Stillman, Whit: Director Profile

Ivy League Intellectualism

Whit Stillman has written, produced and directed three films: Metropolitan, Barcelona, and The Last Days of Disco, all ensemble pieces with large number of characters. Notable for their Ivy League intellectualism, all three are about a rarified type, the privileged upper class members who marginalized themselves through self-involvement. Stillman makes cerebral comedies, in which relentlessly verbal characters are expressed in and by ideas, and are engaged in circular talk peppered with self mockery.

Like Hal Hartley, Stillman has developed a stylized dialogue–there's a distinct, unnatural cadence to the talk. Also like Hartley, he has situated his films at the intersection of politics and culture, flaunting a strong authorial voice in depicting issues of career and love. Stillman burst onto the indie scene in 1990 with Metropolitan, a romantic comedy about young Manhattan debutantes in elegant Park Avenue apartments.


Metropolitan boasts a Preston Sturges sensibility, in sharp contrast to the quirky and offbeat indie movies of the Coen brothers and Jim Jarmusch, then in high vogue. As Andrew Sarris pointed put, Stillman emerged as an American Eric Rohmer, making intelligent, dialogue-driven films. Like Rohmer, Stillman's work depends on language, with humor submerged in the text and played deadpan by the actors. But unlike Rohmer, Stillman doesn't short-change the men as the veteran Frenchman does in his female-themed morality tales.

The fast speech and satirical wit betray Stillman's Harvard education: Metropolitan makes explicit references to Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, Lionel Trilling's critique of Austen, and Luis Bunuel's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. In describing his work, Stillman uses the word novelistic rather than literary, because “literary is a way of treating the material, while novelistic implies that the story is somehow bigger than the vessel you're putting it into, that there's more of a world there than you're showing.”

The vignettes describing the debutante scene in the holiday season convey the poignancy of the movie's two levels, the personal and the political. The sense of decline and fall is disguised as a running joke about under-achievers in the upper class, but Metropolitan never loses its sense of anthropological curiosity about preppies as an endangered species. The WASPish enclaves prevail in the lobbies and ballrooms of the Plaza and St. Regis hotels, in the Protestant cathedrals of the Upper East Side, and in Sally Fowler's lush apartment. They are an anachronism in a city filled with immigrants and outsiders of every race, nationality and class. Privileged as they are, the characters are presented from the inside, without indulging in the class-bashing that is the norm in most Hollywood movies about the rich and famous.

Charlie Black (Taylor Nichols), who talks social theory and is given to sweeping generalizations, is convinced that his class is doomed. An overly philosophical but romantically frustrated nerd, he's contrasted with Nick Smith (Christopher Eigeman), the self-confident dandy. For dramatic tension, the main character is an outsider-preppie, Tom Townsend (Edward Clements), who lives on the Upper West Side with his divorced mother. Though Tom doesn't approve of the ethos of the clique, he doesn't hesitate to join it when he's unexpectedly asked to. Tom goes back on his principles, but avoiding judgment, Stillman treats him with compassion.

Instead of accepting the love of Audrey (Carolyn Farina), a clear-eyed girl with whom he is intellectually compatible, Tom has a crush on the bubble-headed and flirtatious Selena–until it's almost too late. Stillman shows empathy for Audrey's vulnerability in a scene in which she stands abandoned in a ballroom, a scene that recalls Katharine Hepburn's isolation in a public ball in Alice Adams. The idealism of Tom and Audrey is juxtaposed with the banality and disenchantment of Cynthia and Rick Von Sloneker.

As a comedy about young socialites' growing pains, Metropolitan came right out of Stillman's own experience. Stillman spent many tuxedoed nights on velvet furniture with billowy dressed, white gloved women, talking about sociology, literature, and romance. “The subject for the film just fell into my lap,” said Stillman, whose film career came after years in publishing, journalism and film distribution. “I tried writing about that world in college, trying to be F. Scott Fitzgerald, but it never worked. I was too close to the material.”

With time and distance, Stillman was ready to approach the subject again: “For 10 years, I was totally estranged and not involved in that scene, so I could go back to it with a humorous take. Stillman treats the material ironically, make fun of the obsessions of those years, obsessions that involved being lost in the world of Fitzgerald novels, the sociological theories of Charles Fourier, the daydreams of charming socialites.

