Surprises under the surface

Special to The Times

Maybe it’s the graying blond hair and crinkly blue eyes, the preppy cardigan and belted blue jeans, or the overall air of decency. But at first glance, Mitchell Lichtenstein doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who would harbor a decades-long fascination with fanged female genitalia.

Of course, looks can be deceiving.

Best known for his roles as the yuppie lover of a Taiwanese American man in Ang Lee’s “The Wedding Banquet” and as a gay soldier in Robert Altman’s “Streamers,” Lichtenstein, the 51-year-old actor turned writer and director, makes his feature directorial debut with “Teeth,” a coming-of-age tale about a high school virgin who discovers that she has a quite literal case of the mythological vagina dentata.

That is, a vagina with teeth.

“I think it’s more of a fear for straight men. I mean, I can’t imagine that the myth was created by women -- and gay people, I doubt that we can take credit,” Lichtenstein says over breakfast at Restaurant Florent in Manhattan. “I’m really looking at it from an outsider’s perspective.”


When “Teeth” premiered at last year’s Sundance Film Festival -- the movie opened this weekend in limited release -- the film’s tricky hybrid of high and low culture elicited comparisons to the work of the filmmaker’s father, the legendary Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein, a fact that is not lost on Mitchell. Though he and his older brother, David, spent most of their childhood in Princeton, N.J., with their mother, Isabel, an interior designer, the boys used to visit their father in his studio in Southampton, N.Y.

From a young age, Mitchell dabbled in drawing and painting, as well as writing. “I wouldn’t say that I never felt like I was in his shadow, because it’s inevitable,” he says, “but I never felt that it kept me down in any way.”

Lichtenstein is no stranger to the subversive. Early on in his career as an actor, he figured out that he has a tendency to come across as “sweet and good-natured” and savored the chance to play against type. Indeed, the resume of the Yale School of Drama master’s grad reads more like a rap sheet, with roles including a pampered drug addict on TV’s “Miami Vice,” a hustler with a connection to a murdered senator on “Law &Order;” and a psychotic screenwriter with a revenge plan in “Ratchet.” “I always found it hard to play someone without a secret,” he says.

Off screen, his dirtiest little secret might be that he doesn’t have many. “I just wish I had something interesting to say about myself,” Lichtenstein says, looking genuinely concerned.

Lichtenstein first learned about the age-old and universal vagina dentata myth, a kind of cautionary castration tale often featuring a hero who must conquer a femme fatale -- or become half the man he used to be -- from feminist scholar Camille Paglia, whom he had as a professor at Bennington College in Vermont in the late ‘70s.

“Over the years, I started seeing how it would come up in popular culture,” Lichtenstein says. Take the “Alien” movies: “It’s a female monster, it’s got teeth within teeth, and it’s all taking place in moist, dripping tunnels.”

With its elements of baroque horror, teen romance and black comedy, “Teeth” easily defies categorization. And though the film’s star, Jess Weixler, initially worried that, if not pulled off perfectly, her big-screen debut could be, as she put it, “a black wound on my career,” she found herself drawn to Lichtenstein’s interpretation of the myth.

“I think he wanted to make a fun movie about a girl who has to deal with an anatomical uniqueness like a superhero, learn to use it for good to protect herself and discover that she’s a sexual being at the same time,” says Weixler, who has been an overnight guest at Lichtenstein’s house for movie nights (screenings include “Carrie,” “The Evil Dead” and “Eraserhead”).

“By just reading the script, I thought he could have been, I don’t know, an S&M; fan. . . . And it’s the most adorable, unassuming Mitchell,” Weixler says. “When I met him, I was extremely comforted by the fact that he wasn’t just trying to get a shock out of people.”

Still, the subject matter is nothing short of provocative and is virtually guaranteed to generate strong reactions from moviegoers. And what would Roy Lichtenstein have made of Mitchell’s directorial debut?

“My father would have really liked the outrageousness of the subject and the fact that I went for it in my first movie,” Lichtenstein says. “It’s hard to remember now, but in mainstream circles his subject matter was not meant for high art. And many people may still say that his subject matter is not suitable for art.”