Beals, Jennifer 1963—
Jennifer Beals 1963—
With her starring role in the 1983 movie Flashdance Jennifer Beals became a household name virtually overnight. The unknown Yale University student, a former teen model, had been cast as a young woman who dreams of becoming a dancer while stuck in the rut of her Pittsburgh steel mill job. At the time, the media made Beals the freshest new celebrity of the year, with much ink spilled over her heritage, personal life, and acting skills; many commentators heralded the newcomer as a talent to watch for the 1980s. “But oddly, Beals, who managed to inject intelligence and unself-conscious sensuality into a character who was, on paper, little more than a sentimental cliche, practically disappeared from the pop landscape,” noted Elle’s Diane Cardwell in 1995. Post-Flashdance, Beals’s screen appearances over the decade dwindled precipitously-until a well-timed comeback with roles in several acclaimed art-house films of the mid-1990s.
Beals was born in 1963 in Chicago to Alfred Beals, an African American who owned several grocery stores, and Jeanne Beals, an educator and Irish Catholic. Jennifer joined brother Greg, five years her senior, and a year after her arrival came a second brother, Bobby. Their father died when Beals was only nine, and Jeanne supported the children through her job as an elementary school teacher in Chicago. They lived in a predominantly African American neighborhood on the South Side, near 82nd Street and Indiana Avenue, and Beals was often teased because of her light skin; she said later that the ribbing made her a natural loner.
Later Jeanne Beals moved the family to the north side of the city, in another racially integrated neighborhood known as Uptown. As a teacher, Beals’s mother knew the deficiencies of the Chicago public school system, and obtained scholarships for her bright children to the private Francis W. Parker School, also the alma mater of Darryl Hannah. Beals excelled in the progressive school geared toward the academically gifted, but in 1979, when she was 16, Beals began modeling for local print ads after ascertaining that she could “make a lot more money for college than by baby-sitting and working at Baskin-Robbins,” she recalled for People magazine writer Jim Jerome. Eventually she began working with famed Chicago photographer Victor Skrebneski, an early force behind Cindy Crawford’s successful career,
Born c. 1963, in Chicago, IL; daughter of Alfred Beals (a supermarket chain owner) and Jeanne Cohen (an elementary school teacher); married Alexandre Recall (a film director), 1986. Education: Earned degree from Yale University, mid–1980s.
Film actress. Worked as a fashion model with photographer Victor Skrebneski in Chicago, c. 1979; first film role as lead in Flashdance, 1983; also appeared in The Bride, 1985, Vampire’s Kiss, 1989, In the Soup, 1993, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, 1994, Devil in a Blue Dress, 1995, Four Rooms, 1996, and Let It Be Me, 1996.
Addresses: Home—New York, NY.
From Runway to Ivy League Library
Despite her success, Beals had more exciting plans for herself than a life on the catwalk. She applied to only one college, Yale University, and didn’t tell her mother about her gamble until she was accepted. Before she started her freshman year, however, Beals auditioned for a role in a movie about a blue-collar female who dreams of a career in dance. As she was getting settled during her first few days at Yale, a call arrived notifying her that she’d won the lead. Her academic career was put on hold temporarily as she took time off for the filming.
Flashdance was released in the spring of 1983 to overwhelming box-office receipts, and Beals instantly became the celebrity du jour. In the movie, set in Pittsburgh, she plays a young welder in a steel plant who gives steamy dance performances in grubby bars by night. A tryout with a real ballet company is part of the plot, as is a romance with a handsome coworker at the factory. Yet Beals, only 19 when the movie was released, quickly alienated herself from producers and the Hollywood system when she spoke up about the actual dance sequences on film. She told the media about Marine Jahan, a French dancer who was used as her dance double, but then left out of the credits. Both Beals and Jahan would shoot the same dance sequences, and the producers and directors edited the film from the two. Beals seemed to feel bad about Jahan’s lack of credit. “Marine even helped to teach me,” she told Jim Jerome in People.
But it wasn’t really Beals’s dancing, or lack of it, that made Flashdance such a success. “Even critics who dumped on the film drooled over Jennifer,” wrote Jerome in People. “The movie ads showed her coyly perched with a ripped sweatshirt stretched over one lusciously bare shoulder, and that one image was enough to launch a fashion revolution that sent scissors slashing sweats all over the country,” the magazine noted at year’s end in its recap of 1983’s hottest names. “Out of the blue, everyone wanted to look like Yale sophomore Jennifer Beals.”
