When I wrote my first blog piece two years ago, I included Troop Beverly Hills (1989) among my guilty pleasures from the 1980s. Of course, my favorite of that bunch was and still is American Dreamer, a delightful mix of comedy, romance, and intrigue starring Jobeth Williams (fresh from 1983 Best Picture nominee The Big Chill) and Tom Conti (fresh from his Best Actor nomination for 1983’s Reuben, Reuben); the delightful duo cavort against a French backdrop while at least one of them models plenty of 80’s high fashion. I think it was Guy Flatley, writing in Cosmopolitan, who boldly proclaimed that if Oscars were awarded simply by the amount of fun performers seemed to be having onscreen, Williams would be a prime candidate. Exactly. (If it wasn’t Flatley, then it was surely Liz Smith during her stint as a Cosmo critic.)
I think the same can be said about Shelley Long as Phyllis Nefler in Troop Beverly Hills. I had a chance not so long ago, well relatively, to catch up with the flick among friends, and it did not disappoint. The comedy about a ridiculously pampered–self-absorbed–Beverly Hills mom trying to navigate a tricky divorce while acting as her daughter’s “Wilderness Girls” leader is by no means an irrefutably great movie designed to garner awards and last a lifetime, nor does it serve up one belly laugh after another though it is consistently amusing. Simply put, it’s a fun movie. No more, no less–and Long is a hell of a lot of fun in it. (Retroactive Golden Globe or American Comedy Award nod for Long, anyone? Anyone?)
There is something incredibly pleasing, even joyful, in watching Shelley Long play a woman who, more often than not, takes great delight in simply being who she is: a well-meaning busybody who fills her days spending lots of time and money on outrageous fashions and jewelry along with expensive beauty and hair treatments. Her enthusiasm, with accompanying self-satisfied squeals of euphoria, is infectious. On the other hand, she also has a history of starting all kinds of egalitarian projects with little or no follow-through. Her decision to sponsor her daughter Hannah’s scout troop is a chance to bond with the girl and to redeem herself in her ex’s eyes.
What makes Long so special? Well, she has a lightness about her as though she somehow floats through her scenes. Plus, she has some of the most precise diction of any actress in the whole history of movies. It’s funny how accustomed we’ve become to performers who pummel through their dialogue, all the while wasting vowels and dropping consonants. Not Long. Her vowels are ripe with fullness, and she hits her consonants with crisp precision. Listen closely to her exquisite delivery of a late night horror story shared around a mock campfire at a mock campout–in a jungle motif bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel, no less. So, there’s that, of course, but Long also boasts savvy timing and a flair for physical comedy. Additionally, she’s a nimble dancer, and she’s quick with a double take. (Btw: Yes, “The Freddie” is a real dance; see the clip at the end of this article.) Plus, she has a cute figure and knows how to handle the over-the-top costumes dreamed up by no less than the great Theadora Van Runkle–the Oscar nominated designer of the groundbreaking–and oft imitated–Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Oh, and look at the gloriously regal neck. Exquisite. Perhaps the most amazing thing about Long’s performance as Phyllis Nefler is that she really does invest a lot of heart into the character, and that, along with so much joy, saves Mrs. Nefler from being a shrill caricature, a one-dimensional representation of a shallow, pretentious, nouveau riche simpleton. There are plenty of reasons to not like Phyllis Nefler, and one very good one to give her the benefit of the doubt, and that’s Long.
