August 13, 1998
'Slums of Beverly Hills' is not your typical rite-of-passage story
Living on the Fringe
By Naomi Pfefferman, Entertainment Editor
You could call "Slums of Beverly Hills" "The Jewish Joads."
In Tamara Jenkins' debut film, "a loose bleeding of memoir and fiction," teen-age Vivian Abramowitz (Natasha Lyonne) is schlepped from crummy apartment to apartment on the fringes of the richest city in the world, circa 1976.
From left, Marisa Tomei, Alan Arkin, Eli Marienthal, Natasha Lyonne and David Krumlholz.
The family lives in Beverly Hills for the schools, but Viv's adolescent angst is exacerbated by the fact that she's poor in the quintessential wealthy Jewish suburb. It doesn't help that she has to shop for her first bra with her divorced, used-car-salesman dad (Alan Arkin). Or that her growing chest is the subject du jour in her all-male home.
So what was it like, growing up on the wrong side of Beverly Hills, 90210? "It gives you a profound inferiority complex," says the tall, raven-haired Jenkins, 35, whose protagonist has been dubbed a female "Portnoy" by critics. "As a kid, I wondered, 'Why couldn't we be like everyone else? Why couldn't we be normal ?'... And in my film, I wanted to explore how that mirrors the inferiority a teen-age girl already feels."
"Slums" took Jenkins back to her childhood stomping grounds, where, during pre-production, she scoured the city for the kind of boxy, run-down apartments she once called home. They were 1950s "dingbat" buildings with fancy names (The Paradise, Casa Bella) that "promised the good life but were really decrepit dumps."
Jenkins' childhood defied any pop-culture stereotype of the Jewish family, she reflects. Her late father once owned a Philadelphia strip joint where her mother was the hat-check girl. When they split up, 5-year-old Tamara moved with her dad and two brothers from the East Coast to a tacky bachelor apartment in Beverly Hills. The decor included shag carpeting and lighting fixtures that looked like rejects from the set of "Star Trek." It was hardly the "Goldina Medina," but, Jenkins believes, her outsider's perspective turned her into an artist.
By the time she was 23, she was living back East and creating performance-art pieces about her family. By the mid-1990s, Jenkins' short films were earning recognition at Sundance; "Slums," in turn, was originally developed at Sundance's prestigious Director's Lab.
Carl Reiner signed on to play Viv's rich Uncle Mickey, and Marisa Tomei as Viv's lovable-loser cousin Rita. Lyonne, who wore breast prostheses to portray Viv, prepared for her role by wearing platform shoes and crying to Carole King's "Tapestry."
"Slums," Jenkins hopes, presents a new spin on the coming-of-age tale.
"I've spent so much time watching movies about boys and their adolescent issues," she says, "so I hope people find it compelling to watch a rite-of-passage story that is told from a girl's point of view."