There's something about winter in the city. Everybody all dressed up. It reminds me of "War and Peace."
It was during Christmas break in 1969 that Whit Stillman discovered debutante parties. He was hating Harvard. His parents had divorced and his economic circumstances -- and his life -- had changed. He wasn't summering in Cape Cod anymore. There wasn't Dad's Cornwall-on-the-Hudson place for weekends. Just the year before, his last year at boarding school, he'd decided to change his politics too: "I developed," he says, "this sort of anachronistic, 19th-century socialist ideology."
Stuck in New York over the holidays in his mother's apartment, he despaired. He felt isolated and wasn't into parties, he says. He was used to wearing camouflage, not evening clothes. "Then some girls," he says, "needed extra escorts. I was somewhat needed. I got invited to a couple of parties. Then boom! I became part of this group. It was my salvation that year."
Stillman is the director of "Metropolitan," a bargain-basement study of the American upper class -- or, as he has tagged them, the Urban Haute Bourgeoisie -- opening today in Washington. It's about a Princeton freshman, Tom Townsend, who's stuck in New York over Christmas -- in his mother's apartment, on the dreaded west side of Central Park. He's invited to a deb party, and by the end of season he's no longer renting tails because he's purchased them. He also moves from reading Lionel Trilling's criticism of Jane Austen to actually reading her books. His year, it appears, might be saved.
It's Stillman's first film, after many years of poring over self-help filmmaking books and screenwriting how-tos. He wrote it. He produced it. He directed it.
He lived it.
"Well," he says, "people from this background are embarrassed by the movie and think it's finky -- being interested in it. When they see the film, they forget about that. People who feel very hostile to this world and this subject matter -- which is almost everyone -- have to get over that to enjoy it."
Finky? Several men come to mind at once. It's rather complicated. There's Pee-wee Herman and Anthony Perkins, then a splash of Claus von Bulow, played by Jeremy Irons, perhaps. A mole sits on John Whitney Stillman's 38-year-old cheek, and a cleft in his chin. He has black eyes, WASP nostrils and a fundamental quality of milkiness. It's easy, even while he sits there in his English penny loafers and rumpled glen plaid jacket, to imagine him in a powdered wig and lace cuffs. He's the kind of guy who stirs his coffee with that little stick for too long. He wipes dust off a table with a folded napkin. He once loved F. Scott Fitzgerald, but "you have to reject Fitzgerald eventually in terms of total vision," he says. For total vision, he looks to Jane Austen and his own manners.
"I enjoy," he says, "the rules."
Stillman has left the last button on his jacket sleeves unbuttoned. This is probably not because he wants to push up his sleeves, but more likely to prove that the buttonhole is an actual buttonhole. And this is very important. (Are you one of us or not?) His father's family came to Connecticut in the 1680s as "Puritan refugees," he says. He describes his mother's family in Philadelphia as having lost its money during the Depression and as "tangentially social."
"My parents were into this heavy political trip," he says. "They sort of came from this background, and yet they were very liberal and progressive -- and conservative -- like a package deal. They were liberal Democrats, Unitarians and everything. We went to Chilmark on the Vineyard, not Edgartown. There was lots of contempt and anger against social people. And yet, at the same time, it wasn't totally unexpected that I would go to some of these parties in New York."
When he became a socialist, he says, "I guess it was exploring my parents' ideals to their logical extremes in a direction."
More explanations: "I have no family money," he says. "None. Well," he pauses, "less than $2,000."
Big band music haunts his movie. It's like seeing light from a dead star. "The Last of the Mohicans" was the original title of "Metropolitan" (and the subtitle is still: "Doomed. Bourgeois. In love."). In the press kit, written by Stillman, it says: "There was the absence in American cinema of accurate portraits of the traditional upper class."
Dinosaurs? Too civilized? Are their manners too good? Has their act become as tiresome as "Brideshead" reruns and the English Country House Look?
