'Flashdance' director Adrian Lyne remembers seeing future star Jennifer Beals for the first time: 'F***, she's beautiful'
Filmmaker had plenty of doubts about "totally absurd" dance movie before it became of 1983's biggest — and unlikeliest — hits.
Adrian Lyne hadn’t watched Flashdance in ages. As he admits, it has been at least 15 years since he screened the unlikely 1983 hit film starring Jennifer Beals as a Pittsburgh steelworker who chases her ballet dreams.
“I did see the movie a couple days ago, and I was less embarrassed than I thought I would be,” admits Lyne, 82, in a new interview with Yahoo Entertainment ahead of the film's 40th anniversary and new 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray release. “I thought it was actually quite fun. But most of all I was pleased about Jennifer Beals, cause I think that she has a sort of a vulnerable quality that pulled it off. I mean it was always a fairytale story.”
Although released to mixed reviews on April 15, 1983, Flashdance won over audiences from the moment Irene Cara’s Oscar-winning pump-up jam “Flashdance… What a Feeling” played over the opening credits.
But Lyne had qualms from the get-go.
A successful commercial director known for his stylistic flourish in his native U.K., Lyne had only helmed one feature film (the 1980 coming-of-ager Foxes with Jodie Foster and Scott Baio) before being offered Flashdance after more established directors David Cronenberg and Brian De Palma passed on the project. Lyne initially balked. In fact he turned it down multiple times before finally relenting.
“I thought the idea was a little slim,” he says, particularly when it came to the film’s implausible premise: a beautiful 18-year-old aspiring ballerina who spends her days as a welder (and seemingly the only female) at the local steel mill and nights onstage as an exotic dancer.
“It's totally absurd. It's totally absurd,” Lyne says. “Of course it is. But we got away with it.”
At the time, Lyne was angling to direct Starman, the 1984 sci-fi drama starring Jeff Bridges, but the gig went to John Carpenter instead. “I wasn’t getting the things I wanted to do,” he confesses. “And so I thought, ‘Well, s***, I'll try and make the dances interesting and do something with it. I’ll try to give it some energy.”
What energized Lyne after he reluctantly took the job was discovering Beals, a Chicago native who was only 17 at the time and, outside of an uncredited appearance in John Cusack’s 1980 debut My Bodyguard, had virtually no on-set experience. “I remember seeing her [for the first time] and thought, ‘F***, she's beautiful.’ And she had a very vulnerable quality,” Lyne recalls. The director immediately pleaded to producer Don Simpson, who began his storied partnership with Jerry Bruckheimer on Flashdance. “God, you’ve gotta see this girl,” Lyne recalls telling Simpson. “She’s marvelous.”
Producers and Paramount executives were wringing their hands over the casting of Alex Owens, the strong-willed, passionate and sometimes naïve welder-dancer at the center of their story. There were a handful of candidates other than Beals, including Leslie Wing, Cynthia Rhodes and Demi Moore. Then-Paramount chief Michael Eisner took it upon himself to figure out the best fit. As legend has it, Eisner queried a group of the studio’s female secretaries which actress they’d most root for; meanwhile, the film’s notorious co-writer Joe Eszterhas has claimed Eisner asked a group of male crew members which of the women “they’d most want to f***.” Says Lyne of Eisner’s quest for feedback: “He asked everybody.”
Ultimately, because the studio was so torn, Lyne got to choose. Beals got the job, but once cameras started rolling, the barely established filmmaker found little autonomy. Studio suits began sending notes about how to frame the film’s memorable, highly stylized dance sequences (mostly performed by Beals’s body double, the French actress-dancer Marine Jahan). They told him to use less smoke. They told him Alex’s warehouse loft was too dirty. Lyne had to fight for what became the now-classic water-soaked stage dance; the filmmaker was forced to demonstrate the sequence on a soundstage in front of “about 30 executives” in bleachers. (One battle he did win: including the film’s famed breakdancing scene featuring Crazy Legs and the Rocksteady Crew, which has been credited as the first time the artform appeared in a mainstream movie, a year before the arrival of films like Breakin’ and Beat Street.)