Beals had to endure more salacious publicity, however. In the film, and perhaps in light of its predominantly blue-collar setting, the actress looks a bit Italian-American. At the time, articles about Beals openly discussed her heritage, yet, as Vibe magazine wrote years later, “[the media] delighted in revealing that the woman occupying pop culture’s collective desire was half African-American. The black press, meanwhile, seemed determined to claim the successful actress as one of their own. It was later intimated that she’d denied her heritage in order to get the Flashdance role, and everyone-black and white-was left wondering what her ’racial allegiances’ were.”
Beals was absorbed in her studies at Yale, pursuing a degree in American literature, when this intense media spotlight was focused upon her. After her sophomore year, she took off to Europe to co-star in a remake of the Bride of Frankenstein story alongside British pop star Sting. The reported $500,000 she received helped defray some of the $12,000 annual tuition at Yale, but unfortunately The Bride fared only moderately well at the box office and poorly with critics. Worse for her future in Hollywood, Beals was tagged as difficult to work with. Franc Roddam, director of The Bride, defended the young actress against these charges at the time. “She considers herself very intelligent,” he asserted to People’s Jerome after shooting had finished. “I instructed my department heads that she doesn’t want a lot of noise or to be hassled on the set. That could be considered prima donna or just a modus operandi. Warren Beatty told me, ‘If she hadn’t chosen to be an actress, she could be President.’” Beals described herself to Jerome as “a paradoxical blend of willful and insecure. . . . Some days go better than others.”
After graduating from Yale, Beals married Alexandre Rockwell, a film director, but had difficulty in finding roles suited for her. In 1989 she co-starred opposite Nicholas Cage in a little-seen horror comedy called Vampire’s Kiss. She played a sneaky bloodsucker and denizen of New York’s underground nightclub culture whose liaison with the nebbish Cage convinces him that he is Dracula. Yet subsequent film roles were few and far between for Beals. She appeared in the 1992 television series 2000 Malibu Road and in a 1993 made-for-TV film called Night Owl. Better opportunities came with 1994’s Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, in which she had a minor role as the wife of 1920s–era literary figure Robert Benchley, and in the film Caro Diario.
Beals’s comeback began in earnest when she was cast in the title role of the 1995 film Devil in a Blue Dress opposite Denzel Washington. An adaptation of the acclaimed 1990 debut novel from African American writer Walter Mosley, Beals later confessed that it was a part that she had fought to win. “[I] basically yelled and screamed my way into a reading,” she told Elle’s Cardwell. Beals portrays a femme fatale and the object of Washington’s character Easy Rawlins’s search through the seedier corners of Los Angeles just after World War II. Preparing for the role entailed gaining a few pounds by eating lots of heavy food to better fill the blue dress as a white woman flirting with dangers in the city’s African American community. Rolling Stone reviewer Peter Travers praised director Carl Franklin’s efforts, calling the film “whip-smart and sexy,” but faulted him for his treatment of Beals. “Franklin limits her chances to cut deeper. He also limits the book’s torrid sex to an occasional hot look that fails to get at Easy’s need to lose himself in her pale beauty. An odd choice for a film that hinges on questions of identity.”
Devil in a Blue Dress was only one of a trio of films that heralded Beals’s comeback. She was also cast in the quirky ensemble comedy Four Rooms, a project effort that included directorial stints by Beals’s husband as well as Quentin Tarantino. Scheduled for release in 1996 was another dance-oriented flick-her first since Flash-dance -a ballroom epic titled Let It Be Me. “I’ve learned to be more careful in picking roles,” she told Cardwell in the Elle article, “finding scripts where I really love the character but the whole piece works, too. It’s not as interesting unless you can marry the two.” Clearly comfortable with her mixed heritage, Beals moves easily across color lines for her roles, an attitude she wished others also shared. “I think that America is going to have to wake up and realize that the dominant face of this country is not white,” Beals told Vibe. “It’s many things. . . . The whole country is changing, and the whole idea of race has got to change. I don’t know how, but it surely can’t stay as divisive as it is.”
Elle, September 1995.
Esquire, March 1995, p. 43.
Maclean’s, January 2, 1995, p. 50.
People, May 16, 1983, p. 98; December 26,1983, p. 90; September 5, 1985, p. 85.
Rolling Stone, October 5, 1995, p. 75.
Vibe, April 1995, pp. 69–70.