Her Yale career began with registration and, days later, the call to quit campus and shoot a silly flick called Flashdance, which grossed $150 million worldwide. By the end of her sophomore year she had endorsed a line of sportswear that launched an international fashion trend and had signed for a reported half-million dollars to shoot her next movie in France and Britain. Not even finals last spring could halt her, and she didn’t offer just any excuse. “Some exteriors and close-ups for the closing titles have to be reshot in Venice,” she told her professors. “I was happy to go,” says Jennifer Beals, 21, “but my professors weren’t too pleased.” Student Jennifer asked permission to leave. Then actress Jennifer told them she was required to go anyway. She took a typewriter and 20 books and sent term papers home via overnight mail between takes on the gondolas. “I felt so guilty,” she says, “that I wrote one extra paper.”
When Beals starts classes at Yale next week as a second-semester junior, she’ll have one credit none of her peers can claim: her new movie, The Bride. Despite her charmed double life as scholar-starlet, Beals’ toughest test is being given in Hollywood, not New Haven. If she’s going to prove more than a one-hit wonder, she may have to look beyond The Bride, a remake of the 1935 Frankenstein spin-off. In this version, Sting plays the mad Dr. F., who creates a woman for his male monster—but winds up bird-dogging her as the possessive doctor and indomitable Eva play out Pygmalion.
Her report card from the picture is a little bruising. Among the slew of slams for The Bride, the New York Times complained, “Her Eva isn’t a spitfire but a Barbie doll…” But these grades should be curved since the movie itself has been called “funereal” and earned a mere $1.7 million its first weekend. If Hollywood is watching to see if Jennifer can really act, The Bride isn’t the way to judge. (Her Cinderella, currently on Showtime’s Faerie Tale Theatre, offers better evidence of her skills.) But this Flashdance follow-up poses the crucial question in Hollywood: Does Beals’ box-office appeal have legs?
Even Beals felt the movie was less than electric. She was upset that “critical” scenes strengthening Eva’s feminist posture were cut. “What matters is that I’m happy with what I do,” she says bluntly. “My future as an actress certainly doesn’t hinge on this film. These things might affect me more if I lived in Hollywood all the time. Because I don’t, I don’t think about them.”
Not that she doesn’t ponder her part to extremes on the set. Bride director Franc Roddam admires Beals as “dedicated, sincere and diligent” in the period role. His tone toughens when discussing her resolve, however. “She is strong-willed and has a vision of herself she wants to maintain. That’s why she’s sexcess—successful.” The honest slip makes him laugh.
Beals’ screen vision of herself excludes nudity—contractually, in this case. When Beals resisted doing a naked minute-long staircase descent before Sting, Roddam decided to use a nude double. Despite her demureness, Beals accepted his invitation to attend the casting call. “I wanted to see how the men would react,” she says. “So she comes in and bam, drops her clothes. I’m telling you, it really made me uncomfortable. Franc was fine, exactly the way you’d hope a man would react.” Clothed, Jennifer then rehearsed her own walk so her double, Fenella Fielding, could get it right. “I go along with the illusion,” says Jennifer.
After Flashdance Beals had a reputation for being less than amenable. Roddam heard she might be difficult. “Jennifer likes to prepare herself, take a lot of time, be alone and think,” says Roddam. “Sting, on the other hand, walks on, does his bit and walks off. Jennifer’s more geared to being like Meryl Streep than Madonna.”
What about prima donna? “She considers herself very intelligent,” he adds. “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. She takes herself seriously. Warren Beatty told me, ‘If she hadn’t chosen to be an actress, she could be President.’ ”
Sitting in a midtown Manhattan hotel suite, Beals doesn’t look like a candidate. Her torso is lost in a flea-market shoulder-padded $3 silk smoking jacket. She picks up and cradles her yowling Siamese, Pushkin, who is part of a road survival kit that includes rock tapes, running shoes and a buoyant network of friends. She says she isn’t overly ambitious, only “a paradoxical blend of willful and insecure. Some days go better than others.”
Beals’ precocious screen success helped cultivate that perspective. As the daughter of a white Chicago schoolteacher and a black supermarket owner who died when she was 9, she was modeling part-time before she did screen tests for Flashdance. When that project mushroomed into a phenomenon, it was disorienting. “It was so frightening. I can’t watch myself now. It made me feel so schizophrenic. The character onscreen became more real to the audience than I was.”
Next week at Yale she faces new frontiers. It’ll be “very strange and scary” without her Yale ’85 boyfriend, Bob Simonds, 22, who is now launching himself as a producer in Hollywood. (Says sardonic Roddam, “He’ll probably run the studios someday, and we’ll all be employed by him.”) They lived together virtually her entire time at Yale. No one better understood or buffered the border crossings between her two worlds than her lover, best buddy and film mogul-in-the-making. After The Bride wrapped, he threw a homecoming party that highlighted the problem. “My Yale friends didn’t get my humor anymore. Nobody asked me about the shoot. It’s a demented sense of reality on location, and I was dying to talk about it.” Once resettled, though, “School always gives me a center, a focus,” Beals says.
She’ll share her two-bedroom, off-campus apartment with a girlfriend, and she plans to pursue photography as an arty mode of self-expression. A party animal she is not. “I hate it when your feet get glued to the floor by spilled beer. Besides, guys don’t talk to me at Yale. It will be hard living without Bob. It’s not in my character to be unattached.”
Their pairing has survived absences, long distance, crazy elopement-in-Bangkok rumors and whatever temptations may lurk in Lotusland. “It’s possible,” she allows, “that people in Hollywood are more aloof toward me because I’m quote unavailable to men end quote. That’s fine. Nothing has ever threatened our fidelity. We see other people, but I tell him every time I go out and he tells me. Why torture yourself with jealous paranoia? There’s always the phone and weekend flights. We’re trying to be grownup about it.”
Simonds will clearly be in New Haven in spirit (they picked out the apartment furniture together)—and on canvas. Gracing her walls are a couple of his “color fields,” as Beals refers to his paintings. “Abstract is the most intellectual medium in painting,” she explains. “Bob’s drawn to it and does it for fun. I really like them. Otherwise I wouldn’t have them on the wall. We’d have big fights.” Then she goes into a nagging Queens whine to her imaginary artist. “Ohh, come on, Bobby, paint it this culluh, to go witda couch.”
Although Flashdance has assured her a place in pop history, the prospect of fading fast does lurk. Beals isn’t committed to another movie yet. Her hunt for good parts this summer came up dry. Paramount, where she is signed to do two more films, “isn’t sending me much anymore,” she admits. Not even the one young producer whose casting couch might lure her has helped. “Bobby’s got four scripts in development,” she says. “They’re really good. I begged him to let me be in a couple. He said, ‘Sorry, you’re just not right for this one. That one won’t work for you.’ He gives me such a hard time.” After playing Pittsburgh’s pride and Frankenstein’s bride, Beals now faces every actress’s fear of finding another job. After all, even icons want to work after graduation.