Sunday, February 28, 2016

Denise Matthews: The Actress Formerly Known as "Vanity"


The 88th Annual Academy Awards® has just ended and I've already got a bone to pick with them in terms of their choices and exclusions for their annual "In Memoriam" section.  The late singer/actress turned born-again Christian evangelist Denise Matthews (1959-2016), known in the 1980s and 1990s as "Vanity," was not included among the people whose contributions to the motion picture industry were being honored.  (She was mentioned in the more comprehensive listing on their official website of people who passed away, but that was merely paying lip service to her and doesn't have the same impact as being included in the actual broadcast roll call.)  While I don't have an issue with most of the people who were included, I do take umbrage to the presence of the hateful financier/businessman Kirk Kerkorian making the list.  For the uninitiated, Kerkorian was famous for buying Metro Goldwyn Mayer studios in the 1960s and systematically selling off its assets in order to finance his hotel chain.  He single-handedly destroyed the most famous movie studio in Hollywood with his greed and avarice.  It's a shame that someone who was as destructive to the motion picture industry as Kerkorian was recognized in place of people who contributed to it in a more constructive manner like Joan Leslie, Abe Vigoda, Coleen Gray, Richard Johnson, Martin Milner, Bud Yorkin, or the subject of this blog, Denise Matthews, who was a very promising film actress during the 1980s and was particularly popular with young people.  She first made a name for herself as the lead singer for the band Vanity 6.  Matthews, then-girlfriend of burgeoning music legend Prince, was rechristened by him as Vanity and given her own band to front-line as part of Prince's efforts to lay the groundwork for his music empire.


After breaking up with Prince--and forfeiting the lead role in his upcoming hit movie "Purple Rain" (1984) to the fun and appealing, but comparatively less edgy, Apollonia Kotero--Matthews forged a solo career on her own in music, producing records with Motown, as well as starring in 1980s action films that were successful with young people.  But Matthews wasn't just a starlet with a pretty face and shapely figure.  She had genuine charisma and screen presence and quickly proved to be a more than capable actress full of hope and promise.  Critics such as Roger Ebert quickly warmed up to the young actress and she often earned good notices for her film performances.  Matthews (born in Canada to an African American father and a German mother of Polish and Jewish descent) struck an edgy, ethnic contrast to the fresh-faced, WASPy starlets of the period, such as Molly Ringwald and Lea Thompson, and her appeal crossed ethnic and gender lines.  So it's a shame that the Academy Board of Governors, which made such a heavy-handed point this year of wanting to acknowledge the contributions of women and people of color to the film industry, failed to mention Denise Matthews' brief but shining bid for movie stardom three decades ago.  So much for their purported efforts to promote diversity.


I first became aware of Denise Matthews not from her Vanity persona or her association with Prince, but from her early screen appearance, billed as "D.D. Winters," in the horror movie "Terror Train" (1980), one of the key, seminal slasher films from the early 1980s.  Jamie Lee Curtis starred as one of a group of college students targeted by a maniacal killer who has snuck aboard a train rented by senior year college students for a private costume party.  Matthews played the sexy and sympathetic Merry, who is friends with the blonde and ditzy Pet (Joy Boushel), both of whom are not targeted by the killer because they were not involved with the prank that traumatized the killer years earlier.  Throughout "Terror Train," however, the audience fully expects the characters of Merry and Pet to fall victim to the killer by being in the wrong place and the wrong time.  However, "Terror Train" refreshingly avoids that cliche and allows both women to survive.  As such, both Matthews and Boushel register well as appealing characters who add to the quirky, colorful milieu aboard the train because they are not merely plot devices meant to be killed off as a convenience.  Matthews has a good moment later in the film where her character stands watch over Jamie Lee Curtis' sleeping Alana, after the latter has had a violent encounter with the killer and is recuperating from the experience.  It allows Matthews to demonstrate that the character of Merry is a compassionate individual concerned with the well-being of her classmates and friends.  "Terror Train" offered Matthews a decent, medium-sized part to launch her film career.


