Paul Bartel Sticks It to the Idle Rich : Location Fun With the Maverick Director of ‘Scenes From the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills’
Scrunched in the passenger seat of a sea-green Jaguar, Paul Bartel seemed ill at ease. The pudgy, 50-year-old movie director stared out the window as his producer, James Katz, drove to lunch, leaving behind the huge Brentwood mansion that is serving as the set for his new film, “Scenes From the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills.”
Suddenly Bartel swiveled around, eyeing his visitor in the back seat.
“Now the truth can be told,” he hissed conspiratorially. “We’re three weeks behind schedule, millions over budget and Cinecom (the film’s distributor) is ready to fire me.
“They’ve got Brian De Palma holed up in a bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel, going over the whole script. When we’re done today, a couple of guys in suits will just hustle me away.”
Bartel’s eyes narrowed. “As you can imagine, with De Palma coming in, the story is going to change considerably. Everyone in the cast is going to die a hideous death. . . .”
This scenario was presented with such steely conviction that his visitor was taken aback. After all, this is Hollywood, where truth is stranger than fiction. But just as the prospect of Brian De Palma wading through corpses began to materialize . . . Bartel unleashed a ferocious grin.
Ah, not to worry. Just a joke.
Bartel’s deadpan humor requires a period of adjustment. But once on his wavelength, you begin to appreciate this sly-witted film maker who finds all sorts of odd things funny. His comedies are so black--to quote one admirer--that you don’t even need to dim the lights.
Cheery couples turn out to be gourmet cannibals (“Eating Raoul”). . . . 21st-Century gladiators embark on death races where participants get as many points for killing spectators as each other (“Death Race 2000"). . . . Pimps show off apartments adorned with oils painted by Tony El Greco (“Not for Publication”). . . .
Armed with a prickly wit, Bartel is emerging as a cinematic cousin of H. L. Mencken. You could even dub “Scenes From the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills,” his scabrous new spoof of the idle rich, a Hollywood version of Mencken’s “The Sahara of the Bozart.”
Though the script was written by Bruce Wagner, the original notion is pure Bartel. A former Fulbright scholar, Bartel has toiled on the low-budget outer limits of Hollywood for 15 years, making films whose sardonic vision have earned him hearty accolades from critics but small-scale commercial success.
No one would be so rash as to predict a box-office bonanza for “Class Struggle,” which is due out next. An arch, wickedly exuberant satire, the script bashes so many upper-crust targets that you’d bet it was snipped from the pages of Spy magazine. (When Jacqueline Bisset notes that her husband died “in the saddle,” she tartly adds, “Except there doesn’t seem to have been a horse.”)
“I don’t know if you’d call it an expose so much as a confection--or a farce,” said Bartel, whose plump physique and stately calm give him the air of a young Hitchcock. “What I was aiming for was something between ‘The Marriage of Figaro’ and Luis Bunuel’s ‘The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.’ There are no burning offenses we wish to reveal. I just wanted to show the divisions between the upper class and their servants, but in a modern way.”
Bartel tugged at his baggy tennis shorts as he relaxed between shots in a back-yard swing. “The underlying aim is to entertain, but I think it’s more fun to entertain with some risks. To see how close you can get to the edge of the cliff without having the audience toppling over.”
Producer Katz grinned with approval. “And, oh boy, are we going to have a few topples.”
Peccadilloes in the Air
Watching Bartel stage a rehearsal of the day’s big scene--a climactic back-yard brunch during which the characters noisily air their various sexual peccadilloes--you had to marvel that a film budgeted at a low-rent $3.5 million could attract such a lively cast.
At the head of the table, wearing a blond bubble wig and a billowy white party dress, was--of all curious castings!--Jaqueline Bisset. She plays sitcom queen Clare Lipkin. To her right, in a navy-blue sailor’s suit, sat the statuesque Mary Woronov, a frequent Bartel collaborator who plays neurotic neighbor Lisabeth. At her side, a head shorter, his face bobbing above a huge ascot, was actor/playwright Wallace Shawn, playing her wayward husband.
Across the table, regaling the cast with risque election-year jokes, was Ed Begley Jr., who plays Lisabeth’s playwright brother. Resting her head on his shoulder was his film-wife, newcomer Arnetia Walker, a young black actress who, in keeping with her character’s Las Vegas bloodlines, wore a frilly blouse with a plunging neckline, an armful of necklaces and tapped the table with four-inch, crimson nails.
At table’s end, presiding over the ensemble, was Bartel, in tennis whites for his role as the Bev Hills thinologist. With a script neatly tucked under his fruit plate, Bartel would gently offer line-reading advice and prod his charges to quicken the pace.
