In "The Perfect Family," Kathleen Turner plays Eileen Cleary, a devout Roman Catholic who's been nominated for "Catholic Woman of the Year." But Eileen's "perfect family" is not so perfect: her daughter Shannon (Emily Deschanel) is gay, pregnant through artificial insemination, and about to marry her live-in girlfriend Angela (Angelique Cabral); her son Frank Jr. (Jason Ritter) has left his wife and is in a relationship with an older woman; her husband Frank (Michael McGrady) is an ex-alcoholic; and Eileen herself has her own dark secrets tucked in the closet.
To complicate matters, her church has also nominated the priggish Agnes Dunn (Sharon Lawrence) for Catholic Woman of the Year, so a third-party Bishop has been asked to make a home visit to determine which woman is most eligible for the honor. "The Archbishop of Dublin will offer a prayer of absolution to the winner," Monsignor Murphy (Richard Chamberlain) says, to which Eileen replies a bit warily: "All sins forgiven."
But no amount of prayer or absolution is going to get Eileen out of her predicament, shaked-and-baked as it is in the fires of religious piety. She's faced with negotiating the demands of her church and the realities of her family in world where doing "the right thing" falls on a shifting emotional bandwidth. "I'll pray for you," she tells her daughter upon learning of her alternative lifestyle. "Pray for yourself," her daughter snaps back.
Turner herself is no stranger to socio-political agendas. She's a passionate and long-time activist who as Chair of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America has testified before Congress on the Equity of Prescription Insurance Contraception Coverage Act (EPICC), and is on the board of People For the American Way and Citymeals-on-Wheels, among other organizations.
I recently spoke with Turner about "The Perfect Family" and the ire it's provoked.
You're very involved in political and social causes. To what extent did your political convictions motivate you to do "The Perfect Family"?
The most empathetic thing about Eileen is this dedication to service. It's something I understand. I don't have the time to be of service every day like she is, but this sense of being able to serve and help people is very, very strong in me. I like the fact that Eileen is a good woman. She's not judgmental or intolerant; she's just accepted rules for her world -- and she doesn't understand anything outside of those rules. I don't think it's imperative that this be about Catholicism, either. To me, it's a model that corresponds to any orthodox religion that suggests that there's only one way to be of service. It applies as well to Islam or Judaism, or any form of right-wing Christianity. It's about that conflict between dedication to the rules of a religion and how that dedication actually works in real life, particularly when it comes up against the people we love. That's what caught my mind and imagination with this film.
There's a pivotal scene in the film where Eileen obliquely asks a priest if he thinks the Church will disapprove of her family. He replies: "I think that God sits at the head of your family. And the only real obligation you have is to be one unit, united in love."
It's God's purpose. The love that you have for each other in a family is the highest form of worship.
That was a powerful moment in the film.
It's what comes through most strongly in the film. But we're getting bashed by the Catholic League. They're sending these terrible, hateful emails to this poor, sweet young woman who works for the PR firm that's handling the film's publicity. Of course, she had nothing to do with the choices in the film, but she's still getting hate mail.
It's remarkable that a film about tolerance and love of family, both religious virtues, would provoke the ire of the Catholic League to such extremes. Do you plan to defend the film's message?
It's so awful that it's almost funny -- only it's not. "The Perfect Family" is a film is about love. It's about family. They all show up for each other eventually, right? Which to me is what it's all about. Personally, I do not accept this kind of rigid orthodox organized religion. I do not. I do not wish to live that way. But that's my business. This is the United States of America. We all get to have our own beliefs here.
You're committed to so many social causes and really walk your talk.
My daughter and I joke around. I say: "You want an inheritance? Get out and march." And she does. She goes on all the marches with me. She's a really good young woman and I'm thrilled with her.
Is there one particular film in your career that was the most meaningful to you?
There are different aspects to each film I've done. If you look at my body of work, you see that nothing is like anything else. I believe that when you take on something and you don't know if you can do it, you have to risk to the point of failure, otherwise you don't grow or change. You never know what things will come to mean to you in your life. But I've got to say that I feel very blessed. I get to do the job that I love.
What's one thing that you know now that you wish you knew growing up?
I'll tell you something: A whole bunch of us contributed to this book called Dear Me. It's a compilation of letters to your younger self. We were all asked to write letters to our 16 year old self -- the money goes to support Doctors Without Borders -- and there's one theme that stands out in a lot of the letters: Don't let people tell you that you can't do something, because they don't know any more than you do. And I believe in that. Go with your gut. Don't let anybody tell you what you can't do.
(Check out our slideshow below for images of Turner and highlights of her career.)
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