Oh, and this isn’t a one woman show. No, part of the fun of the movie is the appealing cast. Long’s estranged lug of a husband is played by the great Craig T. Nelson, who at the time of the film’s release was just beginning his lengthy–and Emmy winning–run as ABC TV’s Coach, that is, after enjoying immense popularity as the dad in the Poltergeist movies. Nelson’s Fred Nefler is a thankless role, but the actor is a good sport and provides a winning dash of goofiness. Nefler’s Wilderness Girls nemesis, a no-nonsense taskmaster and suck-up with a military streak, is played by the phenomenal Betty Thomas. Again, at the time, Thomas was still basking in the glow of her multiple Emmy nominations–and one win–per TV’s groundbreaking, gritty crime drama, Hill Street Blues. In all her years on the show, Thomas’s Officer Lucy Bates often went through hell, but in Troop Beverly Hills, her last official acting credit before becoming an acclaimed TV and film director, Thomas shows off the comic chops she developed in Chicago’s famed Second City improv troupe. Basically, she’s the khaki equivalent of the Road Runner’s long-suffering–oft humiliated–Wile E. Coyote, and Thomas attacks the role with gusto. Rounding out the adult principal players are Audra Lindley and Mary Gross. Lindley, fondly remembered as daffy Mrs. Roper from Three’s Company, brings well seasoned wisdom to the part of the Wilderness Girls’ open-minded mother hen, and Saturday Night Live vet Gross ignites a few sparks as an earnest assistant troop leader caught between Nefler and the shenanigans orchestrated by Thomas’s Velma Plendor. Heck, even the characters’ names are funny.
At this point, you might be thinking, wait a second, is this a genuine feature film or is it a made-for-TV offering? After all, aren’t most of these performers, including Long, best known for their work on television? Well, yeah, there’s that, but, again, I think that’s what makes the movie so much fun: it’s filled with recognizable faces, and that itself creates a kind of shorthand for audiences; plus, as the movie frequently airs on television, it’s already perfectly scaled for home video. Not only that, it is just chock-a-block-full of cameos designed to delight boomers and moviegoers of previous generations: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Dr. Joyce Brothers, Patrika Darbo, Robin Leach, Cheech Marin, Ted McGinley, and Pia Zadora along with, yes, Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello–not to mention Tom Wright, who bears a strong–and convenient–resemblance to Sugar Ray Leonard, and real-life Beverly Hills beauty maestro Christophe Schatteman as himself. Oh, and the hits just keep on coming as three likable performers score in secondary roles. Playing the Neflers’ well-meaning cook/housekeeper gave the one and only Shelley Morrison a career boost in the years after The Flying Nun but before she struck gold as feisty Rosario on Will and Grace; Edd Byrnes, best known as 77 Sunset Strip’s “Kookie” and Grease‘s Vince Fontaine, plays a has-been actor who’s itching for a comeback (make that an offer he can’t refuse), and Brit Stephanie Beacham, perhaps best known at the time for TV’s Dynasty, is perfectly cast as a glitzy Jackie Collins type novelist who also happens to be Long’s best friend. Beacham’s dry delivery is perfect for some of the screenplay’s smartest one-liners.
Oh, and Troop Beverly Hills serves up plenty of movie “in” jokes with references to the likes of Apocalypse Now, The Godfather, Patton, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Valley of the Dolls, The Way We Were, and the original Mission Impossible TV series. Plus, the big jamboree sequence that figures during the last act easily (almost too easily) recalls a similar episode in Goldie Hawn’s superficially similar (and Oscar nominated) fish-out-of-water comedy, Private Benjamin. See, this is a movie buff’s delight! Oh, yeah, disposed Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos and his shoe loving wife Imelda, fresh from the then headlines, are roasted and served on toast as well. Now, the beauty of these references is that they’ll give grown-ups plenty of laughs even though younger audiences–the movie’s key demographic–might laugh without necessarily understanding all the nuances of the gags.
Now, about that younger demographic. According to Box Office Mojo, Troop Beverly Hills only earned a paltry 8 million or so during its brief run in the spring of 1989–and even in 1989, 8 million was only a pittance. Additionally, the site shows that TBH only lasted three weeks in theaters, yet that does not jibe with my recollection. We played the movie at the theater where I worked, and I seem to recall a run of more like 4-5 weeks, maybe even–generously–6. Of course, there have been instances in which film studios and/or distributors have been known to take a loss on a flick and just stop tracking grosses even as the film continued to play in theaters.
