“Yeah, maybe I ought to become a bum. No job, no responsibilities…”
On January 31, 1986, the Touchstone Pictures film Down and Out in Beverly Hills was released to theaters. Based on the French play Boudu sauvé des eaux by Rene Fauchois, the film is about a homeless man who tries to drown himself in a pool of a rich family in Beverly Hills, only to be rescued and taken in by the family, with life-changing results for everyone involved. The film is notable for being the first R-rated film, due to several uses of profanity and nudity, released by the Disney Studios. The film was a financial success for Disney, grossing over $92 million in the U.S. during its run. The film stars Nick Nolte as Jerry Baskin, Richard Dreyfuss as Dave Whiteman, Bette Midler as Barbara Whiteman, with Little Richard as Orvis Goodnight; Little Richard’s appearance in the film, as well as the song “Great Gosh a’Mighty” that he provided for the soundtrack, helped revitalize his career.
The film begins with a gritty look at the overall homeless situation in Beverly Hills, and follows the path of one particular homeless man named Jerry Baskin, who travels with his dog, Kerouac. This is contrasted with the lives of the Whiteman family, as they wake up to begin their day. The family, consisting of Dave Whiteman, his wife Barbara, his son Max, his daughter Jenny, the family dog Matisse, and the maid Carmen, are quite dysfunctional, to say the least. Dave wakes up to see a new tape by his bed: his son is an aspiring filmmaker, who sends his father tapes to let him know how he really feels. Unfortunately, the tapes are just as confused as Max is about himself. Barbara Whiteman, obsessed with yogis, gurus, and acupuncture, has lost romantic interest in her husband, which drives Dave to an affair with Carmen. Jenny, a college student, has been starving herself, much to the concern of her father. And Matisse, the dog, is emotionally disturbed, biting everyone and having to see a dog psychiatrist.
Meanwhile, Jerry is sleeping on a park bench with his dog Kerouac, when the dog spots a woman jogging with a bag of food. Tempted, he runs after her, and decides to follow her home. Jerry wakes up and, finding Kerouac gone, panics and starts roaming the streets looking for him. He ends up in a back alley in a Beverly Hills neighborhood, and decides that he does not wish to live anymore. Entering the Whiteman’s backyard, he fills his pockets with rocks and jumps into the swimming pool. Dave spots this and sprints through the house, screaming “Call 911!” Dave ends up saving Jerry’s life by pulling him out of the pool and giving him CPR. He then offers to let Jerry stay for a while, much to the annoyance of his wife. Surprisingly enough, Jerry is the first person Matisse really takes to, presumably filling the void in Jerry’s life that Kerouac left behind.
Although many members of the family don’t take too well to Jerry in the beginning, he slowly and surely works his influence throughout them, by telling them his story of how he was arrested for selling draft cards in the sixties, how he was an aspiring actor, and how his little sister died of leukemia, and other aspects of his life story. Through his stay with the Whitemans, he begins to help to solve their various problems and change how they view the world around them. Meanwhile, as open as Dave was in the beginning, his patience is beginning to wear thin when he sees how Jerry seems to be taking his place. For instance, Jerry ends up sleeping with Barbara, which in turn makes her attracted to her husband again. When Carmen sees how Barbara and Dave are intimate again, she sleeps with Jerry, rebuffing Dave’s advances. When Jenny comes home from college for the Christmas holidays, she lets Jerry know she’s on to his schemes, and in turn, he confronts her for her anorexia, and ends up seducing her. This all comes to a head at the New Year’s Party, where Dave ends up exasperated with Jerry to the point of wishing to finish the job Jerry had tried to start in the pool.
Although set in Beverly Hills, most of the filming took place on soundstages, or were assembled sets on the Disney backlot. The house used as the Whiteman residence is an actual house in Beverly Hills, and while the daytime exterior shots were filmed at the house, the nighttime shots were filmed at the studio-created duplicate façade, because of various permit restrictions. There were many instances, however, of location work in the film, including Rodeo Drive, Venice Beach, and the Los Angeles International Airport. Overall, the film is a rather funny look at how we never seem to appreciate what we have, and how looking through another person’s eyes can change our perspective completely.