Are they, as one character insists, doomed to failure?
No, says Stillman. "A lot of them really have gone off to the Amazon and done conservation stuff that is pretty heroic and gutsy," he says. "Wasn't it Michael Rockefeller who went off to New Guinea and disappeared?"
He doesn't feel sorry for these people he calls the UHBs -- in the movie and during the interview. "But I do think that there are certain things that disable -- or militate against -- easy success for these people, even though many of them end up having successful careers."
The locations in his movie are not accidental. The camera intrudes on the rites and rituals of young twits on the Upper East Side: picking out good party photos at Bachrach, renting white tie at A.T. Harris Formalwear, leg waxing at the Catherine Atzen beauty salon, puking in the men's room next to the St. Regis ballroom and Christmas Eve services at St. Thomas Episcopal Church on Fifth.
"I think the problem with this group," Stillman continues, "is that things seem so terrific when they're this age -- 17 or 18 -- that it's very easy to have high expectations and then it's hard. There's a lot of humiliation in work, and self-abasement. ... It's really the loss of face that's very hard for them.
"And there's a tendency to take a job that really isn't very significant, but sounds good -- sounded like an impressive or interesting thing to do -- even if you aren't really accomplishing anything. Publishing, foundation work, and any sort of conservation foundation, arts foundation ... and they all wind up selling real estate anyway."
Stillman worked in publishing in New York -- at Doubleday -- out of Harvard, and eventually took over his uncle's illustration agency. He works there still -- at Riley Illustration -- as do his sister and wife, who's from Barcelona. They live with their daughter in Manhattan.
As a boy he spent several years in Washington, during the Truman and Kennedy administrations. His father, John Sterling Stillman, would come for political appointments. From 1961 to '65, he lived in Georgetown.
"I went to a school called Potomac, across the river," he says. "I don't know why I didn't go to St. Albans. I met kids from St. Albans afterwards and they were really funny, eccentric people."
Not all of them.
"No. But Potomac was too sort of suburban Virginia," he says. "Too much of a shock."
Expectations. Girls in his movie rustle around in taffeta and Mother's perfectly matched 8-millimeter pearls. They say "ciao" for goodbye. They sound like Eleanor Roosevelt. They talk about their year in France. The family apartment has an elevator that opens into it.
The guys -- slick hair, hard lips, tortoise-shell glasses, throaty Eastern city voices -- have a couple of very simple costume changes: evening clothes (please don't say tuxedo) and, outside, chesterfields over evening clothes.
The camera intrudes on sitting room discussions: Is there a God?
Stillman has been criticized for being too kind to his people, his characters, his class.
"But that's supposed to be disguised," he says. "It's supposed to seem more distant than it actually is. ... The viewpoint appears to be ironical, a humorous view with some detachment. I think satire when it's hostile and cruel can be very funny, but you can lose things.
"I like," he says, "to like the people I'm approaching satirically. And a lot of the stuff in the film is really just my own attitudes of 15 or 20 years ago. And so it would be masochistic to be too brutal about it."
It's observed that there's no bigotry in his movie.
"One thing about New York," he says, "it has an open, inclusive mentality. Oddballs and outsiders were always swept up. It was very diverse ethnically and racially."
He shot "Metropolitan" in friends' town houses, and town houses of friends of friends. "I don't want to do people in black tie," he says now, "for the next 10 films."
It took him four years -- while holding a day job -- to write it. "And I procrastinated," he says, "by thinking of other things to do. Often, I'd write on nights and weekends, and sometimes my other job was so demanding that I couldn't work for months. Then I'd get a 10-day vacation, and that's when I was really going to write the script. And on the first Saturday morning of 10 days off, I'd get really excited and think of some different film idea, and spend the next nine days taking notes on my other idea.
"So, now I've got all these ideas for feature films."
Next, he's thinking about "doing a film in Barcelona," he says, perhaps having dumped Austen for Hemingway, "about Americans in Europe."