The producers also clipped Lyne’s favorite line from the movie. In the original script, when Alex is having dinner with her older love interest/boss Nick Hurley (Michael Nouri) at a posh restaurant — and just before Alex boasts to Nick’s ex-wife that she “f***ed his brains out" — the 18-year-old stares down at the broccoli on her plate with befuddlement. “What are these little trees?” she asks Nick.
“It was the best line in the script,” Lyne says. “I thought it was such a charming line. But I got talked out of leaving it in. … It's only a tiny thing, but it was a good line and it made her childlike and would’ve helped the scene. [They said], ‘Oh no, we don’t want that.’ So I buckled. I buckled and it still infuriates me 40 years later.”
The film’s test screenings were brutal. Lyne recalls that after one early screening of a longer cut (before he and editors Walt Mulconery and Bud Smith trimmed 20 minutes from the film), “we were so depressed about it we all went and got drunk.”
Lyne sat with his assistant, Casey Silver (who would later go on to head Universal Pictures), during a screening closer to release as executives lined the back of the theater. “I said to Casey, ‘Is this as bad as a I think?’ And after a long silence, he said back in a whisper, ‘Yes.’” Lyne and Silver plotted to escape the screening out of embarrassment, but then something happened: The audience started laughing. Good laughs. Like in the film’s standup set from Mawby’s short-order cook Richie.
Based on that unexpected reception, Lyne thought Paramount executives would come around to his side. But the studio had so little faith in Flashdance that it sold off a reported 25 percent of the film’s rights prior to release. (Lyne pegs the number at 30 percent.) “That didn’t speak of huge confidence,” he says. In the two weeks leading up to release, Lyne couldn’t get anyone from Paramount on the phone.
When the film was released, critics savaged it. “The reviews were spectacularly bad,” Lyne says. Roger Ebert gave it 1.5 out of 4 stars, and later put it on his “Most Hated” list. Lyne held onto one clipping in which a critic proclaimed, “Don’t look for publicity on this film. Just look for strategic signs of pollution.”
But audiences loved it. Lyne began getting calls that people were dancing in the aisles at theaters in New York City. Beals’s iconic look from the poster — a sweatshirt with one shoulder bare — became a fashion trend.
Though Flashdance only made $4 million its opening weekend, word of mouth propelled its U.S. gross to $96 million, and more than $200 million worldwide, from a budget of only $7 million. It was the third-highest-grossing movie of 1983, behind only Return of the Jedi and Tootsie, and ahead of films like Trading Places, Staying Alive, Risky Business, 48 Hrs. and Gandhi.
The soundtrack became a phenomenon of its own, selling more than 6 million copies in the U.S. and spawning the hit singles “Flashdance… What a Feeling” and “Maniac,” performed by Michael Sembello. Both earned Oscar nominations, with the title track winning Best Original Song. Smith and Mulconery were nominated for Best Editing, while Donald Peterman also earned a nod for Best Cinematography.
Beals (who is mixed race) won an NAACP Image Award and was nominated for a Golden Globe. And while Flashdance arguably remains her most famous role, she has worked steadily ever since, most notably in Showtime’s The L Word and Disney+’s The Book of Boba Fett. “I’ve never been drawn to something by virtue of how rich or famous it will make me,” Beals has said. “I turned down so much money, and my agents were just losing their minds.”
Lyne, meanwhile, went on to helm other hits, including 9½ Weeks (1986), Fatal Attraction (1987), Jacob’s Ladder (1990), Indecent Proposal (1993) and Unfaithful (2002).
Not embarrassing in the least.
Flashdance is now available on 4K Ultra HD, and will return to select theaters on April 26 & 30. Tickets can be purchased at www.fathomevents.com.