I’ve just been tuning in to “A Night with Johnny Stompanato,” an original radio play by British director-playwright Jonathan Holloway, which you may access via BBC’s iPlayer until 18 July 2008. Based on “real events, newspaper reports, and FBI files from the years 1957 and 1958,” this hourlong docudrama recounts a sordid chapter in the life of screen legend Lana Turner, whose teenage daughter, Cheryl, stabbed to death the titular character, the star’s possessive mobster boyfriend. “Real events?” Turner purrs. “Yeah, I guess. Personally, I’ve rarely met a man who could tell the truth when a lie would do.” So, this time around, Lana gets to tell her own story. With us, the radio audience as jury, she is going to court for us—which is to say, she’s going to court us—all over again.
Can Turner give the performance of her life now that her own life is at stake? Let’s be frank, the former Sweater Girl was neither known for her realist acting nor for her vocal talents, as I previously remarked here. Tuning in to Turner is not likely to make you turn on to her. There wasn’t enough “It” in her timbre to make Lana’s figure appear before your mind’s eye as you listen to Suspense thrillers like “Fear Paints a Picture.” In this Imitation of Lana, Laurence Bouvard is ably substituting—and, I found, vocally improving on—the departed screen icon, who never sounded as confident behind the microphone as she looked in front of the camera. You might say that Bouvard sounds more convincing than Turner—even though, to me, “the real Lana” has an oxymoronic ring to it.
Now, my days of thrilling to trash like Hollywood Babylon are long gone, as are my experimentations in hairstyles inspired by Lana’s late 1950’s coiffure. Still, I was looking forward to this racy little number. Unfortunately, it turned out to be rather dull—which is quite a feat, considering the material.
On the face of it, “A Night with Johnny Stompanato” is not unlike one of those femme fatale yarns produced by Suspense, in which tough-talking dames give you the lowdown on a crime they were involved in, until the first-person narration makes way for a dramatization of past events. In short, the past becomes present at pivotal moments in the story. The same formula is used by Holloway, except that the playwright dramatizes the court scenes, which in themselves are retellings, with Turner commenting on the proceedings. In other words, he lets the leading lady attest too much, so that we are told what has happened rather than permitted to overhear it.
One of the most dramatic moments of “A Night with Johnny Stompanato” involves Turner, then shooting Another Time, Another Place in London, attempting to have her increasingly violent lover deported. From her dressing room at the studio, Turner calls Scotland Yard but, “as bad luck had it,” Stompanato was trying to reach her “at the same time.” Sorry, Wrong Number came to mind; but that was my mind, not the playwright’s. Instead of dramatizing this potentially thrilling call, Holloway has Turner recall it for us in retrospect:
The dumb English broad on the switchboard opened the line for him, and he listened in on everything I said to the police. The detective put down the phone, and John’s voice came straight out of the earpiece. I practically dropped dead on the spot.
The dropping dead, though, is acted out for us, with prolonged gurgling and some heavy breathing. Stompanato’s silencing comes as a relief. As impersonated—or caricatured—by John Guerrasio, he sounds about as charming and enigmatic as Allen Jenkins.
“You know,” Turner confides in us at the conclusion of her report,
the most amazing thing about the whole Johnny Stompanato business? That I didn’t learn from it. Just kept right on getting involved with men . . . and having a really bad time getting uninvolved. I never learned from my mistakes, which, I am told, is what makes us different from the animals. Nope. I just kept right on making them.
The same goes for radio playwrights, I suppose; “instead of being dramatic, with action in the now,” aforementioned writing instructor Luther Weaver complained about 1940s radio serials, their narration “offers a post-mortem on what already has happened.” Don’t get me wrong. I am grateful to the BBC for trying to keep radio drama alive (a new adaptation of Cheever’s short story “The Enormous Radio” is being broadcast on Wednesday); but, as “A Night with Johnny Stompanato” demonstrates, dialogue alone does not constitute drama. There’s more tension in one of Lana’s discarded sweaters.