Spotting a crewman pouring a fresh glass of orange juice for actress Rebecca Sheaffer, who plays Bisset’s daughter, Bartel drolly announced, “Has someone been drinking her props?”
Not everyone was on hand. Film director (and sometime actor) Paul Mazursky, who plays the ghost of Bisset’s late husband, had already completed his scenes. But Ray Sharkey, who plays Frank, a conniving houseman, had just stopped by for a cast picture later that afternoon.
Sitting by the pool, smoking an unfiltered Camel, Sharkey looked like he’d glided right out of hustler heaven. Wearing wrap-around shades, earrings and scuffed sneakers, he spoke excitedly about the film in the kind of low ‘n’ fast subway growl you’d expect to hear from a high-living hipster running a dice game in a Lower East Side alleyway.
“I tell you, when Paul sent me the script, I started laughing out loud in my living room,” he said, flicking ashes into the pool. “I’ve just been doing ‘Wired,’ which was pretty heavy, so to get a farce like this was perfect. Hey, being a hustler--I’ve lived this part for real. Being a bad boy, getting wild, having fun for seven weeks.”
Sharkey beamed. “Except this time it’s on camera, immortalized forever!”
A Dark Look
One person you rarely see having a good time on a Hollywood set is the screenwriter. Once shooting has started, writers are encouraged to steer clear. But as Bartel continued his run-throughs for the brunch scene, there was Bruce Wagner, script tightly in hand, kneeling on the ground just behind the camera.
You could hardly miss him. An intense but engaging guy who found it hard to stay in one spot very long, Wagner wore black Italian slacks, black silk shirt, black cowboy boots, black belt, thick glasses with black frames and a black watch band, all of which nicely complemented his black spiky hair and three-day black stubble.
If his color scheme was dark, his mood was bright. He jokingly referred to himself as the “script girl,” an accurate assessment considering that whenever Jaqueline Bisset would have trouble with her lines Wagner would scurry to her perch at the brunch table to offer cues. Each time the cast would run through the scene, Wagner would eye his pages, mouthing the dialogue, making sure no one strayed far from the script.
“I knew this movie was a long shot,” he acknowledged. “I mean, if someone gave you this script, do you think anyone would’ve made it? But when this project started, I was a real emotional low. I’d spent five years rewriting gimmicky junk. You know, hack stuff about guys who wake up one morning and find they’ve won the Nobel Prize--by mistake!
“So to work on something this uncompromising has done wonders for my spirit.” Wagner fell silent for a moment, searching for the right image. “It’s been like vomiting, but having fun doing it.”
Sitting Down on the Job
Hours after everyone else had eaten lunch, Bartel wandered across the spacious back yard, armed with a big plate of pasta. “I never eat when they do,” he said, gesturing at the actors and crew, who were setting up for brunch-scene close-ups. “I find that it slows me down too much in the middle of the day.”
Bartel takes an equally novel approach to his job. Fighting to stay on schedule, battling dozens of mini-crises each day, most directors survive on a volatile spin of stamina, concentration and spontaneous combustion.
How does he preserves his energy? Bartel shrugged. “I sit down a lot. I even lie down when I can. Whenever there’s a long pause like this, I really do relax.” He smiled. “Take a little nap.”
No one caught Bartel snoozing that day, but he did seem surprisingly composed, especially for someone both directing and acting. Puttering around the set in his tennis togs, checking camera angles and fiddling with props, he had the distracted air of someone’s eccentric uncle who’d just wandered by after a polite round of doubles.
“I’ve found the best way to psychologically energize myself for the week’s work is to have a bunch of friends over on Sunday night and sing old show tunes,” he explained. “We do everything--Rodgers & Hart, Gershwin, Cole Porter. Last night Arnetia and I sang a duet of ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside.’
“We went till 1 a.m. last night, which is a ridiculous hour, since I had to get up at dawn to prepare for shooting. But I feel completely energized--it restores me in some way I don’t fully understand.”
Asked about his crooning talents, Bartel returned, “I perhaps sing the loudest, though certainly not the best.” He’s unduly modest. Bartel is always in demand as an actor, often more so than as a director. He’s appeared in everything from films like “Rock & Roll High School” to episodes of TV’s “L.A. Law” and “Crime Story.”
“Paul is a very funny man, on and off the set,” said Begley. “He’s become a friend, but you always enjoy working with him so much that you’re happy to hear him call about a part.”
“What I like is that Paul has a very relaxed attitude--he’s not at all autocratic,” said Bisset, who, while the biggest “name” in the film, displayed a very non-star attitude on the set. “In fact, he’s quite gentle. I prefer a director who simply directs. I think acting and directing can be a little distracting for the other actors. But Paul is such a good actor and brings so much to the film, that it’s hard to complain.”
