Yuppies on Film: A Conversation With Director Whit Stillman
The "Metropolitan" and "The Last Days of Disco" director talks labels, style and the building of genre
Yuppie cinema — insofar as we can purport such a thing to exist — has had an official auteur nearly since its inception: Whit Stillman.
In his first three films, which he’s referred to as the “doomed bourgeois in love” trilogy, the writer/director established an immediately recognizable onscreen world. Metropolitan (1990), Barcelona (1994) and The Last Days of Disco (1998) are all sparkling, delightfully verbose tales of upwardly mobile young people. Stillman cites the screwball comedies of the ’30s as his primary cinematic influence, and his films have often been described as modern-day takes on the comedy of manners. The figure of the yuppie, aspirational and aggravating in equal measure, lends itself perfectly to this slyly humorous treatment.
In The Last Days of Disco, Des, a nightclub manager played by frequent Stillman star Chris Eigeman, muses, “Do yuppies even exist? No one says, ‘I am a yuppie.’ It’s always the other guy who’s a yuppie.” This statement mirrors the writer/director’s own take on the subject. “There’s a lot of very facile and not very reflective anti-bourgeois prejudice, so anything that seems bourgeois is going to get a lot of guff that’s not terribly thought out,” Stillman tells InsideHook. “One of the contrarian comedy things we could do in the films is be funny about preppies and yuppies in a defensive way.”
The very fact of a character discussing yuppies in one of Stillman’s films is pleasingly meta. “It always struck me how odd it was, all the scorn of yuppies, very often by people who seem very yuppie themselves. If you just took the term ‘young upwardly mobile professionals,’ what’s wrong with any of those things? Those are all good things,” he elaborates. Stillman’s take on yuppies is a rational one, from someone who’s been a shrewd observer of the genus for years.
There’s a coziness to Stillman’s films. His characters inhabit small worlds, dress well and banter in a stylized, highly distinctive rhythm indicative of a life spent reading highbrow literature and attending parties with fussy dress codes. In Metropolitan, a tale of young socialites on the Upper East Side, conversations cover the so-called downfall of the preppy class and the emergence of the “urban haute bourgeoisie,” amusingly abbreviated as “UHB.” Barcelona centers on Americans abroad, and The Last Days of Disco follows a pair of post-collegiate girlfriends who work in publishing by day and go out dancing by night. These are undeniably privileged worlds, but Stillman sees much of the criticism of them (too white, too elitist, etc.) as reductive. “Everyone should be seen as an individual and enjoyed — or not enjoyed — as an individual,” he says. His characters are idiosyncratic and not immune to moments of awkwardness. Surely, Stillman is the only director to have a yuppie character refer to Scrooge McDuck’s “sexy” qualities in an attempt at flirtation, as Chloë Sevigny so memorably does in The Last Days of Disco.
These quirky visions of yuppiedom are suffused with nostalgia. Title cards establish The Last Days of Disco in “The very early 1980s,” Metropolitan “Not so long ago,” and Barcelona in “The last decade of the Cold War.” “I’m nostalgic all the time,” says Stillman. “I’m always nostalgic for the present and trying to appreciate things in the present that I’ll miss in the future. I also like the idea of the continuity of life. A lot of people really like to emphasize ‘this was this period, this was that period,’ and I think a lot of stuff doesn’t really change.” Certainly the yuppie label, even with its ’80s associations, suggests a demographic and aesthetic model that persists across decades, even as some of the specifics may change.
Yuppie and preppy are often mistakenly thought of as two branches of the same affluent, image-conscious tree, and just as The Last Days of Disco features discussion of being labeled a yuppie, the characters in Metropolitan discuss the preppy moniker.
“One thing I like about preppy or Ivy Style is that it’s not supposed to change too much,” says Stillman. He defines the terms with authority: “There’s preppy, there’s Ivy, and there’s yuppie. Preppy is a hardcore traditional fashion class kind of thing. Ivy is more of a collegiate style that’s a bit more accessible.” He’s quick to add, “I was always impressed with people who chose their own identity. Some people became very preppy or very Ivy even though they didn’t have particularly Ivy or preppy roots. A lot of these things are styles that you decide you like and you pursue. Yuppie is much broader. It’s a sort of aspirational baby-boomer spirit.”
So how do preppies and yuppies dress in these rarefied onscreen worlds? “It’s a really tough job for the costume designers, because I had very strong ideas about how the characters should look and how it all should be,” says Stillman. Metropolitan was made on a shoestring budget. The director borrowed clothes from family closets and costume designer Mary Jane Fort got debutante friends from her hometown in Chattanooga, Tennessee, to send over their formal dresses. When it came to the yuppie stylings of The Last Days of Disco, the period setting was everything: “One reason I set the film a little bit late, in the early-’80s, is because I thought style started looking better then. I didn’t want to make a cliché thing that you’d make fun of with polyester and flared trousers. I wanted it to be more new wave coming in, with narrow ties and cool suits,” he says. Costume designer Sarah Edwards found a supply of unworn men’s clothes from the era, and she and Stillman reviewed fashion magazines from 1979 to 1981. “Maybe 95 percent of the stuff I thought looked awful, but we’d find the stuff that looked good and that became our template,” he says.
Stillman has often drawn from his own life in his work. “I try to be really close to what I know and I’ve seen,” he says. It almost seems that he was fated to make yuppie films. When asked where he first encountered the term, he responds, “I first heard it because an aunt of mine was doing a corporate presentation and she needed a slide of yuppies. She wanted my sister and I to be pictured as yuppies. So I was in a slide for a yuppie presentation before I knew what it meant.”
Someone making a comparable presentation now could easily include images from The Last Days of Disco as a visual signifier of yuppie culture. While Stillman’s films take place in the past, and yuppies have often been derided, his presentation of the social group is informed by a keen ear for dialogue and an eye for fashion that still feels fresh. Cinematic trends come and go, but the director’s smart and stylish characters — young urban professionals, almost to a man — have now endured for three decades, and they feel every bit as real today as they did the day we first met them.