It is important to remember that Jennifer Beals is not
Bette Porter. Jennifer Beals is a happily married heterosexual who acts for
a living, and by her own admission, had thought very little about the plight
of lesbians prior to her engagement on The L Word. And yet, she fearlessly and
respectfully inhabits the lesbian form and brings it to life in every episode:
surely, the essence of Beals seeps into this performance at times.
Beals as Porter is a riveting presence onscreen. She
glides into a scene with breathtaking beauty, ultra sophistication, uncommon
confidence and intelligence, and a simmering sexuality that occasionally bursts
into flame. That adorable face is a palette of emotion and the visual close-ups
that the camera treats us to, paint them clearly. Dialog for Beals is merely
a prop to support the story her face has already told. Who among us can bear
it when Bette begins to cry-when her face contorts into sadness, her skin actually
flushes, and those big brown eyes become muddy with tears? And what heart has
not leapt when Bette smiles? In Season One, when she learns that Tina is pregnant;
in Season Two, when Tina tells her that she wants to start dating again-these
cinematic smiles light our world!
As the self-confident, ambitious museum director, Bette's
more aggressive qualities are graced by the beauty and style she knows she possesses.
She manages, confronts, and often lashes out in ways that have been making corporate
leaders out of men for generations. But coming from Bette--a woman--these behaviors
are judged negatively; her authority seems harsh. Her power stems from her confidence
in herself and her sexuality. Bette believes in a world where being a woman
is not a liability, and loving a woman is a source of strength and pride. Beals,
the person, has the inner fortitude and self-assuredness to convey this core
characteristic of Bette--an attitude of strength that makes her even more attractive
than her physical assets or her fashionable couture (which, frankly, I find
unnecessary-if she wore a burlap sack, I'd be salivating. We can all be forgiven
for breathing a little heavier when the 41-year-old Beals is on screen. She
is, after all, one of the 50 most beautiful people on the planet, according
to "People Magazine" , a fact for which she really cannot take
full credit. To achieve such beauty requires great genes and an act of God.)
If Jennifer Beals is anything like Bette, she is filled
with passion and integrity and love (when she's not being sarcastic, controlling,
or self-centered). Our Bette is not a perfect person, though she is trying to
become a better person. She has "failed the woman she loved" by succumbing
to Candace, acting out sexually to cover the grief she could not express over
the loss of her child. When parents lose a child, they often have one of two
extreme reactions: they draw closer to one another and deal with the death of
their child together, which ultimately makes their relationship stronger; or
they pull away from each other, struggling to deal with grief individually,
ashamed or afraid to show such emotion.
In Season one, Bette was not able to admit the depth
of her despair over the loss of her and Tina's child, but it was patently portrayed
at the end of episode 9, when Bette enters the house after confronting the museum
protestors in her own front yard and turns away from the camera, spreading her
arms against the doorframe and bowing her head, shaking with sobs. The weight
of grief and responsibility is crucifying her, and this stance says it clearly.
I believe that this was Bette's breaking point in Season 1, too much for any
one person to bear. And yet Bette--proud, controlling, caretaking--refuses to
admit that she is broken, that she too needs help. She stands upright, shakes
off the feelings, and strides straight into the camera, back to the bedroom
to comfort the inconsolable Tina. (Does she even mention the grotesque encounter
she has just endured to Tina? I doubt it.) She refuses to admit her grief in
therapy ("I don't need to cry"); she refuses to admit her grief to
Tina, who needs her support; and she never speaks about the loss to anyone,
including her friends or her sister. When she goes to the bar to hear Kit perform,
on the fateful night when she meets Candace, she fails to even mention to Yolanda,
or Candace, that Tina has just lost their baby and that's why she isn't there.
Tina, on the other hand, weeps openly in therapy and
with Bette, goes on a vacation with the crew, and finds a new outlet for her
pain in volunteer work. Bette never really deals with the loss and withdraws
from Tina, who is a constant reminder of that loss. When Candace enters the
picture, the affair is purely an escape from the pain Bette has buried inside.
In better times, Candace would have never caught her eye.
For her portrayal of Bette Porter, Jennifer Beals has received
numerous honors and awards and recognition, all deservedly. But
the most telling point about that is, she has graciously and openly
accepted them, speaking out about her role and her privilege to
perform it. If the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences does
not recognize the actors and producers of The L Word come
Emmy time, it will be a tacit nod to the homophobia still rampant
in Hollywood and America. These performances transcend homophobia
and should be rewarded.
Especially that of Beals, a beautiful straight woman
pretending to be a beautiful lesbian so convincingly that she has aroused an
entire sub-culture, in more ways than one.
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