I can’t tell you how delighted I was this morning to realize that Paul Bartel (1938-2000) shares a birthday with Andy Warhol. Not only did Bartel frequently work with former Warhol Superstar Mary Woronov, but more importantly he seems a kind of artistic heir, running along in parallel with the Ridiculous movement (which I wrote about here and here and a in a few other posts and no doubt will again) as well as John Waters and His Dreamlanders (whose Divine Bartel cast in 1985’s Lust in the Dust alongside Tab Hunter from Polyester). The common denominator is gay artists with dark, satirical sensibilities and a love for drag and grotesquerie. The other major thread of course is Roger Corman and AIP, where Bartel made his name and worked with the great Charles B. Griffith, who shared many of Bartel’s cheerfully unwholesome predilections.
The wild thing is, unlike the above-mentioned, Bartel had serious legit credentials as a cinéaste, and could (and arguably should) be listed among the New Hollywood directors (and their offshoots), some of whom also got their start with Corman, and many of whom cast Bartel in small roles in their films. I’m talking about Martin Scorsese, Brian de Palma, Joe Dante and his frequent cohort Allan Arkush, Ron Howard, John Landis, Tim Burton, John Carpenter, Amy Heckerling, Steven Spielberg (for whom Bartel directed a couple of episodes of Amazing Stories), and Mario Van Peebles (a second generation representative as the son of Melvin). With friends and fans like these, baby, let your freak flag fly! Like Waters, Bartel began making films as a teenager, but then he went on to study film and theatre at UCLA, and then spent a year at Rome’s Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia on a Fulbright, where he made a short called Progetti in 1962. His early work was non-linear and experimental and was happening pretty much at the same time as New York’s Underground Cinema movement and Warhol’s Factory.
Bartel’s 1966 short The Secret Cinema indicates the camp direction into which he would soon plunge, followed by Naughty Nurse (1969). Private Parts (1972) was his first feature as director, but his sophomore effort, Death Race 2000 (1975), co-written with Charles Griffith and Robert Thom for AIP, was what put him on the map. The film is simultaneously a satire and a dystopian sci-fi sports tale, not unlike Norman Jewison’s Rollerball, released the same year, in its way, or for that matter The Hunger Games. Gladitorial death sports. This one features a SLEW of stars in embryo, not just the aforementioned Mary Woronov, but also David Carradine, Sylvester Stallone, Love Boat‘s Fred Grandy, and John Landis (still a bit player and crew member, not yet a director). As a follow-up he directed Cannonball (1976) — this was during AIP’s “kooky car race” phase, which also included Griffith’s Eat My Dust (1976), with Ron, Rance, and Clint Howard, and Bartel in a bit role; and Grand Theft Auto (1977), Ron Howard’s first film as director, in which Bartel also acted.
Bartel’s next leap forward as director, some might say the high water mark, was Eating Raoul (1982), another comedy of murder which doesn’t shy away from the cannibalism promised in its title. By now, Woronov and Bartel had become a sort of screen couple, with similarities to the one portrayed by David Lochary and Mary Vivian Pearce in Waters’ films. Their characters tend to be snooty and snobbish, but portrayed in a broad, bratty way, much as a child might play the roles. This playing style permeates the films of both directors and I find it downright irresistible. Eating Raoul came out one year of Waters’ Polyester (1981). Both directors seemed to be gaining recognition in the mainstream at this stage, which is remarkable given that Eating Raoul is full of S/M and other kinks, VD, and the aforementioned people eating. The titular Raoul was played by Robert Beltran, who is probably best known for playing Native American Commander Chakotay on Star Trek: Voyager. Also in the cast: Buck Henry, Ed Begley Jr, the Richard Paul of Carter Country, Edie McClurg, and Hamilton Camp.
Bartel’s next well-known film is of course Lust in the Dust (1985), a knee-slapping low-brow camp western co-starring as we’ve said Divine and Polyester’s Tab Hunter, along with Lainie Kazan, Cesar Romero, and the immortal Woody Strode. The qualifier “well known” is in this paragraph because Bartel actually made a movie that tanked the previous year, a screwball comedy called Not For Publication (1984), starring De Palma’s leading lady Nancy Allen, David Naughton from An American Werewolf in London, the great Alice Ghostley, the aforementioned Richard Paul and future Blue Collar comedian Bill Engvall in a walk-on! This movie HAS to be smarter than Lust in the Dust (I mean, come on, let’s get real) and it featured Bartel’s biggest budget thanks to the success of Eating Raoul. But audiences didn’t take to it, possibly because it was missing some of his characteristic touches. Also seldom spoken of is the 1986 Tim Conway vehicle The Longshot, produced and co-written by Conway, with most of Bartel’s trademark instincts vetoed by the star.
Then came his social satire Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills (1989). This film came out during a massive tidal wave of films set in the tony West Coast neighborhood, most notably Paul Mazursky’s great comedy Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986). In acknowledgment of that precedent, Mazursky appears in Bartel’s film, as does Little Richard, who had been in the previous movie. as well. Anyway, this was the decade that also gave us the Beverly Hills Cop movies (beginning 1984), the TV show Beverly Hills Buntz (1987), Beverly Hills Brats (1989), and Troop Beverly Hills (1989). Still in the future: Beverly Hills Chihuahua. Anyway, also in the cast are several veterans of Bartel’s films, as well as Jacqueline Bisset, Wallace Shawn, Michael Feinstein, and young Rebecca Schaeffer. Sadly, as a result of her performance in this film, Schaeffer was later murdered by an obsessed fan who’d become outraged by a sex scene she did in the film. Weirdly it was very much the KIND of thing Bartel put into his black comedies, but obviously and fundamentally a great tragedy IRL. The murder was to prove a catalyst for the anti-stalking movement.
Bartel’s last film as director was back to basics, a small budget micro movie called Shelf Life (1993) about a family that was raised in a bomb shelter following the JFK assassination. It has some similarities with The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and for that matter, oh, things like Rip Van Winkle. The biggest name in this one is O-Lan Jones, former wife of Sam Shepard, haha which brings full circle to La Mama and environs, birthplace of the Ridiculous.
As we said, Bartel was always in demand as an actor, often stunt-cast by colleagues and admirers of his own cinematic visions. Joe Dante cast him in Piranha (1978) and Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990). Gremlins editor Tina Hirsch put him in Munchies (1987) alongside Conway cohort Harvey Korman. For Allan Arkush he was in Rock and Roll High School (1979), Andy Kaufman’s first film Heartbeeps (1981), and Caddyshack II (1988) among others. For Tim Burton, the original Frankenweenie short (1984). For John Landis, Into the Night (1985); For Dante, Landis and several other directors, Amazon Women on the Moon (1987). Amy Heckerling used him in National Lampoon’s European Vacation (1985). He’s also in the Muppet vehicle Follow That Bird (1985), Tommy Chong’s Far Out Man (1990), Van Peebles’ Posse (1993), and John Carpenter’s Escape From L.A. He was in the Armistead Maupin TV series Tales of the City (1993) and More Tales of the City (1993). And to bring us full circle again to Warhol, he was in Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat (1996). And the fact that I once played Schnabel in a theatre piece also brings it full circle to ME!
Bartel’s last credit was in Lisa Kors; 2001 Dinner and a Movie a.k.a Perfect Fit, released posthumously. The actor/director had died the previous year of a heart attack following an operation for liver cancer.