During the brunch scene, Bartel took great relish in delivering his “thinologist” dialogue, particularly advice about avoiding depression. “I recommend junk food, until you’re ready to vomit,” he said expansively. “Then, a bracing salt-water enema.”
That mordant wit has often led to trouble. Bartel’s directorial debut, “Private Parts,” was banned in Australia, heavily censored in England and retitled “Private Arts” in Chicago. Producer Roger Corman made Bartel cut most of the laughs from “Death Race 2000,” his futuristic vision of a blood-lust road rally (which was made for $530,000 in 1974 and grossed nearly $9 million).
But his comic imagination has rarely flagged. Bartel directed Divine in the spoof “Lust in the Dust,” handled a pair of ambitious “Amazing Stories” episodes on TV and made a screwball send-up of a gossip tabloid (“Not for Publication”) which featured Nancy Allen, dressed as a pink lamb, tap-dancing to “You Bring Out the Beast in Me” at a wee-hours sex club.
Perhaps his most striking film was “Eating Raoul,” a 1982 cult classic starring Bartel and Woronov as fastidious murderers who lure sexual deviants to their apartment, wallop them with a skillet, rob them and use the proceeds to buy a gourmet restaurant. When no studio would finance the film, Bartel stocked the cast with friends, shot it largely on weekends and developed the film at a half-price lab that specialized in porno pictures.
After years of filming from hand to mouth, Bartel seemed perfectly comfortable working with a minuscule budget--and pleased to have such a barbed script. “This isn’t a great age for satire,” he said. “Once you get past abortion, taxes and Nicaragua, people don’t seem to have strong feelings about too many issues.
“Also, the movie business isn’t just geared toward making money, but making big money. So it’s in everybody’s interests not to offend a big segment of that audience.”
Both Bartel and Katz praised Cinecom, which is financing the film and has distributed such adventuresome fare as Jonathan Demme’s “Stop Making Sense,” Ismail Merchant and James Ivory’s “A Room With a View,” John Sayles’ “Matewan” and Stephen Frears’ “Sammy and Rosie.”
“They are that rare company willing to take certain risks,” Bartel said. “Even our foreign partners, the Rank Organisation, are nervous about a certain aspect of the script (a wager that could result in gay sex). They’re so nervous that we’re shooting a cover scene to replace it overseas, if need be.”
Katz nodded his head. “We took this to RKO, which was as close as we got to a major studio,” he said. “I remember someone at (20th Century) Fox telling me this was the funniest script he’d read in years. And when he finished laughing, he said no major studio would ever make it.”
Jacqueline Bisset was a bit taken aback when she first saw the script too. “My mouth dropped open in shock when I read it,” she said, wrapping a shawl around her shoulders to ward off the early-evening chill. “I was doing double takes. I also turned on ‘Eating Raoul’ on TV, totally by chance, and it was truly wild.”
Bisset’s wide, almond-brown eyes grew even wider. “At first I thought I must be dreaming. My throat began to constrict, my mouth got dry. I just couldn’t fathom it! I’d been looking for something outrageous to do, because I’ve done so many dramatic roles that they’ve become almost like a curse. So I really thought this would be a lot of fun.”
Fun, but arduous. At the end of the brunch scene, Bisset was supposed to leap up, yell at her table mates and stalk off. During her first take, she jumped and bellowed but instead of stalking off went sprawling on the ground when her high heels caught in the grass. Once she was helped to her feet, Bisset led the cast in joking about the spill.
According to press reports, the film makers originally offered the part to Faye Dunaway but lost her when delays pushed back the movie’s start date. Bartel didn’t seem to miss her. “I’d always thought of Jaqueline as the exquisite heroine of ‘Day for Night.’ But when we met and we talked, I fell in love. She’s very funny--as soon as she read her lines, I knew she could handle anything.”
Bisset was, in turn, pleased to have a rare opportunity to show off her comic skills. “I don’t get offered many comedy parts,” she admitted. “And this humor is really humor-- it’s so raunchy and has such a dangerous quality. It’s very on the edge.
“I have to admit I was a little scared at first. When we first started having run-throughs, I was terrified that I was too heavy, too slow. But I finally began to get into the rhythm.”