Oh, don’t get me wrong. I know TBH was far, far from a blockbuster, but I remember it doing steady business, especially on the weekends. Let me give you an example. I distinctly remember walking out of the theater early one Friday evening after the movie had already been playing at least a week, and there was a line of a dozen or more young girls already buying tickets for the next showing, which was still probably 30 or 40 minutes away. Now, what I have never forgotten, even after all this time, is that a handful of these girls were acting out parts of the movie amongst themselves, recalling very specific scenes, lines of dialogue, etc. Okay, so what does this mean? I’ll tell you what it means: these girls had already seen the movie at least once, possibly twice; otherwise, how would they have been able to recall bits and pieces of it so readily? That’s why I always remember this as being a perfect fit for the old UA Prestonwood Creek 5. I don’t remember it as a movie that came and went in a flash.
Yes, this is a movie with much appeal to both boys and girls. My nineteen year old niece loves it, and she’s been watching it for years as it airs regularly on TV (as previously noted). I fully confess that if I’m ever clicking through channels looking for something to watch, I will stop searching in an instant if I come upon TBH at any point; plus, I owned it on VHS back in the day, and now I have it on DVD (no extras, alas); however, if you think my niece is such a devoted fan only because she’s grown up around me, you’d be wrong. I happen to know many people her age and even a little younger who love the movie, as do a whole bunch of people in their twenties and thirties–and they’re the ones who were watching the movie when they were actually children. Oh, and you know what else? While researching this article, I stumbled upon a something of a phenomenon (news to me) in which young women come together for….wait for it….Troop Beverly Hills themed bachelorette parties and bridal showers. Yep. It’s true, thereby once again proving that even when movies fail to attract huge crowds in theaters, they can still find their audiences eventually if given a chance, but, of course, I saw firsthand the seeds of all that one Friday evening in 1989.
Those girls at the movies that night were clearly hooked, and they grew up, much like my niece, watching the movie on TV as often as possible, and I imagine that in the 24 years since then, they’ve shared it with their own children. Of course, all those adorable lasses onscreen have also grown-up, many of them doing quite well for themselves in the twenty-plus years since. Jenny Lewis, as Hannah Nefler, had already played a much more malevolent “Sunshine cadet” in a classic episode of The Golden Girls; she later made her mark as the thrillingly gifted singer of the alt/folk-rock band, Rilo Kiley (scroll down for a vid); Kellie Martin, as the daughter of Ed Byrne’s underdog actor, has had quite a career. She was still in her teens when she earned a Primetime Emmy nod for her supporting turn in Life Goes On; later, she starred in Christy before joining the casts of E.R. and Army Wives. She also scored as the Mystery Woman in a series of movies for the Hallmark channel. Lovely Carla Gugino, now in her forties (if you can believe that), continues to act in everything from Brian de Palma’s Snake Eyes to her role as the mom in the first batch of Spy Kids movies and the recent Sigourney Weaver series Political Animals. Then, there’s Tasha Scott, the pint-sized vocal powerhouse who belts out the anthemic “Cookie Time” while wearing what can only be described as a period-correct Tina Turner wig. (Props to composer Randy Edelman for his witty variations on the “Cookie Time” theme.) Scott hasn’t done much lately, per the IMDb, but as was the case with Lewis, I was already familiar with her from one of NBC’s Saturday night sitcoms. In Scott’s case, the show was Amen, and her vocal chops blew me away then, too. Oh, and let’s not forget Tori Spelling, everybody’s favorite showbiz brat, who pops up here and there as a member of a sneaky, overachieving rival troop.
Most of this movie is harmless, and these awkward young girls are a hoot as they try to keep up with their colorful leader: sitting around a campsite reading magazines (defining their personalities in the process), playing dress-up (and still looking like girls playing dress up rather than girls pretending to be hookers), and clumsily trying their best to mimic Mrs. Nefler’s moves during dance class. Of course, kids love this movie. On the other hand, Phyllis’s judgment isn’t as sound as it should be, and while she makes a few false moves, such as allowing the girls to pass out copies of Penthouse at an old folks home, she never really places them in any great danger. Still, she sometimes takes her duties a little too lightly, so some of Thomas’s character’s concerns are justified, which is the point, really. Phyllis needs to be reminded that she’s still the adult in charge. Even so, I believe the good outweighs the bad in this case, like in an episode of The Facts of Life (from the same era), and this is actually quite an empowering flick for youngsters who’ve been characterized, or ostracized, as outsiders. Again, think about the steadfast appeal it has for longtime followers. Furthermore, I came across a great blog article about the movie awhile ago that I want to share. It’s entitled “What I’ve Learned from Phyllis Nefler,” and I think it puts a lot of what’s onscreen in perspective. I’ve included a link. Have fun.