After "Terror Train," Matthews continued to use the screen name "D.D. Winters" for her next role, playing the title character in "Tanya's Island" (1980), an odd, fanciful adventure directed by Alfred Sole where Matthews plays a Toronto-based fashion model named Tanya trapped in an unhappy relationship with her painter boyfriend Lobo (Richard Sargent).  Tanya ends up dreaming of being on a deserted island inhabited only by an ape she names "Blue," who she becomes close with.  Her boyfriend Lobo also turns up on the island as Tanya finds herself trapped in the middle of a love-triangle between both Lobo and Blue.  Despite the abundance of nudity displayed by Matthews throughout the movie, she makes Tanya a very likable and sympathetic character so that she never loses her dignity.  Matthews never condescends to the material and projects a warmth and vulnerability that allows the audience to care about her character.  Notwithstanding some silly and ludicrous scenes to play, Matthews gives a sincere and committed performance that goes a long way towards making the film watchable, particularly in the moments where Tanya communicates with the ape.  Matthews carries what is undeniably a very weird movie with confidence and aplomb and demonstrates her early promise as a film star of considerable charisma.


Matthews was off-screen for the next several years as she changed her professional name to Vanity and focused on establishing a recording career as the lead singer of the female pop trio Vanity 6, alongside colleagues Brenda Bennett and Susan Moonsie.  Her band's biggest hit was the satirically raunchy "Nasty Girl," a song written and produced by Prince and which established her persona as an assertive, take-charge individual confident in her sexuality and appeal with men.  In contrast to other so-called "dirty" songs that would follow, what distinguishes "Nasty Girl" from the rest of the pack is the playfully ironic edge that Prince, Matthews, Bennett, and Moonsie bring to the tune.  It is as if its collaborators were consciously aware of the extreme and ludicrous nature of the song--which celebrates the uninhibited promiscuity of its central figure, the so-called "Nasty Girl" of its title--and are inviting listeners to simply laugh along with them.  As mentioned earlier, when Matthews and Prince parted company both personally and professionally, she lost her chance to star as the female lead in "Purple Rain."  While one might argue that appearing in that film would have had a negligible effect on her career because it did not quite catapult her replacement, Apollonia Kotero (an appealing entertainer in her own right who did solid work in "Purple Rain"), to major stardom, I think Matthews would have done much more with this opportunity by virtue of the fact that she was already well established and would have been playing a role that was originally tailor-made for her.  I believe that Matthews arguably would have had more to gain from appearing in "Purple Rain."


Nevertheless, on her own, Matthews still made a good impression in films throughout the rest of the 1980s.  Matthews' most well-remembered movie role was her appearance in the martial-arts fantasy epic "The Last Dragon" (1985) playing music video show host Laura Charles, who is frequently kidnapped by a video arcade mogul who wants to force Laura into promoting his girlfriend's music career on her show.  Along the way, Laura meets and falls in love with good-hearted martial artist Leroy Green (Taimak), who continually comes to her defense whenever she is in jeopardy.  Matthews and Taimak enjoyed a genuinely warm screen chemistry, and made a very appealing couple.  Throughout the film, Matthews demonstrated an earthy sincerity which ensured that her character rose above damsel-in-distress stereotypes.  What makes Laura Charles the quintessential film role for Matthews is the manner in which she combined elements of beauty and genuine glamour along with an irresistibly shy innocence that has endeared the character to audiences.  Produced by legendary music mogul Berry Gordy, and energetically directed by the underrated Michael Schultz, "The Last Dragon" still has a strong cult following today and established Matthews as a viable leading lady in action-adventure films.