Why doesn’t Bisset get offered more comedy parts--is it perhaps because she’s too beautiful? “Who knows,” she said with a slight frown, tugging at her blond wig. “This is the only scene where I wear this. Some actresses get to change their hair all the time. But not me. Even when I offer, they always say, ‘Jacki, don’t touch the hair.’ ”
With a measly budget, the film makers couldn’t afford to build an elaborate Beverly Hills-mansion set. Instead, they’ve turned to locations. For exteriors, they shot at this spacious Spanish-style Brentwood home, north of Sunset Boulevard, which offered a pool, cabana, gazebo, second-floor balcony and an enormous lawn.
Matters were so informal that the property owner, Mrs. Pari Rahban, had free rein to roam the set, setting up a row of lounge chairs where her friends and children kept a close watch on the cast, paying particular attention to any movements made by Bisset.
“I’ve stopped living for a week,” Rahban said, a bit giddily. “I’ve canceled all my appointments. I come every day. I have all my friends over. Everyone has been very nice. And once they know you are the owner of the house, they are really friendly.”
Rahban, who was wearing flower-print slacks and a purple blouse, seemed unconcerned about the well-earned reputation most movie companies have for making a huge mess. “Oh, if anything goes wrong, they would fix it,” she said. “My only problem is with my husband.”
She lowered her voice. “He worries so much. Since they have been here, he stays away or he comes home late. I think all this is too much for him.”
Begging for a Role
Wally Shawn was insulted. A visitor had innocently inquired whether his friendship with Bartel predated his arrival on the set. “Do you want me to reveal that I didn’t get into movie on my merits?” he said, with mock dismay, perched in a director’s chair in the mansion’s gazebo. “Actually, I’m not saying I actually got this part without a certain degree of friendship. Paul and I--well, we met at Schwab’s if you want to know the truth.”
Shawn quickly warmed to this employment topic. “When I heard there was a possibility that I could actually be in this movie. . . .” He threw up his hands. “OK, I begged to be in it, which is very uncharacteristic for me. Usually, I’m extremely ambivalent about being in a film. I find myself hoping that it might be fun and I would get paid for it, but dreading it because I’d be embarrassed to have my friends see me in it.”
Shawn’s monologue, full of stutter-steps, loping rhythms and abrupt halts as he searched for the right word, was in full gear now. “I begged. I groveled. I gave up money to be in this film. I could’ve done something else--if I could think of the title, I’d tell you--that would’ve paid more money.” He wagged his head. “Lots more!”
For Shawn, a successful playwright best known for his starring role in “My Dinner With Andre,” the appeal of “Class Struggle” lay in its outrageous satire. “It’s astonishing to me that this movie could’ve been made in the ‘80s,” he said, beginning to pace. “Everyone I know leaps at any sign that the social pendulum might be swinging in a less, well, fascistic direction--though I’m not sure that it is.
“For me, this is a period where most Americans believe that social satire--satire that I would consider empty or silly or incredibly superficial--is really bitingly savage. I don’t know, I guess most Americans simply don’t have that degree of anger in their repertoire. In fact, I think it’s safe to say. . . .”
Shawn suddenly stopped in mid-thought, cocking his head toward the distant set. Even in mid monologue, he’d somehow heard the familiar “first team” call, meaning it was time to return to work. He hopped out of his seat, beckoning his visitor to follow.
“My Pavlovian ears always hear that call,” he said nervously, walking with short, hurried strides. “I have this ridiculous fantasy that they’re going to get to my shots before today is over.” He eyed the setting sun. “Even though I’m beginning to realize that it is a ridiculous fantasy.
“But I’m still hoping that it might somehow happen, because I’m so ready to do the scene today. And I worry that I may not be able to do it as well tomorrow. If at all.”
He sighed. “You know what I really think,” he said confidentially. “They’ve probably already decided not to do the shot today.”
He sighed again. “The only thing they haven’t decided is when to tell me.”
A Wicked Fairy Tale . . .
O nce upon a time in Beverly Hills there lived a forgotten sit-com queen named Clare Lipkin, whose philandering husband, Sidney, had just died under suspicious sexual circumstances. Determined to make a Hollywood comeback, Clare has sought counsel from her loyal Beverly Hills “thinologist,” Dr. Mo Van de Kamp, and her neurotic next-door neighbor, Lisabeth Hepburn-Savarian. Lisabeth is celebrating the departure of her ex-husband, Howard, by having her house fumigated. Joining the fete are her visiting failed-playwright brother, Peter, and his new Vegas bride, To-Bel, who has been secretly starring in porno films. Also eager to make merry are a pair of amorous housemen--Juan, who has his eye on Lisabeth, and Frank, who seems to have his eye on . . . Juan. Soon To-Bel has sampled new pleasures, Clare’s husband makes a ghostly comeback and Juan’s gambling debts come due, all just as Clare has invited a celebrity reporter to document her return to the limelight. To make matters worse. . . .