The singer Tina Turner, who has died at the age of 83, had a long and distinguished association with cinema throughout her career. Whether it was being portrayed, memorably, by Angela Bassett in the biopic What’s Love Got To Do With It, singing the Bono and Edge-penned theme tune to Goldeneye, or appearing in the 2021 HBO documentary Tina, she was someone whose iconic and unique persona seemed brilliantly suited to film.
It’s something of a surprise, then, that she didn’t act more. She only portrayed fictitious characters three times, and two of those appearances – a cameo as the mayor in the Schwarzenegger meta-flop The Last Action Hero and a brief appearance as a singing drug-crazed sex worker in the Ken Russell rock opera Tommy – were hardly challenging. But then George Miller came along in 1984, and gave her the role of a lifetime.
The Mad Max series is anomalous when it comes to action cinema. The films are proudly Australian, rather than American, revolve around hard-as-nails antiheroes who are considerably grittier than their US counterparts, and, in the case of the first three pictures in the series, starred Mel Gibson, an actor whose persistent flirtation with permanent cancellation has made the pictures harder to watch.
Nonetheless, after Miller directed the first two pictures, Mad Max and The Road Warrior, he was in the mood to expand the series in a lighter, more fantastical direction, as well as co-directing on this occasion with the filmmaker George Oglivie. He described making the initial film as “a very unhappy experience”, but was more content with its much-acclaimed sequel, which nevertheless drew comment for its extreme violence. Could the third picture not be more accessible and commercial – almost, you know, for kids?
In the early Eighties, Tina Turner had not enjoyed the renaissance in her career that would shortly follow, but was instead seen as a nostalgia act, still best known for her Phil Spector-produced collaborations with her abusive former husband Ike. The massive success of her 1984 Private Dancer album reinvigorated her career, spawning her signature song in What’s Love Got To Do With It, and turned her into an A-list star once again.
This return to popularity coincided with Miller writing the third in the Mad Max series, which revolved around the Gibson character Max Rockatansky encountering an isolated trading station known as Bartertown, ruled over by an implacable and ferocious figure known as Aunty Entity. Although nominally the film’s antagonist, Miller and his co-writer Terry Hayes were clear that Aunty was considerably more than a villain: as Miller said to Time Out around the time of the film’s release, “We didn’t want to fall into a kind of fairly clichéd bad guy. And we have a saying that today’s tyrant is yesterday’s hero. And if you really look at the rhythm of the way things are, that’s often the case.”
Casting the role would require an actress of phenomenal charisma, someone who could not only go toe-to-toe with Gibson but overpower him. Although there were rumours that the likes of Jane Fonda and Lindsay Wagner – the Bionic Woman herself – were considered, there was only one real choice for the part.
As Miller told the Guardian, “In this Mad Max wasteland, anyone who survives, let alone becomes a dominant force, has had to survive a lot of things that would normally diminish a person. Every time we talked about Aunty Entity as we were writing, we’d say: 'Oh, someone like Tina Turner.' She was the only person we could think of. And sure enough, she was the only person we ever asked.”
Yet Miller – the man who made Charlize Theron into the indomitable, kick-ass action heroine Imperator Furiosa in Fury Road, while leaving the film’s nominal star Tom Hardy on the sidelines – was also interested in upending expectations. As he remarked at the time of the film’s release, “we wanted to have the sense that before she built Bartertown, she was a genuine hero. You could have told a story, almost like a Mad Max story, about her…One of the main reasons we cast Tina Turner is that she’s perceived as being a fairly positive persona. You don’t think of Tina Turner as someone dark. You think of the core of Tina Turner being basically a positive thing. And that’s what we wanted. We felt that she might be more tragic in that sense.”
Given the legacy of domestic abuse that Turner had suffered at the hands of Ike, Miller might have been either being tactful or ignorant, but nonetheless she was, as the director put it, “a survivor…you know, you felt about her that no matter what happens she's going to survive it. And then – what we talked about before – someone who basically deep down inside still had a good persona, a good heart.”
The singer was intrigued by the opportunity to display range, and so interrupted her Private Dancer tour to head to Australia to appear in the film. She had turned down the opportunity to appear in Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Alice Walker’s novel The Colour Purple, on the grounds that she did not want to play a victim, but when she was offered this dynamic and multi-faceted role, she was thrilled.
She initially feared that, as a singer rather than actress, she would not possess the technical skills that the role demanded, but Miller correctly assumed that a figure of her charisma and intelligence would be able to make a powerful impression as Aunty. As Turner commented, “when [I heard] that George Miller wanted me for Mad Max, I felt like jumping to the highest building in New York City.” Three hours later, What’s Love Got To Do With It went to number one in the charts. As Turner said: “It was quite a day.”
She arrived on set for Beyond Thunderdome in the summer of 1984, which she described initially as “rainy, quite cold”, but when the production moved to the desert, Turner was so overwhelmed by the heat that a member of the crew had to follow her around with an umbrella at all times to shield her from the worst of it. As ever with the Mad Max films shoots, there were unexpected challenges and difficulties for all the cast.
Turner’s costume was an elaborate assembly of chainmail, weighing 70 pounds, as befits a character who has dressed herself from whatever is available to hand, and the singer recalled that “the wires would break, and so I’d have scars on the shoulder area and round the waist area… it was really quite uncomfortable.” She also had to shave her head in order to fit the character’s oversized blonde wig; Turner did so without demur.
Nonetheless, she had an enjoyable experience making the film because of Miller, who she befriended and regarded as a mentor. She said: “I gave myself to him… I listened to him”. The only area that she was disappointed in was not being able to do her own stunts; while she would have relished the opportunity, cautious insurance executives – fearing what would happen if injury put paid to her lucrative tour – vetoed her being involved in the more elaborate action scenes.
And, almost inevitably, her cult status as a singer was utilised by the filmmakers, she contributed two songs to the soundtrack, one of which, the power ballad We Don’t Need Another Hero, was another titanic hit and remained in her setlist for the rest of her career.
When the film was released, many approached her casting with a degree of cynicism, wondering what on earth a singer like Turner was doing in the Mad Max universe. However, Miller’s faith in her abilities was vindicated, and the character and actress were both acclaimed. Aunty Entity today remains one of the most memorable cinematic characters of the series, a tough, determined woman who, appropriately enough, ends the film not defeated or cowed, but as strong and ferocious as she began, choosing to spare Max rather than the other way round.
Indeed, the Furiosa character in the fourth film, Fury Road, and a forthcoming spin-off may well not have existed without Aunty Entity. As Miller said to Time Out: “If you agree that heroes are the agents of revolution, there have been very few women heroes in society. I don’t think there’s any reason why there can’t be a female version… how we would respond collectively as audiences, I don’t know. I suspect that we would respond very well, if the story was well told.”
It is to Turner’s credit that her peerless performance would break all the rules and inspire millions. Just as everything else in her life and career did, then.