Matthews followed up with the female lead role in the outlandish spy-adventure "Never Too Young to Die" (1986), playing a glamorous secret agent who teams up with a high-school gymnast (John Stamos) to defeat the arch villain Von Ragner (Gene Simmons) who has killed Stamos' secret agent father (played by one-time James Bond George Lazenby) and is planning to poison the water supply in Los Angeles.  Confident in action scenes, and with a witty, glamorous, and assertively commanding presence, Matthews did creditable work in "Never Too Young to Die" (despite the outlandishness of its plot and production design) which makes one regret that she never had a chance to be an actual Bond Girl.


Matthews then had the most acclaimed role of her career, as the stripper who provides helpful information to blackmail victim Roy Scheider in John Frankenheimer's "52 Pick-Up," (1986), a tough, gritty film noir based on Elmore Leonard's novel.  As Doreen, Matthews effectively portrays a woman who is in over her head by associating with dangerous criminal types she is unable to extricate herself from.  Despite her character's inherently seedy milieu, Matthews ensures that the audience still cares about Doreen.  In her most effective scenes, Matthews portrays Doreen's sense of intimidation and terror with a palpable sense of dread.  She's particularly good in the scene where her boyfriend Bobby Shy (Clarence Williams III) viciously wakes her up and attacks her in bed to discern what information, if any, she has shared with Roy Scheider's character.  In another scene, Matthews vividly portrays Doreen's final terrifying moments as she tries to escape from an isolated warehouse by ramming her Ford Mustang into the barriers preventing her escape before being coldly gunned down by lead blackmailer Alan Raimy (John Glover).  Matthews' performance in "52 Pick-Up" works because she continually reminds the audience of Doreen's humanity.  The esteemed Roger Ebert praised Matthews' work in the film, noting how "she does what all good character actors can do: She gives us the sense that she's fresh from intriguing offscreen action."



By now, Matthews had established a viable screen image in action films, as an appealing female partner and sidekick who possesses qualities of strength and courage and always stays around when the bullets start flying.  She demonstrated these traits in "Deadly Illusion" (1987) a film noir written and co-directed by Larry Cohen where she played the cab driver girlfriend of private detective Billy Dee Williams, who helps him try to prove his innocence after he is wrongfully accused of murder.  She played a similar role, to even greater effect, in "Action Jackson" (1988), a lively, colorful action film where she plays Sydney Ash the heroin-addicted singer girlfriend of automobile mogul and crime lord Peter Dellaplane (Craig T. Nelson).  Sydney goes on the lam with police detective Jericho "Action" Jackson (Carl Weathers) after he has been framed for the murder of Dellaplane's wife Patrice (Sharon Stone).  A dark and hard-edged character, Matthews ultimately makes Sydney a sympathetic character by allowing her to demonstrate qualities of decency when she assists Jackson in the latter-half of the film in proving his innocence and, in the process, also improbably kicks her drug habit by going cold turkey.  She also gets to sing a couple of musical numbers in the picture, so that "Action Jackson" stands out as one of her more notable film appearances.  Roger Ebert again praised Matthews, noting that her performance was "the movie's one redeeming merit...Again this time, as in "52 Pick-Up," she shows a natural screen presence, a grace and easiness under pressure.  I had the feeling, watching Vanity in this unhappy movie, that she could play anyone in any movie and make it work.  She has a couple of nice song numbers, too...If [the filmmakers are] going to make another ["Action Jackson"], I suggest they decide if it's supposed to be a violent movie, or a comedy.  It might also pick things up if they put [Matthews] in the lead."


