The Mother Brain Files Underrated Actors Special: Lea Thompson
By Mother Brain
Hollywood is full of stories in which a successful movie brings an actor momentum and a bad movie winds up killing it. The career of Lea Thompson is one of those stories. Her performance as Lorraine Baines McFly in 1985’s Back to the Future featured not only her comedic timing but also her rare ability to make light of a very awkward situation between mother and son. Young men and young boys, including yours truly, grew a crush on this Plain Jane beauty with the sexy Minnesota accent ever since. Then just as BTTF appeared to catapult her into Hollywood’s elite, the infamous bomb known as Howard the Duck left her humiliated in the eyes of the industry and it has been a struggle since then. Yet, through all the bad Howard the Duck jokes, there was a wonderful talent who never let failure ruin her dream.
Thompson’s determination to succeed came at an early age when her singer/musician mother and father divorced following her family’s move from Rochester to Minneapolis, Minnesota. She was the youngest of five kids and the difficulty of raising such a big family took a toll on their parents’ marriage. Thompson’s mother struggled to battle alcoholism while supporting the family by entertaining at a Minneapolis bar. To find her escape from the family struggles, Thompson pursued her first passion for dance by studying and practicing ballet. By her teens, Thompson performed in more than 45 ballets, dancing with the Minnesota Dance Theatre, the Ballet Repertory, and the Pennsylvania Ballet. Scholarships to the finest dance programs came thereafter. Unfortunately, a failed audition for ballet legend Mikhail Baryshnikov as well as a number of injuries caused Thompson to quit ballet all together and decided to pursue acting.
Thompson’s girl-next-door looks helped her land dozens of commercials for Burger King and Twix. Movie roles soon followed as she made her debut in 1982 with the interactive laser disc movie game, MysteryDisc: Murder, Anyone? Thompson’s theatrical debut was that of another hopeless victim in the horrendous Jaws 3-D. While she could not swim or ski as the part required for the SeaWorld-set sequel, Thompson did engage in a serious relationship with leading man Dennis Quaid who also became her mentor. Thompson scored her first leading lady role opposite Tom Cruise in All the Right Moves. The film was a serious challenge for Thompson who not only had to re-experience high school in researching her part but also performed her one and only major love scene opposite Cruise.
1984 brought more challenging roles as well as positive word of mouth to Thompson’s career. First came the role of one of the female Wolverines in the controversial Red Dawn which is one of the few times audiences get to see Thompson perform her own stunts in several action sequences involving horses and assault rifles. The other was the Cameron Crowe-penned The Wild Life which was a companion piece to his earlier hit, Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Appearing opposite Chris Penn, Eric Stoltz, and Rick Moranis, Thompson played Stoltz’s ex working in a donut shop while engaging in a fling with a married police officer. Even though the film did not match Fast Times‘ success, its studio Universal paid serious attention to Thompson and Stoltz for their next big summer blockbuster.
Thompson was originally set to re-team with Stoltz as mother and son in Robert Zemeckis’ time travel comedy Back to the Future. After five weeks of filming, Stoltz was let go because of his low-key performance and was replaced by Michael J. Fox. While the on-screen chemistry between Fox’s Marty McFly and Christopher Lloyd’s Doc Brown was the centerpiece of the story, the chemistry between Thompson’s Lorraine and Marty was just as important. BTTF had a history of being passed over by studios due to the risque subplot of young Lorraine falling in love with unknowingly her teenage boy. Yet, the puppy love innocence of Thompson’s performance matched with Fox’s comedic awkwardness made for great comedy. The role also gave Thompson an opportunity to play two completely different takes on the same character as lovelorn teenage Lorraine in 1955 and the older chain-smoking Lorraine in 1985 which was a three hour makeup process that the twenty-three year old actress had underwent. Such hard working efforts of Thompson as well as the rest of the cast and crew made BTTF the highest grossing film of 1985.
Riding on BTTF’s success, Thompson became one of the hottest young actresses in Hollywood. The year 1986 should have been another breakout year for her but it was the complete opposite. Her next film, SpaceCamp, was critically panned and suffered bad luck at the box office due to its release coinciding with the tragic Challenger accident which affected its marketing strategy. SpaceCamp’s failure paled in comparison to the George Lucas-produced adaptation of Marvel’s Howard the Duck. Thompson’s BTTF momentum helped her land the starring role of rock star Beverly Switzler, a role which required her to perform on the film’s soundtrack. Even more bizarre was her character’s physical attraction to the title character played by a midget in a duck suit. Regardless of the clunky premise and adult humor, Howard appeared to have all the makings of a summer blockbuster. Instead, the film made history as the one of the biggest misfires in film history which nearly bankrupted both Universal Pictures and Lucasfilm. Thompson’s career took a major blow; however, she vowed to not let the humiliation stop her from working much like she had after failed Baryshnikov audition.
Thompson gained a slight career boost when she was cast as the object of Eric Stoltz’ affection in the John Hughes-produced Some Kind of Wonderful. She initially turned down the role of Amanda Jones until the failure of Howard the Duck forced her to take the next available job. While the film was seen as a quasi-remake of Pretty in Pink with the genders reversed, Thompson found real love in the form of its director, Howard Deutch, whom she is still married to today. She spent the rest of the decade in box office misfires such as Casual Sex? and The Wizard of Loneliness before reprising her role as Lorraine in Back to the Future Parts II and III.
Motherhood came into Thompson’s life in the early 90s which put her acting career on hold. She returned to the screen as a conflicted doctor in the medical drama Article 99, the mother of the title character in the film adaptation of Dennis the Menace, and a brief cameo in The Little Rascals revival. Her most unique role of the time was the grifter trying to marry Jed Clampett for his money in the film adaptation of TV’s The Beverly Hillbillies. It was Thompson’s first role as an antagonist alongside Rob Schneider and her combination of comedic timing and evil sexiness made her Laura Jackson character someone audiences loved to hate. A complete opposite of every girl-next-door character she had played previously.
Most of Thompson’s roles in made-for-TV movies went unnoticed until she became the star of her NBC sitcom, Caroline in the City. From 1995 to 1999, Thompson played a successful cartoonist from Wisconsin looking for love and friendships in the Big Apple. Thompson’s comedic timing was in full display for network television despite her initial fears of working a sitcom in front of a live studio audience. Her next major role was the Hallmark Channel detective drama series, Jane Doe, in which she played a soccer mom working undercover for the government. Thompson also took a stab at directing not one but two telefilms of the series.
In recent years, Thompson has starred in the ABC Family series, Switched at Birth, and appeared briefly in Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar opposite Leonardo DiCaprio. She also continues to attend comic conventions and BTTF documentaries and reunion events. Still as beautiful and as talented as she was 27 years ago, Lea Thompson never turned her back on acting despite hard bumps along her journey. She’s an exceptionally rare talent that we don’t see enough of in today’s generation of actresses.