Two screwball comedies by the late gay writer/director Paul Bartel will be reissued on DVD and Blu-Ray June 30. Both have their charms.
“Not for Publication,” Bartel’s quaint effort from 1984, stars Lois Thornedyke (Nancy Allen) as an assistant to Mayor Franklyn’s (Laurence Luckinbill) reelection campaign in New York City. However, Lois also moonlights as a reporter for the “New York Informer,” a sleazy tabloid that runs stories with headlines such as “Hitler’s Baby Raised by Wasps!”
As the film opens, Lois is interviewing a theatrical producer/pimp as women in tiger outfits wielding guns are chasing him. It’s enough for her photographer to quit. Enter birdwatcher Barry Denver (David Naughton) who takes a job accompanying Lois on her nightly outings, which includes attending a masked orgy in animal costumes (Mayor Franklyn is supposed to be a guest). The pair perform a cute song-and-dance routine before inadvertently stumbling on a ring of thieves who have been ransacking the city. They even join the bandits to get a scoop.
“Not for Publication” offers mild pleasures, never getting too risqué as the silly plot unfolds. Lois is plucky but innocent, and her potential romance with Barry is sweet. The film, however, does not build much suspense as the various plots converge in predictable ways. If the scenarios are more clever than convincing, Bartel fleshes out his film with offbeat supporting characters from Odo (Cork Hubbert), Lois’s faithful driver, to Troppogrosso (Richard Paul), her slovenly editor, to Barry’s mother, Doris (Alice Ghostley), who communicates with the dead.
This is a modest film that asks viewers to suspend disbelief and just go along with the shenanigans, from Odo ferrying Lois around in a milk truck to Barry getting piloting advice from the spirit of Amelia Earhart via his mother during a wacky airplane ride.
Curiously, “Not for Publication” closes with what may be described as a cynical happy ending, showing Bartel’s sly sense of humor.
Five year later, Bartel made arguably his best film, the comic romp, “Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills.” Actress Clare Lipkin (Jaqueline Bisset) is a widow preparing a wake for her late husband, Sidney (Paul Mazursky). Clare’s next-door neighbor, Lisabeth (Mary Woronov), a divorcee, is spending the weekend with Clare while her house is being exterminated all of things pertaining to her ex-husband, Howard (Wallace Shawn). Also staying over at Clare’s are Lisabeth’s brother, Peter (Ed Begley Jr.) and his new wife, To-Bel (Arnetia Walker).
Meanwhile, Claire’s domestic worker, Juan (Robert Beltran), and Lisbeth’s bisexual chauffeur, Frank (Ray Sharkey), bet on who can seduce the other’s boss. If Juan wins, Frank will give Juan the money he needs to pay off a loan shark; if Frank beds Clare first, he gets to have sex with Juan.
“Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills” soon becomes a bedroom farce as Howard shows up and various characters couple up. As Juan tries to seduce Lisabeth, Peter — not Frank — ends up sleeping with Clare. To-Bel has sex with several people in the house, including her cancer-stricken nephew, Willie (Barret Oliver). It’s all very amusing with doors slamming and high strung people sneaking around trying not to get caught doing something inappropriate. A brunch Clare hosts for a journalist — in the hope she can launch a comeback — is a comic highlight as secrets are revealed and truths are told.
But what makes Bartel’s film so delicious is the deadpan dialogue. There are some very funny one-liners — out musician Michael Feinstein has a great one in his only scene. There are also some entertaining bits of physical humor. A knock-down, drag-out fight between Peter and To-Bel is over the top and hilarious. Likewise, Clare’s maid, Rosa (Edith Diaz), peppers her speech with talk about jaguars and the Aztec serpent-deity Quetzalcoatl, which is very funny.
The structure of the film is also clever. There are scenes that play like a soap opera that turn out to be dreams. Lines of dialogue from Peter’s play, titled “Nocturnal Admissions,” are misunderstood, repeated, and mangled. And Clare keeps envisioning the late Sidney, who tries to woo her.
Much of the humor is based on characters saying offensive things but with a twist that almost excuses them. One of the best examples is when Dr. Mo Van De Kamp (Bartel), Clare’s “thinologist,” talks with To-Bel. Arnetia Walker’s eyes and expressions at what she is hearing are comic gold.
Walker is the film’s standout, but Bartel coaxes strong performances from his entire ensemble cast. Jacqueline Bisset nicely plays a scene where she’s more interested in a chocolate cake than Frank’s smooth talk, and Robert Beltran and Mary Woronov (who co-starred in Bartel’s “Eating Raoul” in 1982) have a wonderful chemistry together.
“Scenes” features some minor queer content, but it was one of Bartel’s gayest films. These two comedies are memorable examples of his madcap sensibility.