Helen Slater looks back on her empowering start
When Wonder Woman crashed the superhero boys’ club this past summer, it marked the beginning of strong, female-led genre movies being more than mere novelty. But back in the 1980s, an actress took on two iconic roles that displayed the sheer strength of a female hero.
Helen Slater, the first on-screen embodiment of Supergirl, the female fighter for truth, justice and the American way, was born in Bethpage and lived in Massapequa and Great Neck—including a stint at Great Neck South High School. Slater donned the cape to play Superman’s cousin in 1984’s Supergirl. Her first big-screen role, Supergirl saw Slater acting opposite heavyweight film talents including Faye Dunaway, Mia Farrow and Peter O’Toole. For the young Slater barely out of New York City’s High School of Performing Arts, it was a master class in the art of acting.
“Looking back, it was very daunting. But the performing arts school was intense and I felt like it trained me for that moment,” says Slater, adding that she and O’Toole would workshop Shakespeare during rehearsals. “That was a real mentorship. He loved theater and acting. But they were all so kind to me. I never felt like they were these big powerhouses that I couldn’t approach.”
Recently, Slater’s career came full circle when she took the role of Eliza Danvers, Supergirl’s stepmother on the CW series Supergirl, with Melissa Benoist in the starring role. Slater said that when she first caught a glimpse of Benoist in full costume, she had to stop and take a breath.
“I really did have a sensory whiff of my younger self from 30 years ago. It was very memorable and a moving moment,” she says. “Melissa [Benoist] is such a kind, sweet and talented woman. I feel so lucky to have been asked to join the show and the writers are giving me such lovely things to do with the character.”
Slater has worked steadily in a wide range of roles since 1984’s Supergirl, including star-turns alongside Bette Midler in Ruthless People, The Secret Of My Success with Michael J. Fox, City Slickers with Billy Crystal and a long list of television roles. But of all the parts she has played, Slater hears the most praise from fans for her titular role in 1985’s The Legend Of Billie Jean.
In the film, Slater plays a modern day Joan of Arc—complete with symbolically short hair—as she fights against subjugation and the amoral bombast of male authority figures. Sporting the fist-pumping call-to-action “fair is fair” and a soundtrack that includes Pat Benatar’s anti-authority anthem “Invincible,” it is a snapshot of the 1980s, but with themes of empowerment that excelled it ahead of its time.
“There weren’t a ton of strong female roles when Billie Jean came out, and the way her strength and sexuality were portrayed was not usual at the time,” says Slater, adding that the film didn’t achieve its following until after it started airing on television. “She was a super strong chick leading these underdog, ragtag, disenfranchised kids. She fought for justice when she couldn’t get it through regular channels and I think that resonates with people.”
With her roles as Supergirl and Billie Jean, as well as Talia al Ghul in the 1990’s Batman: The Animated Series and stints on DC Superhero Girls, Slater is no stranger to inspiring young women with her characters—but what she would really like to see is women of her generation experience their own sense of empowerment.
“It’s really only recently occurring to me that a lot of my roles have had a positive impact,” she said. “I would love to do it for my generation of women. I don’t feel like there’s enough of that for women over 40 or 50. I’ve worked steadily over the years, so I don’t feel it deep in my bones, but work does become harder to come by and you do feel more invisible. I would love for that next big character to be for this generation of women.”
With this past summer’s success of Wonder Woman, its star Gal Gadot and its director Patty Jenkins, Slater said it feels as though she is living through a mini-awakening in terms of opportunities for women in the film industry.
“It’s remarkable that I wasn’t more aware of the shortcomings in the ‘80s, ‘90s and early 2000s. Now, people are outraged and I almost feel a little embarrassed that we weren’t more on top of that early on,” she said. “It was just accepted that men were directors and that women only liked romantic comedies. But no, look. There are real powerhouse women out there.”
And though she did not know it at the time, Slater’s early work makes her one of the original powerhouse women.
“When I was acting as Supergirl and in Billie Jean at 18 or 19 years old,” she says, “I wasn’t aware of the impact these movies would have.”