December 03, 1990 12:00 PM

Admittedly, on paper it didn’t sound like much: a film about a bunch of rich kids talking about God and socialism and life. “Thanks, no” was the usual response first-time director-writer-producer J. Whitney “Whit” Stillman got when he tried to raise money to make Metropolitan, which follows a handful of Manhattan debutantes and their escorts through the Christmas deb season. “Those who came from that world were especially turned off,” says Stillman, a 39-year-old who, in his khakis and loafers, still could understudy any of his preppy leading fellows. “There was a documentary made about deb parties that was quite cruel. I wanted to avoid stereotypes.”

Done. Metropolitan assays what one character calls the urban haute bourgeoisie—UHBs for short—with knowing, vivid detail and pricks its amiable twits with cocktail picks. Amid the carnage and cacophony of last summer’s jillion-dollar cinema extravaganzas, Metropolitan arrived in New York City and Los Angeles like a small blue box from Tiffany, winning critics and audiences alike with wit and warm humor. Vincent Canby of the New York Times called it “a comedy of manners of a very high order.” Since then, it has continued to pick up steam in theaters across the country and opened to favorable response in Europe. In Paris it’s in the Top 10. Next stop: Japan.

Remarkable results for a man whose seed money came from the sale of his Upper East Side co-op in 1984. “I put every dime I had into the film,” he says, and tapped friends for $10,000 here, $25,000 there. His mom was good for another $10,000. He won’t divulge how little the production actually cost. “When you hear ‘low budget,’ it sounds like it can’t be fun,” Stillman says. “We tried to make a pleasant experience with nice clothes.”

For locations, a friend lent his apartment, as did the parents of one of the troupe of unknown actors. Shooting only after hours, often until sunrise, jibed with the post-ball gatherings of the plot but kept the actors bleary-eyed. Stillman held on to his day job as a representative for cartoonists and illustrators while relentlessly plugging away at the film, winning the loyalty and admiration of cast and crew. “He comes from that WASP tradition of not showing a lot, but you know he has a lot beneath the surface,” says Ed Clements, who plays the surrogate Stillman role of Tom, a West Sider who falls in with a very East Side crowd. “He can be very subdued, but if you prick him, he might explode.”

Stillman was obsessed with showing these privileged lives as they really are. “It’s a subject that hasn’t been accurately portrayed,” says Whit, who, having gone to prep schools and Harvard and summered on Martha’s Vineyard, knows whereof he speaks. “Back in the ’30s there were the Philip Barry stories like Holiday and The Philadelphia Story, but we hadn’t seen this world in a long time, and when we did, it was with broad strokes.”

Like the character Tom, Stillman grew up on the periphery of the UHB. “I come from an eccentric, initially very rich, but not-so-rich-anymore background,” he says. “My parents always felt alienated from the Republican, Episcopalian country-club world because they were very liberal and politically progressive.” His father, John Sterling Stillman, a small chip off Plymouth Rock, worked in the Department of Commerce in the Kennedy Administration. His mother, Margaret, came from a rich Philadelphia family that lost its money in the Depression. Whit was schooled in Washington, D.C., then attended old-line Millbrook prep in upstate New York. His parents’ divorce when he was 13 backed his cushy life down a notch. “No one was destitute, but instead of ski trips and trips abroad, [money went for] tuition. I found it liberating.”

Harvard, which he entered in 1969, was not. “I arrived with my fragile, irrelevant 19th-century socialist point of view,” he says, sounding exactly like several of his characters. “I was morbidly depressed.” What cheered him up the Christmas of his freshman year was being asked at the last minute (like Tom) to be a deb escort in New York City. “It was one of the happiest weeks of my life,” he recalls. “I was 17 and under the sway of Fitzgerald, very much in thrall of all that doomed romance. I fell in love with a girl who was charming and nice. Unfortunately 49 other guys were also in love with her.” (Tom’s problem too.) After college Whit, who earned a history degree, languished in New York as an editorial assistant at Doubleday, then as an editor at a small business magazine.

In 1979 Stillman met his future wife, Iréné Perez-Porro, when she was visiting from her native Barcelona. They were introduced at a party: Whit spoke a little Spanish from a mid-Harvard sojourn in Mexico. (It was there he wrote a Harvard Hasty Pudding show, never produced, about the Russian Revolution called When You Wish upon a Czar.) “Love at first conversation,” Whit recalls of his and Iréné’s introduction. They married in Barcelona in 1980. In ’83 he helped a Spanish director make a small film. “That demystified the fied the filmmaking experience,” he says. The next year he began writing Metropolitan and took over an illustrators’ representative agency from his uncle.

Whit and Iréné live in a SoHo loft with their 4-year-old daughter, Ann. The white walls are covered with the work of dozens of illustrators. “I’m a loafer,” he admits. “I’m always lying around consumed in a big book, usually biographies. I’m reading about Irving Berlin now.” His next film, Barcelona, is about two young men who go there and find love and suffer culture shock. “The writing is the hard part,” he says. “It’s really hell, or heck, as they say in Metropolitan.” Scripts are coming Still-man’s way now, but, he says, “I definitely don’t want to do something similar to what I’ve done.” Then a thought: “Maybe I’ll do a Western.” How about How the West Side Was Won?

—Tim Allis, David Hutchings in New York City

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