Aliens is a stone-cold classic, beloved of sci-fi movie fans the world over and rightly regarded as one of the best sequels ever made – but there’s a dark side to James Cameron’s 1986 effort few people ever talk about.
When Scarlett Johansson was cast as Major Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell, there was rightly uproar among fans over what they perceived as a classic example of Hollywood “whitewashing” – the idea of a white actor playing a non-white character.
Yet more than 20 years previous, there was little to no comment whatsoever when a white, Jewish, actor was cast in the role of a badass latino marine.
Maybe it helped that, as Private Vasquez, Jenette Goldstein was absolutely fantastic. A tough-as-nails marine and prominent character in Cameron’s action-packed Alien follow-up.
It definitely didn’t do any harm that the character of Vasquez was something of a rarity in Hollywood at the time – a strong female who often came to the rescue of her male counterparts, rather than visa versa.
Or that her sexuality was suitably vague and, in any case, wholly irrelevant to her all-round awesomeness. Then there were the one-liners and penchant for manning a one-woman machine gun, which helped establish Vasquez as one of the franchise’s all-time best characters.
Whatever the case, these varying factors, coupled with the overall quality of Cameron’s movie meant that any discussion over the suspect casting of Goldstein in a role meant for an actress of Latina descent went overlooked.
It’s only when you look back that you get a sense of unease about the whole thing.
Born in LA to a Jewish family of Moroccan and Brazilian descent but with white, freckly skin, the production team were probably well aware of Goldstein’s background when they cast her in the role.
As the legend goes, Goldstein turned up for the audition wearing a short skirt and high heels, under the impression she was auditioning for a movie about illegal aliens in the US, only for her muscular frame (she was a gymnast at the time) to catch producer Gale Anne Hurd’s eye.
After reading several times for Cameron and impressing in frequent auditions, 20th Century Fox decided to move forward with casting her as Vasquez, with the actress sent off to boot camp with her fellow marines. Evidently her background was of little consideration.
It was only when filming began that the real issues began, with the make-up department enlisted to create Goldstein’s Latina look.
Firstly, Goldstein was given dark contact lenses to hide her blue eyes. Then, to top it all off, she was covered in full face-and-body makeup, across all of her visibly white skin.
Speaking to Starlog Magazine back in 1987, Goldstein revealed:
“The makeup took an hour. The makeup woman said I had the most ornery freckles she had ever seen. It was freezing cold on the set, and we were oiled up all the time. The fake sweat and water made the makeup run a lot, so it was a toss-up between looking sweatier and having my white skin show through.”
Goldstein also revealed, in an interview with Strange Shapes, that she had “some awareness of the Chicano sub-culture, having grown up in Southern California, which informed her research further:
“I had to do it from memory… I didn’t have a dialect coach, or the time or money to fly back to Los Angeles [she was living in London]. I had my parents send me some source material from libraries in Los Angeles — interviews with gang members, that sort of thing, because there was nothing like that in London, just travel books to Mexico.”
There were smaller touches too, like the fact the gun she carries throughout the film has the words “adios” and “loco” scribbled on the side, something Goldstein added in.
The result was a performance so convincing, fans are to this day surprised when they meet Goldstein.
So why have so many fans turned a blind eye? Obviously, for starters, the film was made in a different era and, in a strange way, Goldstein’s character was seen as somewhat progressive.
Coming in the 1980s, when sexuality was an increasingly prevalent issue, Goldstein recalled, in an interview with LA Weekly, how touched she was by the positive, unifying response fans had to the character:
“A lot of gay women come up and say, ‘Oh my God, when I saw you, and you had a masculine look to you, I saw myself,’”
“But I had straight women coming up to me with the same thing. Someone was going through breast cancer, and she told me that with each round of chemo she would think of Vasquez. A gay man from Guatemala came up to me, and he said, ‘I identify so much with her,’ but he was very feminine. Vasquez is universal.”
For decades that positive effect was seemingly enough to outweigh the negatives of an actress essentially being “blacked up” for a role in a major Hollywood picture – but have things changed since.
With race and representation and increasing and rightly important concern, should films like Aliens being re-evaluated in this modern context or regarded as a product of their time?
Ultimately, it probably comes down to the fact that Aliens is a damn fine movie – unlike Ghost In The Shell. Whether that is enough to forgive James Cameron and Fox their sins is entirely up to you.