One of the few openly gay directors in Hollywood, Paul Bartel is a visual satirist who has directed a range of bawdy, violent, sophisticated and nearly always controversial films. His work is distinguished primarily by its subject matter rather than by its style.
Bartel's interest in film began at the age of nine. He went to the movies often, frequently at a film club which showed 16mm prints of silent and classic works. By the age of 11, animation had captured his imagination. Influenced by Disney's "Pinocchio" and "Fantasia," Bartel decided that he wanted to direct animated films. At age 13, he spent a summer working at New York's UPA animation studio.
While a student at UCLA, Bartel produced several animated shorts and documentaries. Upon graduation, he received a Fullbright scholarship to study film direction in Rome. One of the short theatrical films he produced while in Italy, "Progetti," was presented at the 1962 Venice Film Festival.
For a few years, Bartel directed military films and documentaries. While working as an assistant production manager at a New York firm, he wrote, shot and directed a few scenes which eventually grew into a theatrical short titled "The Secret Cinema." This and a follow-up short, "Naughty Nurse," were seen by Roger Corman's brother, Gene, who hired Bartel to direct a low-budget horror feature called "Private Parts" (1972). Poorly marketed, the film was largely ignored.
Roger Corman then hired Bartel as a second unit director on "Big Bad Mama" (1974). That film's success led to Bartel's next directing job, "Death Race 2000" (1975), a spoof of "Rollerball" (1975), wherein auto racing has become the national sport. He followed with the similar "Cannonball" (1976), a knock-off of road-race pictures (like "The Gumball Rally" 1976), that included cameos by such mainstream figures as Sylvester Stallone and Martin Scorsese and proved a box-office winner.
Bartel was unsuccessful in trying to persuade Corman to finance his pet project, "Eating Raoul" (1982), so the director shot a ten-minute teaser to seduce potential investors. The story, which satirized greed, decadence and superficial middle-class values, culminating in off-camera cannibalism, interested no one. Finally, Bartel's parents agreed to finance the film. Unable to find a distributor for the finished picture, Bartel entered it in Filmex, the Los Angeles Film Festival; "Eating Raoul" enjoyed a sensational response, prompting 20th Century-Fox to pick it up for distribution. It went on to become a cult classic and even spawned a stage musical adaptation.
Of his subsequent films, "Lust in the Dust" (1984) is the most important. A black comedy intended to satirize the Western, the film, which featured the unlikely teaming of Divine and Tab Hunter, was marred by an inconsistent tone that depleted its comic energy. "Scenes From the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills" (1989), was a modern, sexually explicit Restoration comedy that highlighted the cultural disparity between rich and poor in Beverly Hills. Its effectiveness as a bedroom farce was undermined by constant intercutting, which disturbed the spatial continuity on which the genre depends.
Although Bartel's works often shock, his courageous choices push back convention, challenging mainstream cinema's dependence upon formula. Should "Bland Ambition," his planned sequel to "Eating Raoul," ever be produced, it no doubt would be anything but a typical follow-up; nothing about Bartel is predictable.
While in years to come, Bartel may best be recalled for his directorial efforts, he has also frequently worked as an actor, albeit usually in smaller, yet memorable, roles. He debuted as an actor in Brian De Palma's "Hi, Mom!" (1970), playing Uncle Tom, and was seen as the director of a summer camp who has his nose bitten off in "Piranha" (1978). In Jonathan Demme's "Heart Like a Wheel" (1983), Bartel was a TV chef who interviews race car driver Shirley Muldowney (Bonnie Belinda) without any sense of who she is or what she does. He was the Grouch Cook in "Sesame Street Presents: Follow That Bird" (1985), the theater manager in "Gremlins 2: The New Batch" (1990) and the town mayor in "Posse" (1993). Bartel could also be seen as art connoisseur Henry Geldzahler in "Basquiat" and a congressman in "Escape From L.A." (both 1996).
Work on the small screen has been more sporadic, but Bartel did direct the 1980 TV-movie "The Hustler of Muscle Beach" (ABC) and wrote, directed and acted in two episodes of the NBC series "Amazing Stories." He has also made guest appearances on "Crime Story" , "L.A. Law" and the sitcom "Clueless" Bartel first acted in TV-movies in 1988 playing a minister in "Baja Oklahoma" (HBO), could be glimpsed in the 1995 miniseries "Naomi & Wynonna: Love Can Build a Bridge" (CBS) and was a doctor in the period piece "Louisa May Alcott's 'The Inheritance'" (CBS, 1997).
Director (Feature Film)
Cast (Feature Film)
Writer (Feature Film)
Producer (Feature Film)
Music (Feature Film)
Misc. Crew (Feature Film)
Cast (TV Mini-Series)
Worked for the summer at the New York studio of UPA Cartoons
Directed the short "The Secret Cinema"
Played uncle Tom Wood in Brian DePalma's "Hi, Mom!"
Feature film directing debut, "Private Parts"
Wrote, produced and acted in "Cannonball"; selected to open Edinburgh Film Festival
First directed for small screen with TV-movie ""The Hustler of Muscle Beach" (ABC)
First film as producer, "Eating Raoul"; also co-wrote, acted in and directed
Garnered critical acclaim for writing and directing "Scenes From the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills"
Stage musical based on "Eating Raoul" produced
Directed "Shelf Life", adapted from the play by O-Lan Jones, Andrea Stein and Jim Turner
Co-starred in PBS miniseries "Armistead Maupin's 'Tales of the City'"
Had occasional role of a teacher on TV series version of "Clueless" (ABC)
Acted in the comedy "Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss"
Last film role as Osric in "Hamlet", directed by Michael Almereyda