“Burlesque,” the new romantic musical drama featuring Cher and Christina Aguilera, is a labor of love for the film’s passionate writer and director, Steve Antin.
On the phone from Los Angeles, Antin explains what prompted him to create this film, about a young girl named Ali (Aguilera), who goes to Los Angeles in search of her dreams and finds work in a failing burlesque lounge run by Tess (Cher).
“I love song and dance entertainment, and feel-good movies,” Antin says enthusiastically. “The original world of burlesque lends itself to a musical feature because of the nature of it — it’s a pastiche of original entertainment, a homage taken from the popular/current zeitgeist of the time.”
The filmmaker becomes more animated as he describes “Burlesque” further: “It’s a throwback to the musicals of the Hollywood era, a Broadway musical come to life, a fun, sexy movie that appeals to mass culture. The original form was from 1700s Europe. I wanted to make a film like that, with a real linear thread that connects back to what Burlesque originally was.”
Antin’s own career started in front of the camera as an actor when he was 9. He achieved considerable exposure in the 1982 teen sex comedy “The Last American Virgin,” where his character engaged in a penis-measuring contest, lost his virginity and got a case of crabs. A few years later, he had a supporting part in the 1985 cult favorite “The Goonies,” which featured a scene in which his bullying character gets his come-uppance on an exploding commode. These comedies were perhaps a bit of burlesque themselves — broadly humorous and grotesquely exaggerated, but commercially appealing.
Then Antin took what became one of his most notorious roles, as one of Jodie Foster’s rapists in 1988’s “The Accused.”
Looking back on these early projects, Antin admits with candor that he often took parts to keep working.
“I didn’t know how to do anything else, and it seemed natural for me to [act]. I never became a movie star. I went from job to job to job. I didn’t have the luxury to say, ‘I want to do this,’ or ‘I don’t want to do that,’ I took what came my way.”
Now that he is working behind the camera, does the actor have regrets about what he once had to do on screen?
“It’s hard to do movies where you have no clothes on, or where you are playing a rapist, but I was an actor and I had a job to do. I enjoyed the roles, and I was fortunate I was working. I was young and I didn’t think about it.”
He admits in retrospect that he might have turned down some of these parts, but says each job provided him with experience he used to develop as both a writer and director.
“I learned how to dialogue and interact with actors. I learned from [some] directors who were really incredible and taught me communication. That informed so much of what I do as a director. The process of exploring a character and what happens when you are creating a scene or a dynamic in a movie. I love the process. I revel in it!”
Given that his first theatrically released film has what some are calling a “comeback” role for Cher, was Antin intimidated about directing her? How does one even tell Cher what to do?
The filmmaker laughs, explaining, “That’s not the case — telling [Cher] what to do. ‘Directing’ her is collaborating, and getting the actor to a place that is going to work on film and deliver what you need to be a storyteller. Of course it was intimidating and daunting, but I’ve been making movies for a really long time and I saw the human element.”
He adds: “It wasn’t the icon of Cher or Christina — they were actors and I respected them and developed relationships with them. I was always reminded [of who they are] when Cher did her solo or Christina sang. I was in awe behind the camera.”
Hopefully audiences will be enthralled by “Burlesque” in the same way fans appreciated a musical like “Moulin Rouge.” Antin is hardly worried about his film becoming a camp classic of “Showgirls” proportions — “not even a little bit. My film is different than ‘Showgirls.’ It’s an inspirational fun-filled fantasy.”
The filmmaker likens the pastiche of song-and-dance romance of “Burlesque” to mixing up the food on his plate or varying the clothes on his back.
“I put a little current music, some throwback music, and a little hip-hop into ‘Burlesque.’ The music really represents that old-meets-new-meets-somewhere-in-between. The costumes are period but with contemporary shoes; the make-up is contemporary with period hairstyles.”
Antin admits he has wanted to make a musical for “a really long time.” He mentions that one project he penned 10 years ago, entitled “Proud Mary,” was in the vein of “Glee.” Before he started writing “Burlesque” — which Antin reveals he did “on spec” (meaning: for free; the project wasn’t commissioned by a studio) — he wrote a musical for Disney about a high-school marching band. Happily for Antin, both the Disney film and “Burlesque” were greenlit the same week. He chose to make “Burlesque,” indicating the obvious appeal of the project.
The hope is that “Burlesque” will make Antin’s name in Hollywood. The filmmaker has written several movies and TV shows over the years with varying results.
He created and produced a TV series on the then-WB Network entitled “Young Americans” in 2000. The show did well with critics and in the ratings, but it was a “summer series,” and only scheduled for nine episodes.
In contrast, Antin’s two studio screenplays — the 1999 remake of “Gloria” starring Sharon Stone and the 2003 Latino comedy “Chasing Papi” — were less than successful critically and commercially. The writer acknowledges that what he pitched to the studio in both cases was far different than what ended up on screen.
He laments, “A director was put on [both projects] and each took on a whole other life.” The experience prompted Antin to make a rule to either direct what he writes or direct a project someone else writes. “There are some great projects out there.”
One wonders what might have been if Antin had directed his screenwriting debut, the 1992 indie comedy, “Inside Monkey Zetterland,” in which he played a screenwriter in therapy, juggling an assortment of wacky family members, friends and romantic relationships. The film received mixed reviews from critics, but featured a notable ensemble cast. Significantly, “Zetterland” co-starred several queer actors and characters, including Rupert Everett and Sandra Bernhard, while actresses Patricia Arquette and Sofia Coppola played a lesbian couple.
In fact, Antin has made several films with queer characters and cast members, from the aforementioned “The Accused” to appearing in Sandra Bernhard’s “Without You, I’m Nothing,” and the 1996 HIV drama “It’s My Party.” “Burlesque” features out actor Alan Cumming in a supporting role. Yet Antin is adamant that an actor’s sexuality or a film or TV show’s queer content is not a criteria for his involvement.
“I don’t see people for their sexuality. I connect with people and their humanity. I grew up in a liberal family, and have people from all walks of life in my life. I’ve done projects where sexuality had nothing to do with the characters.” He cites two examples: his role as Nick Savino, a homicide detective on “NYPD Blue” and his ACE Award-nominated performance as a rescued soldier in “Vietnam War Story: The Last Days.”
This subject of sexuality prompts a discussion of Antin’s personal life, a topic that makes him cagey. When asked if being out has influenced or changed his career, Antin offers, “It didn’t change my career. I never officially came out, or did not come out, or had a discussion of my personal life or sexuality. I feel it’s irrelevant. I respect people who do [come out] but I live in a rarified world. It doesn’t seem to matter much in the world I travel in what your sexuality is, or what your skin color is.”
When pressed about being linked romantically in the past to media mogul David Geffen, Antin offers only, “It was a lifetime ago.”
He vaguely responds about his current relationship status to being involved with “a lot of people,” repeating, “I feel like my personal life is so irrelevant. There are people who have an appetite for this [personal information], but I’m not interested in reading this about people. I’m not sure why people are interested in reading it about me. What’s interesting about me is that I’m a filmmaker focused on my work. I love making movies, and telling stories and making 500 people in a theater laugh or cry. I have great relationships, a beautiful family and people who are incredibly supportive.”
With “Burlesque,” Antin will hopefully continue to receive support and have opportunities to continue making films. He certainly has many more stories to tell.