“He’s a very nice guy,” insists writer-director Tamara Jenkins of one of the men who produced her first feature, The Slums of Beverly Hills. But, she admits, the nice guy had a little trouble understanding the plight of her film’s central character: Vivian, a 15-year-old whose newly formed breasts are attracting unwanted attention from her father, her brothers, and various other males.
He said, “‘I don’t understand. Don’t girls like it when they get big breasts? ‘Cause I loved it when girls got big breasts,’” Jenkins recalls. “However breasts functioned in his mind, they were just something that provide pleasure. They weren’t something that could provide anxiety. He just couldn’t see it that way.
“He told me this story: ‘I remember when this girl showed up at school and she was the first one to get a set, and all the guys in school were really excited. They all wanted to get close to her so they could elbow her in the breasts and snap her bra. It was really great.’” The director laughs.
“‘What do you think her experience was?,’” Jenkins says she asked him. “‘How do you think she felt, showing up at school and being elbowed in the boob and snapped at?’ And he said, ‘Oh yeah. I get it.’” She laughs again.
Jenkins got it long ago, of course, because Vivian is based on her teenage self. Like the character, played by then-18-year-old Natasha Lyonne, the filmmaker spent most of her youth on the unfashionable edge of fashionable Beverly Hills, raised by a father played by Alan Arkin in the movie who was “the most unhip person you can possibly imagine. Out of time is the best way to describe it. Sort of stuck in a Damon Runyon past, and living in the ’70s.”
But not everything, Jenkins clarifies, was exactly the way it’s portrayed in The Slums of Beverly Hills. “This character functions as metaphor for my father in lots of ways. He’s obviously not my father,” she protests of the eccentric, impoverished Arkin character. “I’m not insane!” Still, her father ran a strip club in Philadelphia before he moved the family west, which sounds pretty Damon Runyon-esque.
The director’s unusual childhood has been a recurring theme, explored first in “solo performance pieces that involved projection and slides and storytelling kind of primitive movie-making, I guess” and then in short films. After investigating lots of mother-daughter scenarios, she says, “I was interested in the impact that female sexual development in an adolescent has on a dad. And sexual coming-of-age without any female guidance, which is how I grew up. The awkwardness surrounding that. I think there’s a kind of fear involved about a daughter’s maturation, from a father’s point of view.”
There’s no apparent awkwardness now for Jenkins as she discusses her film. “The one thing about having big breasts,” Jenkins explains, “is that they come in and out of fashion. And there’s nothing you can do about it. In the ’50s, if you look at movie stars, women had breasts, and clothes kind of emphasized it. And you can go to a different time, and Twiggy was perceived as an idealized beauty.”
Vivian’s breasts (which were prosthetic) and a nude scene featuring co-star Marisa Tomei are just a few of the things in the film that can’t be shown in the trailer. Also forbidden are two scenes featuring a vibrator.
“At one of our test screenings,” Jenkins allows, “an elderly woman was seen walking out during the masturbation scene. That was the only visible sign of discomfort.”
Despite the potential for embarrassing older ladies, Jenkins thinks that the frankly sexual themes and the female perspective actually helped her get backing for the movie. Yet, with male executives, “there was a translation process,” she says. “As women, we grow up with male protagonists, and we’re so used to putting ourselves in the place of male characters. I just thought it was so interesting that [men’s] fictional muscles weren’t as developed as a female’s.”
The Slums of Beverly Hills also addresses a subject that may be even more controversial in America than sex: class. Arkin’s divorced-dad character tells his kids that they must live in Beverly Hills, even crowded into a one-bedroom apartment in a low-rent district, in order to attend the city’s superior schools. “There was something compelling about the way people gravitate to the good life, even if they’re not really partaking in it,” Jenkins remembers. “They just want to share a ZIP code.
“When you tell people you grew up in Beverly Hills,” she says, “they think you’re really rich, that you’re really privileged, and that your parents probably work in the entertainment business. That had nothing to do with the way I lived. Most people imagine only mansions. They don’t even think there are any renters living in Beverly Hills, let alone people who are as marginal as the characters in this movie.
“It seemed when we were growing up, the outskirts were really outskirts. We often lived on streets where on one side was Beverly Hills and the signs were white, and you’d cross the street and the signs would be blue, and that would be Los Angeles. We were really on the perimeter.”
And even 20 years later, “dingbat” apartment buildings she remembers from the ’70s aren’t hard to find in the Beverly Hills area. “I love those little dingbats,” she declares, “the low ones with the carports in the front, that look like motels. There are a lot of them in Santa Monica. There’s less of them in Beverly Hills proper, the ones with the names” like the Paradise and the Capri.
Shooting the movie after spending almost 20 years away from L.A., Jenkins says, “was a weird way of returning, because we were shooting on similar terrain that I grew up in. ‘Beverly Hills adjacent’ is what it’s actually called in the real estate section. It was strange sometimes to be so close to where the original action was, and to be re-dramatizing it a couple of buildings down the street.”
When the project began, Jenkins notes, “I was just really excited to be able to sign a contract and get paid for writing and not have to waitress.” Aside from a few film festivals, notably Cannes, and test screenings, she doesn’t yet know what people think of her story. “I lived it,” she says, “so it was always interesting to me.”—Mark Jenkins