The Mother Brain Files Underrated Actors Special: Jennifer Beals
By Mother Brain
There are some actors who make it to the top with that one breakout hit movie often soak up the limelight and become movie stars. Others find themselves lucky enough to be in a hit movie and decide to make important life choices over cashing in on success. Jennifer Beals is considered to be the latter. In 1983, she was the arguably the hottest new actress in Hollywood thanks to the unlikely runaway success of Flashdance, a dramatic musical that spawned several hit songs and new fashion trends for girls in the 80s. Movie offers came left and right; however, Beals yearned for something a bit more challenging in her life.
Beals was born in Chicago in 1963 to an African-American grocery store owner father and an Irish school teacher mother. Along with her two brothers, Bealsâ€™ early life was difficult. Her father passed away at a young age and her biracial heritage made her a complete outsider in the social sphere. Her big escape was acting and after graduating from the Francis W. Parker School in Chicagoâ€™s Lincoln Park neighborhood, Beals attended the Goodman Theatre Young Peopleâ€™s Drama Workshop. She would act in several plays before landing a small role in the Matt Dillon 1980 comedy, My Bodyguard.
At the time when Beals enrolled as a freshman at Yale University, the auditions for Adrian Lyneâ€™s dance drama Flashdance came around. Beals would ultimately beat out another future movie star, Demi Moore, not because of her talent but because of the producersâ€™ choice of â€œwho they wanted to sleep with the mostâ€. In Flashdance, Beals played 18-year-old Alex Owens, a Pittsburgh welder by day and exotic dancer by night, whose dream is to be accepted someday at an illustrious school of dance. On paper, it was Saturday Night Fever with a female protagonist; yet, studio executives had little faith in the film because of its wooden performances and simplistic storytelling. Little did the executives know that the combination of MTV-style dance sequences, Bealsâ€™ natural sex appeal, and a soundtrack driven by hits like Irene Caraâ€™s â€œWhat a Feelingâ€ and Michael Sembelloâ€™s â€œManiacâ€ would make Flashdance crack the top 5 highest grossing films of 1983.
Overnight, Beals became an immediate star. Her characterâ€™s wash shrunken sweatshirt with the large neckhole cut out became an unlikely fashion trend for young girls all over the world. But while Beals earned decent reviews for her performance, controversy struck the film hard when Bealsâ€™ uncredited dance body double, Marine Jahn, came out publicly to protest her lack of credit for helping Beals create the illusion of her dancing abilities in the film. Beals publicly defended Jahn even though it left some fans disappointed.
Beals would be offered a number of high profile films including the romantic interest of Richard Pryor in Brewsterâ€™s Millions, Princeâ€™s leading lady in Purple Rain, and the lead role in Pretty in Pink. But she preferred to turn such offers down in favor of finishing her studies at Yale. When she did return to the screen, however, it was in 1985â€™s The Bride opposite singer-actor Sting. The loose adaptation of Bride of Frankenstein starred Beals as Eva, the perfect female mate of Frankensteinâ€™s monster (Clancy Brown) who rejects him in favor of her creator. The critical and financial failure of the film was a major setback for Bealsâ€™ film career and subsequent films like The Gamble and the bizarre Nicholas Cage movie, Vampireâ€™s Kiss, only knocked Beals further away from Hollywoodâ€™s radar.
The early 90s were initially a continuation of Beals only getting roles in a string of b-movies and failed television shows. But in 1995, she earned some attention in the adaptation of the Walter Mosley novel, Devil in a Blue Dress, starring Denzel Washington. In the film, a black 1940â€™s film noir piece, she plays Daphne Monet, the title character, who is a missing biracial woman passing for white and itâ€™s up to Denzelâ€™s private eye character to find her. The film even brought more media attention than box office due to controversy over a deleted steamy love scene between Beals and Denzel. That same year, she also appeared in two segments of Miramaxâ€™s anthology film, Four Rooms, which featured an all-star cast including Tim Roth, Antonio Banderas, Madonna, and several others.. From that point on, Beals began to embrace the independent scene over Hollywood.
In the 2000s, Beals was jumping from medium to medium. This included big studio films (Catch that Kid, Runaway Jury, The Grudge 2, etc.), independent films (The Last Days of Disco, Roger Dodger, etc.) and television shows (The Hunger, Frasier, etc.). But of all her work, it was the Showtime original series, The L Word, that brought Beals back into the mainstream. From 2004 to 2009, Beals took on the complicated but fascinating task of playing Bette Porter, a successful biracial career woman and lesbian who struggles with her intimate relationships and sometimes uses indiscretion to crumble them. Like Devil, Beals was able to self-reflect her outsider personality through a multi-dimensional character.
In more recent years, Beals appeared as a blind woman reuniting with Denzel Washington in the post-apocalyptic thriller, The Book of Eli, as well as reuniting with Tim Roth as his ex-wife on the Fox series, Lie to Me. Her next major role is that of Chicagoâ€™s first female police chief in the Fox police drama, The Chicago Code, which is scheduled to air February 7. At 47, Beals has not lost her beautiful looks or her integrity as an actress since her rise to fame with Flashdance. One could only be inspired by her ability to overcome the social difficulties of her childhood to become an actress who shunned movie star status at such a young age only to seek out serious challenges as an actress.