Comfortable and Furious

Starring Debuts #21: Jennifer Beals in Flashdance (1983)

I’ve long acknowledged graduates from the Kelly McGillis Top Gun School of Absurd Roles and no one deserves a bigger pat on the back than Flashdance’s Alex Owens. I mean, name one other flick with a wannabe ballerina working as a welder in a Pennsylvanian steel mill. Not only that, but she appears to be the company’s sole female employee. Oh, and the only teenager. Now you might think steelworkers are a bit more convincing when they look like Deer Hunter’s De Niro and Walken, but perhaps it’s best to bear in mind that Flashdance was co-penned by legendary screenwriter Joe Eszterhas, a man that often excelled at keeping reality at bay during his deliriously trashy output. Still, at least he tackles this plausibility issue early on by having Alex’s smitten boss ask what a dancer is doing working as a welder. He gets a smirk in return and the most casual of shrugs. “Girl’s gotta make a living,” she replies.

Hell, I take it all back, as I’m sure you’ll agree that’s a fine explanation for a girl just out of high school holding down a skilled job in a traditionally male-dominated industry. We are over the hump. And no, I don’t care that a bunch of jobless blue-collar workers in 1997’s The Full Monty (who want to become male strippers) watch Flashdance for some dance moves inspiration, only to end up criticizing Alex’s welding technique. Now let’s get on with the goddamn show.

Flashdance was a massive hit, a flick that followed in the wake of similar dance-based efforts like Saturday Night Fever and Fame. It mostly plays like one long pop video, a slick, fun watch that provides perfect escapist entertainment. Ebert, however, placed it on his Most Hated list. Obviously, he didn’t watch it jigging around clad in a sweat-soaked leotard like me.

Beals is our dance-obsessed dreamer, a girl who lacks the training and confidence to sign up for a sniffy ballet school. When she’s not at work surrounded by thick smoke, ear-splitting noise, showers of sparks, hard hats and massive machinery, she keeps her hopes alive by cavorting at the local cabaret bar and grill. This even includes incorporating a shower into her stage act, a somewhat risky maneuver (given she twirls in high heels) that I’m sure the health and safety people would be interested in hearing about.

“I wanna do so much with my life,” she says, “but… sometimes I just think it’s not gonna happen.” Fucking hell, girl, you’re eighteen. Be grateful you’ve landed a skilled job, live alone in a converted warehouse, are dating a Porsche-driving mover and shaker, have somehow hooked up with an elderly ex-ballerina for advice and encouragement, and ace a climactic ballet audition at a prestigious school by not even bothering to include one recognized move of that particular discipline. After all, you might get around on a pushbike, occasionally eat pizza and own a faithful dog, but the rest of your life bears no relation whatsoever to any other teenage girl on Earth.

As you can probably tell, Flashdance is not a heavyweight watch. It might have something to say about the pain of aspirations (e.g. Alex’s figure-skating friend falls over in front of some ice show judges and five minutes later she’s a stripper) but like The Karate Kid it’s an exercise in wish-fulfillment fluff. That might sound like a criticism, but I feel it’s no easier to make such fare entertaining, and I’m a fan of this ridiculous 90-minute diversion.

The tall, slightly shaggy-haired Beals is an appealing star, having to cope with everything from sexual harassment and jealousy to a broken radiator and an unfunny dwarf colleague who specializes in Polack jokes. She’s quietly dignified, feisty when necessary and looks bloody great eating lobster. It’s not hard to see why adolescent girls would think she’s cool as she takes no shit in her army jacket and hobnailed boots, sticks up for her besties, follows her heart and doesn’t forget to dazzle with her lithe, awesome femininity. A fair bit of Flashdance’s runtime might be given over to her stretching, running on the spot and kicking a leg above her head, but such sequences do capture the joy of movement and the exuberance of youth. Of course, the bright-eyed Beals is helped to no end by director Adrian Lyne’s well-composed visuals and Irene Cara’s glorious titular pop song. Sadly, the rest of Beals’ film career hasn’t added up to much, but back in the early 80s she took her passion and made it happen.

Dave Franklin’s movie book Go Fuck an Iceberg! is available from Amazon and other outlets.



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