After "Action Jackson," Matthews continued her acting career in both films and television for about five more years before calling it quits in the mid-1990s.  By then, she had renounced her stage name Vanity and returned to being known as Denise Matthews, as she embarked on an entirely new direction in her life as a born-again Christian evangelist minister.  She surprised her fans by describing how years of drug abuse led to an overdose which caused her to lose both of her kidneys.  This makes her performance as Sydney Ash in "Action Jackson" all the more poignant in retrospect as she must have identified with her character's substance addiction in that film, as well as her quest to redeem herself by straightening out her life.  Matthews spent the next 20 years ministering about Christianity before passing away on February 15, 2016 at age 57 in Fremont, California from renal failure after years of increasingly deteriorating health.  What was interesting, in the aftermath of her death, was how people who were fans of Matthews from her days as Vanity expressed skepticism online as to her religious faith after her death.  It was as if people questioned her sincerity, and that she had merely traded one kind of extreme lifestyle for another.  However, I always felt that Matthews was sincere and genuine about her religious faith because she was consistent about it for the last 20 years of her life, a longer span of time than her singing and acting career had lasted.  I never believed that Matthews, who hoped people would not judge her negatively for her days as Vanity, ever needed to apologize for projecting glamour and sex appeal during her entertainment career.  In contrast, I always considered the issue that was of genuine concern with regards to her well-being was really her prior substance abuse, and not her sexy public image.  Nevertheless, I still found it rather ironic that she was instead being negatively judged by some of her fans regarding her motives for turning her back on her days as an entertainer and for choosing to focus on ministering her religious faith.


While researching her work as an evangelist, I found that Denise Matthews never used her Christian faith in an effort to promote hateful sentiments or be exclusionary to any groups of people, which some (but not all) who purport to be followers of Christianity are unfortunately wont to do; nor did she ever fail to apply her own exacting standards and philosophies to herself, both of which would be legitimate reasons for anyone to take issue with her faith if she had.  In contrast, even though it's quite clear that Matthews held fast to her religious convictions, I believe she tried to be as inclusive as possible with her faith.  Despite a discussion that took place several years ago on the Prince.org fan message board, where some commenters accused her of being intolerant of gays and lesbians, a closer examination of the interview that was being referenced for purportedly expressing that sentiment demonstrates how Matthews was merely discussing the dangers of promiscuity in general with regards to all people--both straights and gays--and was not singling out any one group for exclusion or condemnation (a point which was made on that message board by several of her defenders).  She continually expressed love and respect for all people--including both gay and straight people--and did not operate from the perspective of being perfect and never having made mistakes.  In fact, she expressed the opposite sentiment--throughout that interview, Matthews discussed the hurt and pain she had experienced as a result of the choices she had made in her life, and acknowledged the things that she regretted most from her past.  While acknowledging during that interview that people have free will with regards to making personal decisions about their lives, she also reminded individuals to make reasonable and responsible choices for themselves.  I believe she simply wanted to share what she had learned with others who were similarly situated.  As such, Matthews does not deserve to have anyone judge her motives concerning her religious faith any more than having the Academy Board of Governors neglect to acknowledge her accomplishments as a film actress during this year's Oscar® ceremony.  Denise Matthews deserves to be remembered as an accomplished singer and actress whose star shined brightly for more than a decade, and who eventually left all of that behind and found peace and contentment sharing her religious faith in a sincere and compassionate effort to help others.

2 comments:

  1. Wow..Very well written piece of work. Denise Matthews was a very special lady. It is great that she turned her life around and found peace. She acknowledges her past and then moved on with her life. Hopefully her living/dying will not be in vain, maybe her story will help someone somehow during their struggles in life. R.I.P. Denise Matthews..

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  2. Thanks for doing this write up on one of my favorite actresses. I really think she was an underrated talent who used pain from her life to give life to the characters onscreen. If one has seen enough of her tv/ movie roles they may know what I am referring to. Denise was a sweet and kind lady when I communicated with her, even though she was religious and I am non religious. I will never forget that and I wish she were still around. She had a rare sweetness/ vulnerability that only a few possess. I myself have posted a tribute to her and her acting roles at this link:http://www.rockshockpop.com/forums/showthread.php?11811-R.I.P.-DENISE-VANITY-MATTHEWS&p=128462 . Check it out and tell me what you think.

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