Okay, time to wrap it up. Troop Beverly Hills is directed by Jeff Kanew, who hasn’t done a whole heck of a lot lately in films (concentrating mostly on TV work these days), but he was hot stuff back in the 1980s thanks to the success of Revenge of the Nerds. Again, he doesn’t break new ground, but he keeps things moving–and there’s some lovely camera work, such as a shot of the landmark Hollywood sign that pulls back to reveal the troops’ campsite accompanied by a sound-a-like of The Tokens’ “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” A nice touch, that. Again, the whole thing lasts only a few seconds, but it reveals a lot; likewise, there’s a nice continuous shot of Phyllis and Fred clashing over one thing or another as they climb their home’s winding staircase and then carry on the conversation while walking down a corner and making a few turns along the way. Kanew also includes a number of decidedly 1980s signifiers: Spago, Jane Fonda’s Workout studio, and the familiar yellow and white stripes associated with the famous Giorgio Beverly Hills boutique. I’m sure Kanew scarcely had any idea that he was fashioning a 1980s time-capsule during the shoot, but he did, and it’s perfect. The screenplay, by the way, is credited to Pamela Norris and Margaret Greico Oberman, based on a story by Ava Ostern Fries. Certainly, these writers have considerable résumés, what with both Norris and Oberman enjoying Emmy nominations for Saturday Night Live; Norris’s credits also include Designing Women while Oberman has also written for Square Pegs and Army Wives. At any rate, theirs is a smart screenplay with some well-observed bits. For example, the joke isn’t just that Phyllis takes her girls on a camping trip to an exclusive hotel but that she takes them to an exclusive hotel with jungle-print wallpaper. Those references to Valley of the Dolls resonate because they’re perfectly in character for Beacham’s steamy novelist. Again. there aren’t a lot of belly laughs, but there are plenty of sight gags and one-liners to keep the chuckles coming at fairly brisk pace.
Oh, and about those costumes. Van Runkle surely deserved accolades of some kind for doing almost the impossible: creating parodies of 1980s fashions, which were already fairly ridiculous. Even better is the way Van Runkle shows how Phyllis constantly reinvents her drab troop leader uniform with incredible style, each new version tweaked so as to be appropriate for a given occasion, including a day at the marina, a not so PC lesson on Native Americans and the turquoise jewelry movement, or a khaki inspired fashion show fundraiser. What a thrill.
Thanks for your consideration…..
Troop Beverly Hills in the New York Times:
“What I’ve Learned from Phyllis Nefler,” at Hello Giggles: http://hellogiggles.com/what-ive-learned-from-phyllis-nefler
One example of a Troop Beverly Hills bachelorette party/bridal shower on Pinterest:
Another look at a Troop Beverly Hills bachelorette party, per Sara Zimmerman Photography:
^ Fred Garrity of Freddie and the Dreamers passed away in 2006. He certainly had some unique dance moves.
^ The band was part of the 1960s British invasion though I scarcely remember “The Freddie” though, of course, I’m all about “I’m Telling You Now.” In the above clip, Freddy and the band are joined by Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, who, like Garrity’s signature dance, make cameo appearances in Troop Beverly Hills.
^ Jenny Lewis (Hannah Nefler) all grown up as the lead singer of the now apparently defunct band Rilo Kiley though Lewis perseveres. This song, “Silver Lining” is about as close as the band ever got to a big, radio-friendly hit single though I think her most exquisite vocal is on the title track to the Under the Blacklight cd. Lewis’s guitar playing band-mate Blake Sennett also got his start has a child with roles on Boy Meets World and Third Rock from the Sun. Oh, and yes, this song suspiciously recalls George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord,” which also suspiciously recalls “He’s So Fine” (written by Ronald Mack and originally recorded by The Chiffons).
Reel Film Reviews: http://tinyurl.com/mgketkf