It’s not uncommon for a film to be critically loathed while also a box office sensation. The story of a teenaged exotic dancer who works as a steel mill welder by day certainly feels like a recipe for such a production and indeed, in 1983 one such film came along, ravaged by the pros but adored by the masses. But why? Let’s pull the chord and get wet. It’s Flashdance.
Everything has a first time, and for producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, this MTV-style, extended music video proved to be the one to put them on the map, as this first-time collaboration changed the landscape and created a whole new sub-genre of film that has yet to slow down. The fast-pace, quick editing technique, paired with high-energy music, beautiful actors, and lots of gorgeous visuals all take precedent over a thin story and without a doubt, audiences came in droves. And still do.
Flashdance is the antecedent of this crowded lot of movies and sits like the queen over the masses that have all been born from her legacy. It stars a very young Jennifer Beals in her film debut, playing the tough, independent ingenue ‘Alex’ who sets sparks flying at the steel mill during the day but even more so at night at Mawby’s tavern where she lights up the stage as a racy performer. Naturally, she wants more out of life and aspires to be professional dancer. In the crowd one night at the bar is Nick Hurley (Michael Nouri), the handsome owner of the mill, and even though Alex tries to hide her dancing from her coworkers, the boys tell him she’s one of his employees, and liking what he sees, approaches her at work, looking for a date. She turns him down at first. Never mind that he’s twenty years older, age doesn’t stop Nick, and when a chance encounter allows him to be the hero when Alex and a friend are assaulted, things steam up and he encourages (and sometime oversteps his bounds) her to pursue her dreams.
Directed by Adrian Lyne, in only his second feature, he was mostly a television commercial director at the time and the studio was unsure, making him the third choice after Brian De Palma and David Cronenberg, of which both would make the all-time list of ‘could have been amazing movies.’ Seriously. Just say Flashdance and Cronenberg again. It makes the want-so-bad-it-hurts part of your brain twitch. But that aside, what Lyne brought was a style that helped send this movie into the stratosphere, earning the studio almost thirty times over their investment.
While Lyne’s artistic approach was tantamount to the success, so too was the music, which became the film’s calling card. Scored by the great Giorgio Moroder, who won an Oscar for the movie’s theme song, “Flashdance . . . What a Feeling“, the mix of upbeat tempos and moody atmospheric 80s pop sound created a sensation that shaped the change in movies for decades to come. The MTV generation was legit.
But with the production and the direction and the music in play, none of it would have mattered if it weren’t the star. Beals brought a vibrant, earnest, want-to-be-with-her energy to Alex that had theater-goers awestruck. Her wide-eyed smile and lithe, athletic build were one thing, but her inspiring attitude and wholesome, authentic independence made her unfathomably sexy. She stole hearts in every scene and truly made the movie the success it became. In fact, while critics in droves lambasted the film’s erratic direction, poor plotting and nonsensical story, if there one was saving grace, it was the talented and attractive Beals.
So we come to one of the most famous moments in cinema, an image that become iconic, parodied and homaged, and is Beals’ defining movie moment. Let’s take a closer look.
The Grey Sweatshirt
Nick Hurley can’t be blamed for finding Alex beautiful. Watching her onstage, she is a mind-bending, magnetic force of sexual attraction. Looking at her, all peripheral systems shut down and its just want, want, want from there. That’s the point. And just to put weight on the point, let’s remind ourselves what the fuss is about.
Moving on. Once he realizes she works for him, he figures he sees his in to get a date. It doesn’t go so well at first. She has a strict no-dating-the-boss rule and shuts him down from the start. But what Nick doesn’t know is that she’s attracted as well and being single and lonely, she has some urges of her own, to which she even confesses to a priest. To be fair, dancing as she does has got to get some want, want, want of her own shimming around in that soaking wet body.
Meanwhile, Nick’s not the only one who notices her talents. A thug named Johnny C. (Lee Ving) is the owner of a nearby strip club who wants her to dance for him, but she refuses. One evening while leaving Mawby’s where she just finished a set, she is accosted by Johnny C. and his numbskull bodyguard who breaks the nose of Ritchie (Kyle T. Heffner), a short-order cook at the club who dreams of being a stand-up comic. It looks like things are about to get very bad when Nick shows up. He saves the day (er, night) and gains a few points in his favor. When she still refuses to go on a date, he jokingly fires her and makes a plan for dinner the next evening. She of course, relents.
Skip to the next evening. There’s a bit more set up here as Nick and Alex watch Alex’s friend Jeanie (Sunny Johnson) compete in an ice-skating event, chasing her own dream. Jeanie falters and falls twice, eventually being helped off the ice. For Alex, it’s metaphorical of her own aspirations and a reminder that there’s only so many times to you can get up. She’s tried to apply for a position at the Pittsburgh Conservatory of Dance and Repertory before but having so education and formal training, can’t get past the paperwork. How long should she keep trying?
