Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills (1989)


USA. 1989.


Director – Paul Bartel, Screenplay – Bruce Wagner, Story – Paul Bartel & Bruce Wagner, Producers – James C. Katz, Photography – Steven Fierberg, Music – Stanley Myers, Special Effects – Players Special Effects (Supervisors – Kevin & Sandra McCarthy), Production Design – Alex Tavoularis. Production Company – North Street Films


Jacqueline Bisset (Clare Lipkin), Mary Woronov (Lisabeth Hepburn-Sevarian), Robert Beltran (Juan), Ray Sharkey (Frank), Ed Begley Jr (Peter Hepburn), Arnetia Walker (To-Bel Hepburn), Wallace Shawn (Howard Sevarian), Barret Oliver (Willie Hepburn), Paul Bartel (Mo Venderkamp), Rebecca Schaeffer (Zandra Lipkin), Paul Mazursky (Sidney Lipkin), Edith Diaz (Rosa)


Wealthy Beverly Hills actress Clare Lipkin receives visits from the ghost of her late husband. Clare’s neighbour Lisabeth Hepburn-Sevanian moves into Clare’s place for several days while her own house is being fumigated. They are joined by Lisabeth’s brother Peter, a not very successful playwright, his wife-to-be To-Bel, whom he only met a few days ago, and Lisabeth’s estranged husband Howard. The house becomes a hotbed where everybody seems to desire somebody other than their partner. Amidst this, Clare and Lisabth’s manservants make a bet with one another who can seduce the other’s boss first. Next, it is discovered that To-Bel had a former career as a porn star.

Paul Bartel was mostly known as an actor and appeared in a number of films, particularly for Roger Corman. Bartel also made a number of films as a director where he developed a reputation for taking delight in treading into taboo areas. He made a name with such wacky and perverse low-budget films as Private Parts (1972) and Death Race 2000 (1975) before his breakthrough with the black comedy Eating Raoul (1982) about a middle-class couple killing swingers. However, the films he made after that up until his death in 2000 – Not for Publication (1984), Lust in the Dust (1985), The Longshot (1986), Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills and Shelf Life (1996) – only weakly retraced old ground and failed to confirm Bartel’s promise as a satirist of the perverse. At most, his latter-day films seem shot through with only a schoolboyish giggliness rather than any satiric sophistication.

One can see what Bartel was trying to do with Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills – it reads like a scabrous upper-class take on The Big Chill (1983). However, the film’s sexual rondeau seems insipid, with most of the cast playing to shrill excess – Ed Begley Jr, Wallace Shawn and Edith Diaz being the worst offenders – although they no doubt take their lead from Bartel’s own performance. Frequent Bartel collaborator Mary Woronov plays with some class. The best performance comes from the late Ray Sharkey – Sharkey died from AIDS in 1993 and the role here of a devil-may-care bisexual seducer seems to be, if the tabloids can be believed, a mirroring of the real-life Sharkey.

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