Release Date: August 28, 1981
How It Got Made: It was such a good idea, it's no wonder no one tried it sooner: an old-fashioned femme-fatale film noir thriller, like they used to make in the 1940s, but with the sexual candor that would have been impossible back then. Of course it wouldn't have worked without the right combination of script, direction and casting. That a first-time writer/director and rookie movie actress were able to pull it off seems unlikely, but filmmaker Lawrence Kasdan's work with Kathleen Turner and William Hurt in 'Body Heat' sparked an undeniably combustible chemistry. The film made an instant star of Turner and an A-List director out of Kasdan, gave early big breaks to Ted Danson and Mickey Rourke, and inspired countless copycat "erotic thrillers."
As a screenwriter, Kasdan had been a hot property in Hollywood since the mid-1970s, when his screenplay for 'The Bodyguard' earned a reputation as one of the best unproduced scripts in town. Kasdan got his first paying gig when veteran screenwriter Leigh Brackett died, forcing George Lucas to call Kasdan in to finish Brackett's script for 'The Empire Strikes Back. The success of the 'Star Wars' sequel led Lucas to commission Kasdan to write 'Raiders of the Lost Ark.' That, in turn, gave him the clout to direct 'Body Heat.'
Kasdan's screenplay owed an obvious debt to such classic femme-fatale dramas as 'The Postman Always Rings Twice' and 'Double Indemnity.' As in those films, there's a seductress (named Matty Walker) who has an adulterous affair with a man (here, a lawyer named Ned Racine) and ensnares him in a scheme to kill her husband and reap a windfall, only to have everything go awry for her foolish lover. But while the sex was always implicit in those older movies, here it would be right up front. So Kasdan needed two fearless leads.
Hurt, 31, won the role after Christopher Reeve turned it down, saying he didn't think he would be convincing as a seedy lawyer. Hurt had already impressed Hollywood with two very different roles, the tormented academic in 'Altered States' and the opportunistic title character in 'Eyewitness.' The 27-year-old Turner, however, was unknown, except to viewers of the NBC soap 'The Doctors.
Turner and Hurt did film some steamy scenes together that were unusually frank for a mainstream movie, even in 1981, a decade and a half after the end of the Hollywood Production Code. To make the film crew feel more comfortable about shooting those scenes, Hurt and Turner made a point of introducing themselves to each member of the crew. Both stars were naked at the time.
Most of the film's steaminess, however, came from Kasdan's hard-boiled dialogue ("You're not too smart, are you? I like that in a man.") and his atmospheric touches. There are countless shots of glistening skin, glaring sunshine, and even fiery explosions, all of which lend the picture a sense of sultry, sweltering Florida heat. As it turns out, all of that was clever fakery, as the movie was filmed during one of the coldest winters in Florida history. Turner would make herself even colder, holding ice in her mouth before takes to so that the camera wouldn't capture her frosty breath.
Other little touches contributed to the movie's sordid atmosphere. One of them was Hurt's trim little mustache, which gave Ned an instant air of disreputability. The film's veteran producer, Alan Ladd, demanded that Kasdan have Hurt shave it off, but Kasdan refused. The mustache stayed.
How It Was Received: 'Body Heat' earned rave reviews, mostly from male critics, who all but panted and drooled over Turner. Female critics (Janet Maslin at the New York Times, Pauline Kael at the New Yorker) were less impressed. Still, the film earned a respectable $24 million at the box office.
Long-Term Impact: Turner became an instant star, but one of the first things she did was to spoof her 'Body Heat' role as the wicked temptress in Steve Martin's 'The Man With Two Brains.' In another about-face, she played the mousy novelist-turned-adventurer in 'Romancing the Stone,' a huge hit that helped keep her in demand for the rest of the '80s. Even after age and poor health robbed her of her looks, she continued to play sexually unabashed sirens on Broadway (as Mrs. Robinson in 'The Graduate') and on TV (as a sexually omnivorous talent agent on 'Californication').
Kasdan and Hurt went on to work together three more times over the next decade, notably in 'The Big Chill' and 'The Accidental Tourist' (which reunited them with Turner). Hurt was an offbeat but reliable leading man throughout the '80s, winning an Oscar for 'Kiss of the Spider Woman,' and he has transitioned into an equally dependable character actor over the last two decades. Kasdan's directing career foundered in the '90s, but he did finally get his 'Bodyguard' script filmed. Mick Jackson directed the 1992 smash, starring Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner in the roles for which Kasdan had long ago envisioned Diana Ross and Steve McQueen.
The film launched other careers as well. Ted Danson went from playing Hurt's tap-dancing prosecutor pal into the lead role on TV's 'Cheers,' becoming one of the most beloved sitcom stars ever. Mickey Rourke got his first big break as a shady client of Hurt's, an expert in homemade bombs - a small role that Rourke delivered with enough sleazy authority to launch a career playing smart, menacing lowlifes. Even J.A. Preston, who played the detective whose warnings Ned ignores, went on to greater glory in other character parts, including the Navy judge in 'A Few Good Men.'
'Body Heat' also launched a mini-industry of so-called "erotic thrillers," variations on the femme-fatale theme that took advantage of the movies' newly permissible sexual permissiveness. All of them seemed to have similar two-word titles. The most famous of these, of course, was 'Basic Instinct,' which made Sharon Stone a star overnight (after 12 years in Hollywood) the way 'Body Heat' had with Turner. There was even an 'Airplane!'-style genre spoof, 'Fatal Instinct,' that starred Armand Assante as a dimwitted lawyer named Ned Ravine.
How It Plays Today: The dialogue certainly is ripe, almost campy, but then 'Body Heat' works best if viewed as a nightmarish ride, a swampy, sweaty fever dream composed of half-remembered scenes from classic noirs. You do have to admire Hurt and Turner for their total commitment to their roles. And all that steamy sex? Still steamy.
Follow Gary Susman on Twitter @garysusman.