Rings Twice (1947). Garnett let murderous lover John Garfield and larcenous lawyer Hume Cronyn hog all the acting pyrotechnics and had Ms. Turner lay back in a way that was, engagingly if paradoxically, simultaneously cool and sultry.

Ms. Turner's best performance for MGM came in 1952, when she played the emotionally battered movie star in Vincente Minnelli's superb backstage Hollywood story, The Bad and the Beautiful. Minnelli assumed that Ms. Turner could deliver the performance he needed, and she delivered, for once holding her own against no less than Kirk Douglas, Walter Pidgeon, Gilbert Roland, Dick Powell and Gloria Grahame.

But Ms. Turner was aging and MGM, which had largely created her, decided to do away with her. No doubt to the studio's surprise, she had her biggest hit and her biggest sensation ahead of her.

They came within a year of one another. First the hit, 1957's Peyton Place, a phenomenal box office performer that reinvigorated Ms. Turner's career as a big-screen soap opera star. She rode the success _ Ms. Turner won her only Oscar nomination for the role _ for years and into her best late film, Douglas Sirk's Imitation of Life (1959), another huge hit that covered everything from interracial love to women's sexual needs.

The sensation came between the two films, when, in 1958, Ms. Turner's 15-year-old daughter, Cheryl Crane, stabbed Ms. Turner's then-boyfriend, mobster Johnny Stompanato. Ms. Turner's love life was a multivolume experience of its own; she was married seven times, including go-rounds with bandleader Artie Shaw, millionaire Bob Topping, and Lex "Tarzan" Barker, and she was often linked romantically with other figures, including Howard Hughes.