Spanish Acquisition

"My wife and I were in Barcelona when Basic Instinct came out," he recalls. "All those people who decry America's vulgar culture lined up around the block to see it. If you say, 'What about Jim Jarmusch?' or 'What about Nancy Savoca?' they say those are exceptions, those aren't truly American filmmakers. It's a joke, really."

Critics with a political agenda of their own have been known to take Stillman to task for his old-fashioned view of the world and for being an apologist for the young, rich, and beautiful (as if they needed one).

"Movies should be better than real life," he theorizes. "You pay for entertainment and you deserve to be entertained. The dialogue should be a little bit snappier, the actors and actresses slightly better-dressed and better-looking, the scenery a little prettier, than real life. It should be a pleasant experience."

Both Barcelona and Stillman's first major film, Metropolitan, fit that description to a T. (As does the recent non-Stillman sleeper hit of 1994, Four Weddings and a Funeral. The overwhelming popularity of that literate romantic comedy bodes well for Barcelona at the box office.) Nearly all major characters are young, attractive, and smart. Taylor Nichols and Chris Eigeman, the promising, idiosyncratic, and immensely likable (despite their quirks) young actors who made their big-screen debuts in Met, play Ted and Fred, respectively. Even Aurora, Ted's "plain" girlfriend in Barcelona, is a looker. No one worries where their next meal is coming from.

Metropolitan chronicled the communal doings of a clan of Upper East Side Manhattan debutantes and preppies; Barcelona tracks Ted's and Fred's romantic and political awakenings. A pair of cleaner-cut, better-spoken, drug-freer young Americans you'd be hard-pressed to find this side of a young Republicans convention. Fred's biggest worry is that he's "been shaving the wrong direction my whole life. I could have taught my son to shave the wrong way."

With his boyish good looks, Ivy League vocal inflection, and preppie wardrobe -- forest-green sweater over pink cotton shirt, beige slacks, maroon loafers A the director easily could play one of his characters on-screen. The tendency, then, is to assume Stillman has led a life of privilege, like Metropolitan's debs and preps. The truth is closer to that film's middle-class protagonist, who, like Stillman in his youth, was conscripted into deb society because of an acute male-escort shortage. ("Every man should be so lucky," he says with a grin. "It's a fantastic position to be in A to be sought after by women. Enlightening.")

After graduating from Harvard in the late Seventies Stillman took a job at Doubleday, where he rotated between the sales and editorial departments. He met his wife, who hails from Barcelona, in New York City, and they went to Spain to get married. Stillman returned to the U.S. as the worldwide marketing representative for a group of Spanish moviemakers (Academy Award-winning Belle epoque's Fernando Trueba among them). "Our company was called Stillman International," the director recalls. "I was Stillman. My wife was International." The company was a money-loser, but it afforded Stillman the opportunity to make the leap into cinema as a career.

With financial assistance from his mother, Stillman bought and sold an apartment in New York for a profit. ("My credit rating with my mother is excellent," he laughs.) That capital gain became the seed money for Metropolitan. Stillman pieced together the balance of the film's remarkably low $210,000 budget from the pockets of friends and relatives. The film went on to earn millions at the box office and to garner an Academy Award nomination for best original screenplay (losing out to the immensely inferior sentimental favorite, Ghost). Suddenly mom's little credit risk was a big-time professional filmmaker.

And suddenly there's a whole new type of movie on the American cinematic landscape: the Whit Stillman film. Remember the name.

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