Letter to My Dead Mother About the ’80s Actresses That Remind Me of Her

An encounter with Gena Rowlands prompts Stephen Winter to recall the other on-screen divas who made a big impression on him.

Dear Mom,

I met Gena Rowlands! At her retrospective gala at New York’s Metrograph. Mom, you would be near her age now and precisely as gorgeous. Do you remember pre-teen me begging you to see Gloria, where La Gena plays a hilarious and radical cynic pledged to protect a Latino boy? You refused. “You’re too young for Cassavetes,” you said. I snuck to see it anyway and was struck how much Gloria reminded me of you. Indeed, my childhood devouring cult films was a search for you, my beautiful diva mother – glamorous, determined, sweet, angry; a Jamaican immigrant, a feminine American outsider. An original gangsta.


I found Jennifer Balgobin, a stunning brown Brit captivating as a punk rock hooligan trashing L.A. in Repo Man. Playing a supporting role in a singular film with many moving parts (alien conspiracies, multi-racial gang rivalries and Harry Dean Stanton), Balgobin with her funny cutthroat intensity is a true standout. I saw you in Repo-Land. You’d even rock that plastic trench coat!


Ma, you were so Ellen Barkin to me, who I first caught in Johnny Handsome, a corny noir with lynx-like Mickey Rourke returning to town with a new face and an old vendetta, blah blah blah. The plot wasn’t important, it was Barkin’s razor laugh, crooked smile and aching, yearning eyes as she sat on that bar stool, pounding whiskeys, watching suckers go by. Barkin was vulnerable but could take a punch. Just like you. Stand tall, you said. And look magnificent doing so.

Before I knew Pam Grier’s gun-toting, gonzo 1970s work in Coffy or Foxy Brown, I saw Fort Apache, the Bronx, a tedious “Big Apple is BAD” cop thriller starring Paul Newman. Ms. Grier staggers through intermittently as a zonked prostitute with a terrifying blood lust. She lacked fear and had gorgeous unpredictable eyes. Sound familiar? I wanted that whole movie to be about her. All about you.

Mama, it’s hilarious you said Gloria was inappropriate, but were OK with Cat People, which concerns female arousal causing Nastassja Kinski to kill. We loved Nastassja cuz, like you, she mixed old-world weariness with new immigrant optimism. I also watched Kinski in Exposed, playing an intense liberal arts student who, after getting battered by her professor/lover moves to New York to be a classical pianist but ends up a lonely high fashion model recruited into political terrorism by the obviously gay and smoldering ballet superstar Rudolf Nureyev. None of this is played for laughs and only on VHS could seem vaguely plausible but I believed it cuz I knew you, Mom, an extraordinary beauty born lonely on an island with only kerosene lamps for inky nights, who immigrated to Chicago to grow in equal measures a glamour cat and Rasta rebel. Nastassja knew to hang tough but keep her heart open, as all 1980s ladies had to.

Take Anne Carlisle in Liquid Sky. You thought the film boring but appreciated I was a queer boy who needed queer images so you let me watch this insane Day-Glo explosion about aliens, lesbians, opiates and orgasms. Actress/co-writer Anne Carlisle, dazzled in two roles: Margaret, gorgeous passive aggressive club-star who gets raped twice then commences, with help of aliens, to “kill with her cunt,” and Jimmy, evil gay boy model. Mom, you insisted people understand your binary identity as Jamaican and American, Anne Carlisle showed me how to star in your own movie and write your own dialogue too. So many of my favorite ’80s actresses get smacked in their films! I was attracted to it by the ladies’ sense of survival. Watching them handle it, I found my own tools to save for later. Ma, I saw you negotiate the cruelty that 1980s life could inflict upon you, a beautiful Jamaican black woman who knew what she wanted. Anne Carlisle, ice-blonde androgyny genius, was my perfect new wave avatar for another mirror of you.


You were distressed by my adolescent sexuality. You knew as a queer I was headed into outlaw territory and would live a life of clear and present danger. I wonder if you knew cinematic heroines would help clear my path? You and I screened saucy Ann Magnuson dancing her glorious seduction of Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie in the opening sequence of The Hunger. Even though Magnuson got ate afterwards (Bowie/Deneuve play one-percenter vampires), she etched exquisite pleasure with such gusto and gravitas I knew I too, one day, would have a fun life.


Oh Ma, you watched my teen queer self obsess over offbeat movie women with such amused patience. Brilliant Blatino singer-actress Irene Cara as the ambitious and doomed Coco in Fame, falling for the oldest casting-couch scam in the book. Chubby and determined Jodie Foster as an angry yet madcap heroine of The Hotel New Hampshire, trudging past her family in painful high heels to explore forbidden sex with Matthew Modine. When jealous, incest-y brother Rob Lowe comments, “That’s a very skimpy dress,” she answers bluntly, “I’m not going far,” then disappears to the basement. Regal and lascivious Amanda Donohoe as a diabolical supervamp of some sort in Ken Russell’s wacky Lair of the White Worm. Lesley Ann Warren made me cry laughing as the crude showgirl of Victor/Victoria, then made me straight cry in Choose Me as an optimistic but weatherbeaten nightclubber. Warren wore a clingy dress like you did – as amatory armor. Choose Me led to Robert Altman and Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, Karen Black as a tragic trans-lady, Cher as a tragic town slut and Sandy Dennis as a walking tragedy. Yet, still, they persevered. And, in some way, reminded me of you. I could name powerful 1980s character actresses as I could count the lashes on your eyes. Gorgeous and immeasurable.


Finally, Vanity, aka Denise Matthews. Her debut as the most stunning lady of vamp who ever sauntered before a camera was her Prince-produced song and video for “Nasty Girl,” and instantly she was the Motherlode of Women. Vanity was so beautiful, with mystique like no other. She was dirty-sexy yet elegant, womanly but surprisingly naïve. Like you, Vanity was singular in her beauty and enigmatic poise, but also troubled, addictive, unresolved and hounded by a spectral past. She arrived too early for the movie business to make good use of her slim but potent talent yet for a few key years, starring in dreck like Action Jackson and 52 Pick-Up,Vanity proudly held the Hollywood sexy light-skinned black-girl space for Halle Berry to triumph over a generation later and Zoe Saldana after that. How I wish someone had seen fit to star Vanity in a reboot of The Barefoot Contessa, for when it comes to cinematic siren-quality, only Ava Gardner compares to Vanity.

But nothing compares to you, Mom.

Love, your son,

Stephen Winter is an award-winning filmmaker who has worked with Steve Harvey, Lee Daniels, John Cameron Mitchell, Xan Cassavetes, John Krokidas and David France. He produced Jonathan Caouette’s landmark “narci-cinema” documentary Tarnation (A.O. Scott, New York Times). Stephen’s 2015 film Jason and Shirley, which he wrote and directed, was called “one of the year’s finest” by Richard Brody in The New Yorker. (Photo by shean.)