Lena’s Dreams: Directed and Written by Heather Johnston and Gordon Eriksen

Lena’s Dreams centers on a Cuban-American performer, well played by Marlene Forte, fighting to have a viable career and meaningful relationships amidst insurmountable obstacles.

Shot in a spontaneous, cinema-verite style, the film recalls the raw emotionalism and poignant immediacy of John Cassavetes’s work, specifically “Opening Night,” with which it shares some thematic resemblance.

Quintessentially New York ultra-low budgeter, a Latino variant of similarly-themed dramas about white actresses, may warrant a limited theatrical release to display Forte’s formidable talent and film’s other qualities.

Celebrating her 32nd birthday, the vibrantly witty Lena (Forte) experiences an early mid-life crisis that not only shakes her up, but almost everyone else around her. Having nurtured dreams to become an actress–with huge talent to match–Lena is caught in an impossibly frustrated position: She is too light-skinned to play Hispanic working-class women and too dark-skinned to play rich, upper-class matrons. This dilemma is marvelously illustrated in an audition in which she switches within seconds from one part to another. The fact that she reads well for both roles is almost irrelevant, as agents, managers and casting directors have their own ideas, rooted in racial stereotypes and biases, about what’s “proper” work for “ethnic” thesps like Lena.

On the verge of nervous breakdown–more in the vein of Almodovar’s heroines than Cassavetes’–Lena is running from one audition to another, hysterically using pay phones to call her answering service since her home phone is cut off. Complicating the issue are pressures from longtime b.f. Mike (Gary Perez), a former actor who now desperately seeks a “civilian job” to make a living. Mike wants to have a “real life” outside showbiz, one “with children, marriage, home–and health insurance.” Though sensitive to her plight, he presents his vision as at once more realistic and fulfilling than her contempo life, which basically consists of “waiting tables, poverty, and rejection.”

The last reel, in which Lena has to choose between her options, is a bit strained and too melodramatic, slowing the tale down, but the resolution is utterly gratifying and in line with the rest of the drama. The material covered in the film, which is sharply co-written and co-directed by Heather Johnston and Gordon Eriksen (who’re married), is not terribly new, recalling the predicament of black actresses like Eartha Kitt and particularly Lena Horne, who in her one-woman show had a wonderful monologue about what it meant being a “light black” actress in Hollywood of the 40s and 50s. What’s new, however, is the fresh perspective and candidly instinctive style that inform the yarn, which make it sound original.

The appeal of Lena’s Dreams rests entirely on the riveting performance of Forte, who delves deeply into her part and dominates every single frame. Forte’s face, with its incredible bones and magnificent eyes, is remarkably alert and her demeanor effortlessly sexy. Forte is supported by a superb ensemble, composed of Perez, as the loving but frustrated Mike; Judy Reyes, as a younger, ambitious Cubana actress; Susan Peirez, as a former actress who’s now a disenchanted lawyer and cheated-upon wife; Jeremiah Birkett, as a lazy actor, happy so long as he gets another sneaker commercial; and David Zayas, as Lena’s exasperating and exasperated manager, who’s subjected to her venom in a deftly executed scene.


An Olympia Pictures/Lena’s Film production. Produced by Chip Garner. Co-producers, Marlene Forte, Armando Basulto, Ignacio Quiles. Directed, written by Heather Johnston and Gordon Eriksen. Camera (color), Armando Basulto; editor, Steve Silkensen; music, Don Braden; art direction, Robert Nassau; costume design, Jennifer L. Eriksen; sound, Noah Vivekananad Timan; assistant director, Karen Graff. Reviewed at the Raleigh studios (In L.A. Indie Festival), L.A., Apr. 6, 1997. Running time: 85 min.


Lena……..Marlene Forte
Mike………..Gary Perez
Suze………Susan Peirez
Johnny…Jeremiah Birkett
Jorge………David Zayas
Martisa……..Judy Reyes
Angela……….Kai Adwoa