White Identity and the Forsaken Talent of the Late, Irene Cara

Image Source: a artista corresponde a la sesión de fotos del disco What A Feelin’ = ¡Qué Sensación! – Public Domain

The University of Cambridge dictionary defines the word threat as: “a suggestion that something unpleasant or violent will happen, especially if a particular action or order is not followed.” The Merriam Webster dictionary dates the etymology of a similar definition to the early 12th century, but when sports journalist, John Edward Wray defined mid-20th century football star, Bradbury Robinson as “The first triple threat man” (due to his extraordinary ability to kick, pass and run the ball) the word threat became, for the Caucasian athlete and entertainer, a term of endearment. For the versatile marginalized star, however, “Triple Threat” exudes all the ferocity a more loyal definition of the word threat would suggest, and it is my opinion that the artist, in recent history, most devastated by this country’s psychotic, ignoble paranoia, was the late, Irene Cara Escalera.

Irene was a beautiful multitalented artist, whose gifts, at an early age, were fostered by nurturing artistic parents. Her polished abilities primed and blooming by the late 60s, made her stand out in just about all the projects she auditioned for in the 70s, and by 1976 she was considered one of the best young actors of her generation—the same year producer David De Silva was developing an idea for a film, about young artists and their growing pains, at the High School of the Performing Arts.

The film, Fame, was released in 1980 and featured Irene as the main protagonist, Coco Hernandez. Delivering the film’s title song, and the touching ballad, “Out Here on My Own” with power and conviction, while wringing every ounce of intrigue out of a subpar screenplay, Irene was instrumental in the film’s surprising success: two Academy Awards (best original song and best original score) and a Golden Globe (best original song).

Just a few years later, Irene co-wrote and sung the mega hit, “Oh What a Feeling” for the 1983 film Flashdance and took home another prestigious award: the Grammy for best female pop performance.

You would think a young actor and singer, delivering that level of flair and consistency, would be bombarded with screenplays from pining Hollywood executives, and a big budget recording contract that would afford her the best producer and songwriters for her debut album, but for insidious reasons, (especially where it pertains to her acting career) that is not what happened.

To be fair, let me first say, I feel most of Irene’s recording career woes can be attributed to one major miscue, and that was the one-year delay in tapping the brilliant Italian composer/record producer, Giorgio Moroder, (the man responsible for “Oh What a Feeling”) to help solidify Irene’s platform. With all due respect to music producer, Ron Dante (who was instrumental in the great Barry Manilow’s first nine albums) and singer songwriter Bruce Roberts, who penned the wonderful title song to Irene’s debut album, “Anyone Can See,” Moroder should have been the one locked in the studio with Irene.

When Network Records finally did give Moroder a call for the second album, (a year later, in 1983) it was too late. The album they delivered, “What a Feeling” and its string of top 30 singles, could not recapture the blistering (pop) momentum Irene had with “Oh What a Feeling”—and could not undo the damage her RnB debut did to a fickle emerging fanbase.

During this time, Irene had royalty issues with Network Records and sued them in a lengthy lawsuit that she won eight years later. As a result, she believed, she was blacklisted by the entire entertainment industry, and to a degree she may have been right. That lawsuit, more than likely, was the period at the end of a once promising recording career, but I think something more historically despicable thwarted all her Hollywood potential and aspirations.

A quick google search of the top female stars of the 1980s will take you to a top 30 list of actresses, a page that includes only one actress of color, the captivating Whoopi Goldberg. Another page did mention other African American triple threats like, Janet Jackson, Vanessa Williams, and the late Whitney Houston, but even that page, emphasizing the situation from a different vantage point, buttresses my assertion that back in the 80s Hollywood was not interested in investing in an abundance of Black female talent, no matter how significant that talent was. So, in an already crowded, yet ironically small group of African American stars, Irene Cara, the best actress (and triple threat) of the lot, due to a technical cause and racial insecurity, became the odd artist out.

I’ll address the technical cause first, by stating this: Unlike Irene, Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston, and Vanessa Williams did not stumble with their recording careers, which kept them relevant and valuable, and gave a racist 1980s Hollywood very little leverage to assault them with biased career slights and punches—although Vanessa Williams was attacked in 1984 by a historically racist Miss America pageant, after Penthouse magazine leaked nude photos of her, while she toured the country and received death threats and hate mail, from US citizens who were unwilling to reconcile the notion of a Black Miss America. A horrible situation, which reveals the racial tenor of the country, at a time Irene Cara seemed destined to become Hollywood’s new “It Girl.”

Other marginalized artists that were also primed for the 1980s, like Michael Jackson and Prince, ultimately ran into, what is now labeled, White identity issues, or the conservative version of Identity Politics. The battles, (on the surface) were over controlling interest of the art, which is the way the labels dominate financial revenue, but it is also the way they manipulate and regulate the influence an artist has on American society—or to be more specific, young impressionable White girls and boys. A concept that leads me to the racial insecurity that I believe hindered Irene Cara’s Hollywood career.

The repulsive debilitating truth is, the same racial fear, hatred, and determination to control the American narrative and image during the 1980s, is the same White Identity fervor that’s behind the recent banning of books in conservative states—as well as the prohibition of Critical Race Theory curricula being taught in American schools.

Silver screens, radio stations, novels and the gifted artists that adorn and create them, will always have a tremendous influence on American society—that’s what makes art so powerful and important, and what made a beautiful, adept, Latinx performer like Irene Cara, in this irrational culture, an American threat (in the truest sense of the word).

Hollywood did not blacklist Irene Cara, being blacklisted suggests’ that she did something horribly wrong and was punished. What they did was abandon her, a truth that converts her poignant rendition of the song, “Out Here Own My Own” into a haunting example of Oscar Wilde’s legendary notion of “life imitating art.” In the ballad’s final stanza, Irene dubiously sings:

Sometimes I wonder, where I’ve been, who I am, Do I fit in, I may not win, but I can’t be thrown, out here… own my own.

If Miss Cara left us, (at the young age of 63) by unfortunate, albeit understandable circumstances, then the few beautiful songs and films she amassed will be a testament of her not being “thrown.” But if the autopsy, ordered to understand her death shows, for instance, that her demise was self-inflicted in any way, well then, Hollywood will have blood on its culture impeding hands—blood, along with a profusion of sweat and tears that should have gone into an oeuvre brimming with films, Broadway plays and music. Under the unfortunate circumstance, I am praying for the former, and for the Cara Escalera family…

Rest in peace, dear Irene. You were more than worthy of better.