It was a rarely seen role reversal. The line for the men’s restroom at the Aero Theater in Santa Monica was winding down the staircase on a recent Friday night; the ladies room — no waiting.
The few women who ventured into the theater auditorium did so seemingly out of obligation to a boyfriend, husband or employer.
“There are so many men here,” actress Jenette Goldstein said, scanning the seats ahead of us. “Where are the women?”
An opportunity to see a rare 70 mm print of the 1986 sci-fi film, “Aliens,” and talk with director James Cameron proved irresistible for fanboys but not fangirls. (And this was the guy who directed “Titanic”!)
Goldstein was baffled.
“‘Aliens’ is a feminist film,” she insisted.
Goldstein, who attended the screening as an unannounced guest with this reporter, is a 49-year-old character actress best known for her work in genre films. She played John Connor’s foster mother in Cameron’s “Terminator 2” and the vampire Diamondback in Kathryn Bigelow’s “Near Dark.” Her most recent role was as a nurse opposite her “T2” co-star Robert Patrick in the Horrorfest III release, “Autopsy.”
But in “Aliens,” the petite redhead from Beverly Hills played an action heroine at a time when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was becoming a Hollywood superstar and Bruce Willis had yet to “Die Hard.” Goldstein, playing a gun-toting space Marine alongside star Sigourney Weaver (who as foster mother Ellen Ripley faces off against the alien queen in a final showdown), pressed guys to consider women as action equals.
And they are still taking notice. Men at the Aero kept looking in our direction, pointing out Goldstein to their friends; a few brave souls ventured over to respectfully shake her hand before the film started. “You were amazing as Vasquez,” one 20-something fan said, referring to Goldstein’s role in the film.
“Aliens” marked Goldstein’s first on-screen appearance. She began acting on the Beverly Hills High stage and entered local festivals with the likes of Val Kilmer, Kevin Spacey and Mare Winningham in the mid-1970s.
Goldstein was a bit of a gym rat in her early 20s, and her ability to speak Spanish and her familiarity with Latino culture helped the Jewish actress land the part of Vasquez during casting in London.
“[The producers] kept saying, ‘You’re an actress, right, not a bodybuilder?’” Goldstein said.
In her first scene, Goldstein sets the tone for Vasquez by doing pull-ups. Bill Paxton, as Pvt. Hudson, harasses her: “Hey Vasquez, have you ever been mistaken for a man?”
“No, have you?” she spits back.
As former USC gender studies professor Judith Grant notes in “Fundamental Feminism” (Routledge, 1993), “Even in the opening scenes, ‘Aliens’ plays off the gender switch of attaching a traditionally male version of power to women.”
Minorities as token characters in 1980s action films were often the first to be killed off. But Vasquez, surprisingly, hangs on until almost the bitter end. And mere moments before certain death, she reaches out to a despised commander and helps him reclaim his honor.
After the film’s release in 1986, Marines at Camp Pendleton applauded the film’s depiction of women as combat equals, flooding Goldstein’s agent with requests for posters of Vasquez.
Along with the military — and a faithful lesbian fan base — Goldstein also counts moms who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s among her loyal following, who regularly turn out to sci-fi conventions to pose for a picture with her or get an autograph.
When she isn’t acting, Goldstein’s favorite roles include mother of three and proprietor of the new East Hollywood shop, Jenette Bras (tagline: “The alphabet starts at ‘D’”).
And while she’d like to see her fans’ daughters embrace “Aliens” as a film that empowers women, Goldstein appreciates that their sons look to her action heroine with respect and admiration.
“When I go to shows, people say, ‘You were my mother’s favorite,’” Goldstein said. “I get women my age, who saw it when it came out, and their teenage sons. It’s really amazing.”