Show: FRESH AIR
Date: MAY 28, 1999
Head: Tamara Jenkins
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
The movie, "The Slums of Beverly Hills" has just come out on video. On this archive edition we have an interview with the writer and director of the film, Tamara Jenkins. "Slums of Beverly Hills" is set in the '70's. Vivian Abramowitz, her father, and two brothers, have come to Los Angeles in search of the good life.
Unfortunately, they don't have enough money for the good life. The father wants to at least live in a good zip code to enable the kids to go to good schools. So they live in Beverly Hills' cheap apartments, with fancy names like "Casa Bella" and "The Beverly Capri."
As the film opens, the father, played by Alan Arkin, can't even pay the month's rent on their dumpy apartment. He makes a quick getaway from the landlord by rounding up the kids, getting them in the car and taking off. And the prepare to move to a new dump.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- SCENE FROM THE FILM "THE SLUMS OF BEVERLY HILLS")
NATASHA LEONE, ACTRESS: I'm sick of moving. Why can't we ever stay put? It's not normal to move every three months.
ALAN ARKIN, ACTOR: It's normal in some cultures. Nomads -- they move.
LEONE: Stupid, Ben, we're not nomads. We're Americans. So where's our new apartment this time?
ARKIN: We're staying in Beverly Hills. It's just too early to show up is all. We want to make a good impression. We want to show up at leisurely hour. We don't want to look like we just got kicked out of someplace else like bums.
LEONE: We didn't get kicked out of someplace else like bums. We made a getaway like crooks.
ARKIN: What did you say?
ARKIN: We made a choice. We moved, like people. That place was a (EXPLETIVE DELETED) at those prices -- highway robbery.
ARKIN: OK. Who's hungry?
ARKIN: What do you say we get some steak? Let's get some steak for breakfast.
LEONE: Isn't it a little early for steak?
ARKIN: No, it'll be fun. We'll eat. We'll get our strength up, then we'll move into our new place. What do you say?
ARKIN: OK. Let's go to Sizzler.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
GROSS: That was Natasha Leone as Vivian Abramowitz. The character comes out of the life of the film's writer and director Tamara Jenkins. She made the film with the help of the Sundance Institute Screenwriting and Filmmakers Lab and Robert Redford, the film's executive producer.
I spoke with Jenkins last summer when the film was released theatrically, and she told me that when she was young her family had to move a lot because of money trouble.
TAMARA JENKINS, WRITER-DIRECTOR, "THE SLUMS OF BEVERLY HILLS": We were economically disabled, I guess is a good word.
GROSS: How'd you get that way?
JENKINS: He -- my dad had a -- he was a car salesman and I -- well, he was selling American cars -- huge American Fords in 1976. So they weren't really selling so well at the time. There was a big gas problem and no one was interested in buying those big American cars. That was one sort of issue. And he was an elderly man, bringing up this family of kids. And he, in real life -- which isn't really explored in the movie, except in a sort of like quick way -- he had a gambling problem. We spent a lot of time at the track and Hollywood Park and Del Mar and Las Vegas.
GROSS: What did you think of Las Vegas as a kid?
JENKINS: Well, there's this place in Las Vegas which -- I don't even know if it exists anymore -- but when we were growing up there was a, you know, casino-hotel complex called "Circus Circus." They had trapeze artists and stuff suspended above your head and falling into nets. And that was happening above the casino floor.
And what they did to sort of entertain the children of compulsive gamblers was they had an arcade of, you know, games. You know, it was sort of like learning how to become a compulsive gambler, where you would like line up and play, you know, various arcade games, you know, "pinbally" kind of things or the sort of things that you'd see at a, you know, on a boardwalk fairway.
And so, you know, and you play for sort of chips. So I guess it's kind of training for, you know, compulsive gambling.
GROSS: Did you like being there?
JENKINS: No. It was a very -- I don't know. It was always sort of surreal place to be. I mean, it was -- I don't think I had the sort of awareness that it wasn't the right place for kids to be hanging out, sort of around, you know, casinos. It was something that was pretty familiar to me. So I don't -- I mean, I certainly haven't gone back to visit as a grownup.
GROSS: In the movie "The Slums of Beverly Hills" the father wants the kids to have a Beverly Hills zip code so they can go to good public schools. So he just keeps bringing them to the cheapest places he can find within that zip code. So did you end up going to Beverly Hills schools?
JENKINS: I did.
GROSS: Were you the only ...
JENKINS: I confess.
GROSS: ... were you like one of the few people of your economic class in the schools you went to?
JENKINS: There was a sort of a subculture of people that lived there that were poor, and particularly then -- I mean, not maybe as poor or different kinds of poor -- but there was a kind of -- there was a lot of divorce -- the divorce decade. There was tons of divorced people around that period of time. There was this street across the street -- we lived at one point on the street called Arnaz Drive in Beverly Hills, and the nickname of it was "Divorce Drive" 'cause all the kids on the street, you know, the parents -- they -- broken homes, or whatever.
And as a grownup, I thought it was kind of like if there was a Dickens in Beverly Hills, it would be on Arnaz Drive, because there were just all these kind of dirty kids running around unsupervised and hanging out on the street. And there seemed to be this whole group of people like that. I mean, we weren't the only ones, but there were, you know, there seemed to be this whole sort of divorce fallout and a lot of them, you know, there was like a little culture of poor people, or sort of struggling people -- people that you wouldn't expect to be in Beverly Hills that were living there.
GROSS: Anyone seeing your movie "The Slums of Beverly Hills" will want to hear what your experience was shopping for your first bra.
In the movie, at the age of 15, the main character is taken by her father to shop for her first bra, and he just keeps saying all kinds of incredibly embarrassing things during this already-embarrassing experience. And by the time her father takes her for the first bra, she is a size C -- she's a C-cup. So this has been something that should have been done quite a while ago.
So what was your first experience?
JENKINS: Well, I'm sort of verging on a C-cup. I think I should tell you that Terry 'cause we're not in the same room. But I -- I think that, in the case with my father, I had had a phys-ed teacher tell me that it was time to, you know, to get these -- to get harnessed. And I -- she gave me some sort of note. And I had been sort of hiding them, you know. I do recall kind of you know submitting this note to my father after school, and him, you know, like grabbing me and throwing me into the car as if he was dragging me off to the emergency room, you know.
GROSS: And what was the experience like when you got to the -- did he take you to a department store or to ...
JENKINS: ... he took me to a department store -- to a lingerie section of a department store. Actually, when -- and you know, looked for a saleslady to sort of do the dirty work. I mean, he wasn't, you know, riffling through piles of bras or anything.
That was in the days that you could smoke in department stores. And I remember him kind of like drifting off through those, you know, those little circle displays of bras and stuff, and kind of drifting off to this -- by the elevators where there were those ashtrays that connected to the walls, and smoking and waiting for me to become finished.
But he did sort of have to introduce me and I think that he felt like it was awkward eventually, and drifted off to the ashtray where it was safe.
GROSS: Natasha Leone plays the part of the 15-year-old girl who's at the center of "The Slums of Beverly Hills." And this character is loosely based on you when you were that age. So what was it like to work with an actress who's more or less playing you? And you're directing her. You've written the part for her.
JENKINS: Well, I -- I mean she is a sort alter-ego character, but she's a much more idealized version than -- of, you know, myself than I am. I mean, she's much more aware and conscious and truly a fictional creature. And you know, I was really, when I met -- I auditioned a lot of girls for the role and really fell for her when I met her.
And I guess the thing that was the most attractive to me about her was that she was an unfinished person, you know, in the best way; whereas, a lot of the actresses I was int
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