Why Charlie Matters: Me, Kelly McGillis, and Top Gun
I didn't think that the Top Gun sequel would be the thing that broke me. But, in many ways, it was.
I was nine years old when the 80s blockbuster about Navy fighter pilots came out, and I loved it wholly and completely. Until I thought that it wasn't okay to love it anymore. That the story was ridiculous and stupid.
But then I watched the film again three times in the week that Top Gun: Maverick came out, and I fell in love all over again. Not as a child or a teenager but as a woman in her forties. As a wife and mother of two sons. But then the news that Kelly McGillis, who played Maverick's love interest and flight instructor in the first film wasn’t in it and why she wasn’t in it, broke my heart. And it wasn't just the exclusion of her character but the dismissal of my concerns about her exclusion and the ridicule of the first film’s female star that angered and floored me. "She wouldn't even fit on the screen anymore" one Facebook user wrote. One meme, this one in Spanish, even compared modern-day Kelly McGillis to a damaged package.
Kelly McGillis and Jennifer Connelly were compared to alcohol. One Twitter user wrote, “Jennifer Connelly aged like a bottle of Scotch compared to Kelly McGillis.” I assume that the person who wrote that doesn’t know that Kelly McGillis struggled with alcohol addiction. But maybe he just doesn’t care.
I wanted to know why Kelly McGillis wasn’t in the film and how was her absence explained. It turns out that it kind of wasn’t. She’s just not there, and her absence isn’t mentioned. Instead, the female love interest is now Jennifer Connolly, who is thirteen years younger than Kelly McGillis, and eight years younger than Tom Cruise himself.
Once I went down this particular rabbit hole, I couldn’t stop. I found things that tugged at my heart including a 1985 Washington Post interview with Kelly McGillis in which she states, “I’m not your classic beauty. . . . So many people who I know who are beautiful, gorgeous people are not thought of as serious-minded people. I think maybe that’s a deep-seated fear of mine.”
Of Top Gun, one Twitter user claimed, “A woman with a PhD being as hot as Kelly McGillis was the most unbelievable part of Top Gun for me.”
I have three masters’ degrees, and I know many women with PhDs. They are no more or no less hot than the rest of us. As a girl though, I believed the lie that smart women couldn’t be pretty and pretty women couldn’t be smart. I used to pray to God to make me beautiful and dumb rather than smart and ugly. I thought it had to be either or.
But I wasn’t ugly. I only felt like I was. And Kelly McGillis, one of the most beautiful, sought-after actresses of the 1980s, felt that way too. She states in an interview with David Weiner for Entertainment Tonight regarding her appearance in Top Gun, “I really had issues. It was very interesting to me, because I remember making the film, I felt like l was fat and ugly, and I thought, “I wonder why I thought that so much back then?’” I think I know why she thought it. Even now, men are piling on saying things like: “I never thought Kelly McGillis was hot.” But I’ve been pushing back. I even asked one man, Why do you feel the need to share this now, when she’s been age shamed and fat shamed all over the Internet?
It's not really Kelly McGillis who is the loser when we treat women like this. It’s women in general. I looked up information related to Meg Ryan, who was in the original Top Gun movie but also wasn’t asked to reprise her role as Goose’s wife in the sequel. A headline from 2015 from Radar reads, “Misshapen Meg! Ryan’s Shocking New Appearance Has Pals Worried She’s Gone Too Far With Cosmetic Surgeries.” Similarly, a 2021 post at Diets in Review, asked of the woman who plays Tom Cruise’s love interest in the Top Gun sequel, “Does Jennifer Connolly Have an Eating Disorder”? Too fat, too thin. Too short, too tall. Too much plastic surgery, too little. Women can’t win. But somehow there are a few women who did.
And one of them was the character that Kelly McGillis played in the original Top Gun, Charlotte Blackwood, call sign Charlie. She played an astrophysicist, and in the relationship with hot shot pilot Maverick, she had the upper hand. She was in the relationship because she chose to be. At the beginning, Maverick approaches her at the bar and embarrassingly sings, The Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” and she pretends not to understand that Maverick isn’t his real name, just his fighter pilot call sign, “Maverick? Did your mother not like you or something?” Charlie asks. But she understands fighter pilots very well. In fact, she works with them. And, the next day, back at Miramar, it’s Maverick who has to hang his head in shame when he realizes that that fiery lady he inappropriately followed into the ladies’ room is actually his teacher.
It’s not just Charlie who’s in charge. It’s Christine Fox, the real-life civilian military expert who Charlie was partially based on. She said in a 2020 interview with military.com, “So I show up at Miramar. I’m the first female CNA rep they ever have. They weren’t thrilled about it. I remember one day, I wasn’t there very long, and I was walking down the hall in the space where I worked and one big fighter guy comes out of nowhere and steps right in front of me and says, ‘You don’t belong here and we don’t want you.’” Early in her career, Fox, who served as Acting Deputy Defense Secretary from 2013 to 2014, says she didn’t really focus on being the only woman in a male dominated arena, but later she couldn’t ignore it because she saw how important it was to other women. When she met with women on military bases they often thanked her for being who she was and doing what she did. She noted, “To those women that there was a woman in such a senior position told them that they can do it too.”
The director of Top Gun: Maverick said that Kelly McGillis and Meg Ryan weren’t cast in the sequel because “I didn’t want every storyline to always be looking backwards.” But it seems like many of the sequel storylines kind of are doing just that. Maverick still has a problem with authority and can’t get over Goose’s death. (But didn’t he deal with that in the original film? Wasn’t that what that scene where he threw Goose’s dog tags into the Indian Ocean was supposed to mean?) Val Kilmer and Tom Cruise, two of the male leads, are present in Top Gun: Maverick, but all of the leading women are noticeably absent.
Kelly McGillis has a different and probably truer take on why she wasn’t asked to be in the sequel. “I’m old and I’m fat and I look age-appropriate for what my age is,” Kelly McGillis told Entertainment Tonight in 2019. “And that is not what that whole scene is about. To me, I’d much rather feel absolutely secure in my skin, and who and what I am at my age, as opposed to placing a value on all that other stuff.”
Growing up, I didn’t feel secure in my own skin. I felt uncomfortable being the curve breaker and the girl who sometimes had the highest test scores in the class. I looked young for my age. At my eighteenth birthday, the server at now-defunct Mexican chain Chi-Chis asked if I wanted the children’s menu, and the friend I had driven there laughed. I wasn’t laughing. I didn’t know who to look to for comfort, for inspiration, for who to be ness. At least not then. But now I know. I can look to Charlie. She’s smart and beautiful, and she absolutely commanded every room she walked into. Older, heavier, and no longer co-starring with A-list actors, Kelly McGillis is still beautiful, and she helped me to understand that it’s okay for me to be smart and beautiful and not quite a conventional woman. As Charlie says to Maverick, we don’t need to feel sorry for who we are and what we’ve done, or, in her character’s words: “No apologies.”
Lori D'Angelo is a grant recipient from the Elizabeth George Foundation and an alumna of the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley. Recent work has appeared in Idle Ink, JAKE, One Art Poetry Journal, Toil & Trouble, and Wrong Turn Lit. You can find her on Twitter @sclly21 or Instagram at lori.dangelo1.