Program Notes: Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986)
The Whitemans of Beverly Hills have it all.
And it still isn’t enough.
Dave Whiteman (Richard Dreyfuss) made millions by inventing a coat hangar used by just about every hotel chain on earth. But he still feels vaguely unfulfilled as he tools around sunny Los Angeles in his Mercedes and creeps out of bed every night to cuddle up to the live-in maid (Elizabeth Peña).
His wife Barbara (Bette Midler) has for years been on a futile search for self-awareness, working her way through every shrink, guru, and experimental therapy advocate on the talk-show circuit. Her motto might very well be: “I shop, therefore I am.”
Son Max (Evan Richards) is probably gay and can only face the world through the viewfinder of his videocam.
Even the family pooch, Matisse, is neurotic. He has his own animal psychologist.
Into this oasis of upper-class angst comes Jerry (Nick Nolte), a hairy, seedy bum who chooses the Whitemans’ pool in which to drown his sorrows and end his miserable existence.
Except that he’s rescued by Dave, who adopts this unexpected but oddly colorful visitor. He gives Jerry a room in the poolside cabana, some loose-fitting, trendy clothing, a bit of spending money, and the keys to the car.
It’s not exactly charity, for Dave wants something. He figures that after years in the gutter, Jerry must have the answer to the meaning of life.
It’s fitting that Mazursky should turn to Renoir, for both filmmakers have made careers of exuding an affection for their characters even as they examine their many foibles.
And while Mazursky isn’t mean enough to be a true satirist, he here delivers a very funny movie about human foible and a world where wealth has brought not security but paranoia.
Jerry, a born con artist and opportunist, wastes no time in helping the Whitemans to shuck their bourgeoise hang-ups by seducing every woman in the household, massaging Dave’s chafed liberal conscience, and coaxing Max out of the closet.
He even finds a way to communicate with the troubled Matisse. (The dog is played by Mike, a Scottish border collie, and his performance is the best by a canine until Uggi the Jack Russell terrier’s in this year’s The Artist.)
Dreyfuss’ perennial boyishness (he still had it when this film was made in 1986) lends a bittersweet charm to the graying Dave, a man with more money than he needs and no friend to spend it with.
Midler is borderline brilliant as Barbara, walking a tightrope between pathos and caricature. She’s a seething bundle of neuroses and quirky mannerisms (when she waddles at full speed, her fingers flutter as if in a fruitless effort to get airborne) covering up a desperate need to be loved.
Curiously, Nolte’s Jerry remains an enigma.
In our first glimpse of him see seems unhappy enough and his attempt at suicide appears genuine.
But no sooner is he pulled from the drink by Dave than Jerry starts scheming to get all he can out of these clueless social climbers. But was that his intention all along?
Hard to say. Jerry has the ability to assume whatever identity others require from him.
To the nouveau riche Dave, Jerry is a walking study in sociology, reinforcing the notion that bums are bums because they want to be bums, not because of social injustice (which would obligate people like Dave to take action).
For Barbara, Jerry becomes a sexual shaman, spinning tales of years spent in an ashram that appeal to her spiritual yearnings.
But who is the real Jerry? That question Mazursky and Nolte never answer.
Other films in the series “Paul Mazursky: Love and Laughter”
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- April 7: Next Stop, Greenwich Village (1976) Rated R
- April 14: An Unmarried Woman (1978) Rated R
- April 21: Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986) Rated R
- April 28: Scenes from a Mall (1991) Rated R
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.