The movie is autobiographical: In Metropolitan, Tom is smitten, just as Stillman was. And like Stillman, Tom could play both sides, when it came to the debutante set. Though Stillman's family took part in the socialite scene, they were hostile to it, partly because his father was a lawyer with the Kennedy Administration. A socialist thinker with one tuxedo, one raincoat and divorced parents, Stillman was at once an outsider and an insider. He decided to spread himself around the other characters: Audrey, the naive heroine; Nick, the aggressive fast-talker; Charlie, preoccupied with his doomed class.

The movie's original tag line was: “Doomed. Bourgeois. In Love.” Considered too depressing for a comedy, however, it was changed to “a story of the downwardly mobile.” But the film is instilled with a subtext of failure. Stillman's even invented a acronym, UHB, which stands for Urban Haute Bourgeoisie. A UHBie is not a preppie or a WASP, but a member of a group that because of its specific status has nowhere to go but down. Again, the concept reflects Stillman's experience: “Before the film, I wasn't a terrible failure, but I was succeeding OK at something I had no identification with at all.”

Stillman made Metropolitan for $230,000 by cajoling friends and relatives to invest money, and shooting in borrowed apartments. Conditions were very different for his second feature, Barcelona, whose $4 million budget was entirely financed by Castle Rock. The film was shot in the exotic, cosmopolitan Barcelona, with its broad boulevards, imposing plazas, and the wildly eccentric architecture featuring prominently in the narrative.


Jokingly described as “Metropolitan meets Where the Boys Are meets Year of Living Dangerously,” Barcelona is a darker, more acidic comedy than Metropolitan, given the terrorist element in the story. Set in the early 1980s, it's a tale of two Americans, one a businessman, the other a naval lieutenant, during the end of the Cold War. The duo must make moral choices about love and career, against a backdrop of anti-Americanism and terrorists attack.

As in Metropolitan, Stillman constructs characters not particularly likable so that he can humanize them. Ted (Taylor Nichols) is an American sales executive, and Fred (Chris Eigeman), a lieutenant with the Sixth Fleet. They are extensions of the men in Metropolitan: Ted is given to odd theories that fail the test of reality. And recalling Metropolitan's sharp-tongued Nick, Fred tends to spin extravagantly false yarns, hoping their audacity alone will convince others.

The Last Days of Disco

Last Days of Disco (1997), the last and feeblest in the triptych, loosely connects Metropolitan and Barcelona. Its young characters use the disco as they would use any other salon; for Stillman, discos were “civilized environments.” This is one of the picture's problems: The ambience is wrong, failing to convey the passion, the erotic heat, the decadence that characterized discos as temples. At film's end, when the characters suddenly realize disco is dead, the viewers get the feeling that they never understood what disco was about, what it meant for their lives, in the first place.

Chris Eigeman, Stillman's favorite actor, who moves from picture to picture, articulates the director's voice. Nick, Eigeman's character in Metropolitan, becomes Fred in Barcelona, and then Des in Last Days of Disco. Representing the darker side of the more naive and idealistic characters, in each film he is both noxious and knowing, arrogant yet self-critical.

Ensemble driven as they are, each Stillman film has an emotional center. The Eigeman character disappeared from Metropolitan too soon, and in Barcelona his character was in coma for a whole act. As if to correct these mistakes, in Last Days of Disco, Stillman didn't want to put Eigeman's Des out of action, and he also created a female Eigeman character in Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale). Charlotte and Des are strong characters, present in the story from beginning to end.

Only in the last reel does the tale switch to the two “nice” ingenues, Josh (Matthew Keesler) and Alice (Chloe Sevigny), with the latter serving the function that Audrey was meant to serve in Metropolitan, except Audrey was more sympathetic. Initially, Stillman tried to tell Metropolitan from Audrey's point of view, but he was more committed to Tom, so it became his film.

Each film in the trilogy is set against a backdrop of change–the decline of the UHBs in Metropolitan, the anti-Americanism of post-Franco Spain in Barcelona, and least pointedly, the end of disco in Last Days of Disco. Stillman's consistent theme is decline–his stories are situated in a crucial historical moment when things begin to fade. This bitter-sweet poignancy, which lends strong dramatic structure to his work, comes from Stillman's own experience of “hooking onto things and getting to like them just as they're going out of fashion.”