After the show, Alex and Nick buy pizza and take it to Alex’s apartment, which should be noted is actually a loft in a converted garment factory warehouse because you know, that’s where eighteen-year-old broke steel-working girls live.
Nick gets a quick tour and moves to the sofa while Alex moves off camera and changes out of her dress. She re-enters still wearing her heels but now in a short leather skirt and a grey sweatshirt. She approaches and before sitting on a large ottoman-like pillow across from Nick, hikes up her skirt and plops down with her bare naked knees up and spread. She talks about music, how she went to the symphony with her father years before and thought it was boring, but her father told her to close her eyes and ‘see’ the music. She speaks enthusiastically about it and urges him to try, despite there being no music to hear. But all he can think about, as well as the audience, is not what Alex has said, but what Alex has done.
All while she was talking, Alex removed her bra. Now that might seem inconsequential, even a little peculiar, but neither are true. In a few simple gestures under the loose-fitting neckless sweatshirt–never taking her eyes off Nick–she deftly strips it away, unclasping the front and pulling it through the sleeve. It’s only then when she asks him to close his eyes and ‘see’ the music. We know exactly what he is ‘seeing’. And so does she.
The art of seduction is often-visited in movies, creating some of the most iconic imagery in film. The ones that work best are the ones that understand most the power of what can’t be seen. If you line up a hundred women where 99 are naked and one is not, everyone will put their eyes on her, wondering what secrets she has underneath. That’s the power of the grey sweatshirt. The invitation to sex without a word eluding to it.
The sweatshirt itself is a bit of story on its own. Beals has said that she took the wardrobe article home and washed it where it shrunk slightly in the process. She then cut the tight-fitting collar off in order for it to fit around her head. True or not, what happened next is the stuff of legends. The sweatshirt became the ‘thing’ about the movie everyone remembered. It was on the poster and part of the marketing and it set off a fashion trend that is still going today. An entire fashion line was born.
But let’s talk about its use in the scene. As mentioned, it’s what’s can’t be seen that drives curiosity, the hint of something just within reach. Naturally, we know anatomically what lies under her top, but that’s not as important as what it implies. The shirt is cropped just enough so we see a teasing swath of her flesh, the strap of her black bra clearly visible. It’s where all eyes drift.
As she slips her hand beneath the sweatshirt, there is a moment of uncertainty, but it becomes clear straight away what she is doing, and is strikes us with a shock. Nick too.
From that moment on, things are not the same. Nick is a respectful guy. He knows he wants her, but has been good about keeping his distance, waiting for her to see that he is safe and willing to do as she asks. Alex made her choice about Nick well before this night and is using this moment to not only give him what he wants, but herself as well. But she is fully aware of the power of her top and the implication of whats underneath. She went to her bedroom earlier and changed her clothes where she could have easily stripped off her bra there, but she didn’t. She put on the grey sweatshirt over it and set into motion the seduction. And it’s powerfully effective. It’s stirring, it’s honest, it’s even a little sweet. But it’s mostly sweat-inducing sexy.
Now I want you to think about Leonardo DiCaprio. Sorry, that was a jarring transition. There is a moment in his 2013 film Wolf of Wall Street where his character Jordan Belfort is seduced by Naomi Lapaglia (played by Margot Robbie). In a similar moment, he is in her apartment and is full of want, want, want. She obliges by going to her bedroom to change and returns completely naked (save for black stockings and heels), standing in the door in open invitation. Now I’m not saying that scene doesn’t work for what it is. Robbie is a beautiful woman and the moment serves the plot perfectly well. What I am suggesting is that a grey collarless sweatshirt concealing the fantasy beneath is infinitely more alluring and for what both scenes are meant to accomplish, works significantly better. Times have changed.
Flashdance was a cultural phenomenon that has far-reaching influence, despite its many flaws and contrivances. While Beals has had a long career and continues to work in the industry, she will forever be Alex and that girl we all fell in love with. While producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer went on to make many films that follow similar themes and patterns, they all owe a debt to this cheesy yet fun dancing movie that still has people cheering. While it has great music and innovative direction, it all comes down to a simple grey sweatshirt and small-town girl to wear it well that makes this movie one to remember. Oh, what a feeling.
Thomas Hedley Jr. (screenplay) (as Tom Hedley),Joe Eszterhas (screenplay)
Jennifer Beals, Michael Nouri, Lilia Skala, Sunny Johnson, Kyle T. Heffner