Camp, Beverly Hills
Back in 1990, when Troop Beverly Hills first came out on video, it was something of a favorite among my college gay boy pals. As Phyllis Nefler, Shelley Long’s costumes were fierce, in a very big shoulder-padded, excessively detailed, ‘80s drag-queen kind of way. The travails of Nefler’s troop of spoiled, rich Beverly Hills Wilderness Girls was camp and then some. Our favorite scene was where best friend Vicki Sprantz (Stephanie Beacham) finds Phyllis holed up in her opulent bedroom, distraught over her failures as a wife and troop leader, drunk on Evian and wallowing in self-pity. Vicki stages an intervention, “sobers” Phyllis up, and gets her back on track. So self-indulgent, so over the top, so gay. We loved it.
Recently, a friend of mine (early 20s, gay, black, and fierce himself) spotted the new Troop Beverly Hills DVD on my table. He giggled, and immediately broke into “It’s Cookie Time,” the song the Troop Beverly Hills girls perform on Rodeo Drive to boost their sales. This drove home a point for me: for queer boys who’ve come of age since the ‘80s, Troop Beverly Hills is essential gay viewing.
For good reason. It’s filled with campy details: Vicki Sprantz is played by Stephanie Beacham, most well known for her role as Sable Colby on Dynasty and its spin-off, The Colbys. Here she’s a trashy romance novelist à la Jackie Collins. So perfect. TBH also features cameos by actors who went on to become famous for work on queer television hits, like Shelly Morrison, who plays Rosario on Will & Grace, and Willie Garson, who plays Stanford Blatch on Sex and the City.
There’s much more to enjoy than spotting past and present queer icons—the class tensions and conceits of the story are packed with arch satire. The best bits by far are the scenes that portray the Beverly Hills troop earning their Wilderness Girls patches. Phyllis is dismayed that she and her girls have no experience in activities that earn traditional patches, like knot tying and rock climbing. And so she decides they will focus on the “Create Your Own” patch. They earn patches in “Grooming” by visiting Christophe Salon for a day of beauty, and in “Jewelry Appraisal,” “Shopping,” and “Gardening with Glamour.”
The story that links all these moments of queer pleasure is simple. Beverly Hills socialite Phyllis is surprised one day when her husband Fred (Craig T. Nelson) tells her he wants a divorce. Phyllis, he says, is no longer the independent, energetic young woman he fell in love with, but has become a caricature of the superficial, materialistic rich bitch. Thrown for a loop, Phyllis gets involved in their daughter’s (Hannah, played by Jenny Lewis) life by taking over as leader of her Wilderness Girls troop.
This, Phyllis is sure, will be multiply rewarding: she’ll become a better mother to Hannah and regain her privileged position in Fred’s eye. Along the way, however, she faces all sorts of adversity, both from her husband and his new girlfriend; the director of the area Wilderness Girls, Velda Plendar (Betty Thomas); and the Beverly Hills troop’s arch-enemies, the Culver City Red Feathers, a militaristic group who take their wilderness skills very seriously.
Even if you haven’t seen Troop Beverly Hills, you can see where this is going. The Nefler family dynamics, as well as the film’s critique of greed and materialism clearly mark Troop Beverly Hills as an ‘80s flick. Fred wants to dump Phyllis because she’s shallow; she learns to be slightly less shallow. (Never mind that he tries to replace her with a younger model of the same; his shallowness is not the issue here.)
TBH‘s critique of crass consumerism is furthered by the family’s background. The Neflers are, or used to be, solidly working class. Fred made the fortune that put them in Beverly Hills by selling mufflers, and still appears in his own low-budget, corny commercials, hawking his wares in a giant muffler costume. Things for the Neflers would be fine, you see, if they could only get away from the glitz and glamour of Beverly Hills and get back to the “simple life” and “family values.”
The vehicle for their redemption is, also unsurprisingly, daughter Hannah. She’s responsible for rebuilding her mother’s confidence and turning her back into the woman her father loved. She also gently nudges the two back to each other as they fumble with becoming divorcees sharing joint custody. Like other ‘80s family films (Baby Boom, Look Who’s Talking, and Irreconcilable Differences), Troop Beverly Hills takes up a standard “family values” theme: all “necessary” social changes (whether in familial re-orientations or public policy) are, ostensibly, for the good of the children.
Where this film differs from these others is that its critique ultimately fails, even on its own terms. Troop Beverly Hills tries to disavow the era’s infamous excesses, but at the same time lavishes in them, participating in a nearly incessant branding and namedropping (Robin Leach cameos and the girls carry Giorgio of Beverly Hills backpacks, for goodness sake!). The wealth and status symbols displayed are gorgeously presented and totally alluring. Most importantly, in the girls’ “Create Your Own” patches, the film celebrates the unique skills of the ultra rich. Actually, it takes such celebration one step further, as in the end, the Beverly Hills troop wins the Wilderness Girls Survival Competition: they have amazing rich girl talents and kick ass at “normal” scouting survival techniques to boot.
These contradictions provide Troop Beverly Hills’ other pleasure—watching the spectacle of ‘80s America’s anxiety over its own fabulous overindulgence. Though the new DVD release doesn’t offer any bells or whistles (no theatrical trailers, no “Making of” feature, no interviews with stars, etc.), it really doesn’t need any. It’s a treat (and necessity) not only for youngish gay boys, but for anyone who enjoys campy good fun with the added bonus of watching dominant cultural values self-destruct.