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Thirty-five years ago, before L.A.’s homelessness epidemic exploded into a humanitarian crisis, the vast divide separating the city’s haves from its have-nots was skewered in a very progressive studio comedy.
In 1984, just a few days after taking over as CEO of the then-floundering Disney, former Paramount chief Michael Eisner got a call from ICM’s Sam Cohn on behalf of his client, director Paul Mazursky (Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice). Mazursky had adapted the 1932 Jean Renoir satire Boudu Saved From Drowning — about a bourgeois Parisian who rescues a tramp who tries to drown himself in the River Seine — and reimagined the tale as unfolding in the country’s swankiest ZIP code. He called his script Down and Out in Beverly Hills.
Eisner loved the idea and, to save on the budget, hired two stars on the career downswing to play the spoiled married couple at the story’s center: Richard Dreyfuss, who hadn’t been working much and had recently emerged from a stint in rehab; and Bette Midler, whose last hit was 1979’s The Rose. They each were paid $600,000 ($1.5 million today) and, with Nick Nolte brought in to play the homeless man who tries to end his life in their swimming pool, Mazursky was off to the races with his picture, budgeted at a tidy $18 million ($43 million in 2021).
Hoping to chart a new course for the struggling studio, Eisner made no attempts at reining in the film’s vulgar language or sexual content, resulting in the first release from Disney to receive an R rating (albeit from its newly minted Touchstone label). The socially conscious satire — besides homelessness, it tackles eating disorders, gay youth and, via a disgruntled neighbor played hilariously by Little Richard, racism — was well-received by critics (The Hollywood Reporter called it a “scathing comedy of manners on the B.H. lifestyle and mores”) and a hit with audiences, grossing $62 million in the U.S. ($148 million today).
It reinvigorated Dreyfuss’ and Midler’s careers, with both going on to star in a string of studio comedies.
This story first appeared in the March 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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Sterling K. Brown