At the Washington Times, Peter Suderman talks to Whit Stillman, a brilliant writer-director — and an AmSpec alum. Stillman believes that he’s paid a professional price for refusing to conform to prevailing Hollywood sensibilities that he objected to decades ago in our pages:
In the early 1980s, he worked as the New York editor of the conservative political magazine now known as the American Spectator. In 1981, he wrote an essay for the magazine headlined “Sleazy, Soapy, and Rich,” in which he complained of the crude and vicious stereotypes with which the era’s television dramas had chosen to represent the wealthy.
Writing about “Dallas,” the hit prime-time serial about wealthy Texans, he noted that “the vilification of capitalists and their families is so intense” that one critic had suggested the show might be pulling story tips from a KGB playbook. He was particularly bothered by the way the shows portrayed wealthy women, aghast that those “portrayed on the five nighttime serials are perhaps the largest group of sluts ever assembled in peacetime.”
Those early sentiments go a long way toward explaining why Mr. Stillman’s movies often play like sweet, funny odes to bourgeois virtue — and why his sense of empathy and respect often extends to his female characters even more than to their male counterparts.
It’s a sense that he’s stuck with — even when it’s cost him. Asked about the article, he first pretends to be a little embarrassed but nods in assent. “I don’t like the melodrama thing of turning people into villains,” he says.
Mr. Stillman recalls directing an episode of the TV show “Homicide: Life on the Street.” He had a script he liked, but a rewrite turned a yuppie victim — whose family had been murdered — into “this awful, caricatured yuppie villain.”
“We don’t necessarily want to do a PR job for them,” he says of the character type. “But we also don’t want to dehumanize them, either.” He objected to the rewrite and is sure he was “blacklisted” — his explosive and unprompted term — from directing television as a result.
I can’t speak for Stillman’s newest film, Damsels in Distress, as I haven’t seen it yet — Peter liked it, but not as much as Stillman’s earlier works — but his trio of comedies-of-manners from the 90s are all wonderful. Barcelona in particular is a must-see; the most overtly political of Stillman’s films, it deals in part with Cold War anti-Americanism and gives many of the best lines to a snarky anti-Communist (“They’re against [NATO]? What are they for? Soviet troops racing across Europe, eating all the croissants?”).
A PDF of “Sleazy, Soapy, and Rich” is available here, part of a large archive of not only The American Spectator but numerous other publications licensed by publisher and philanthropist Ron Unz.