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Stillman offers a quirky heroine in 'Damsels'

Charles Ealy

Director and screenwriter Whit Stillman has created one of his most memorably quirky characters — the unapologetically proper campus coed Violet in "Damsels in Distress."

At first, she's so composed, so perfectly dressed and so vocal about her opinions that some viewers might not believe she'll be the movie's heroine. And Stillman knows that moviegoers might resist her charms.

"People are amazingly predisposed to follow the path of other films" — to think that the best-dressed people are the best mean people, Stillman says during a recent visit to Austin.

But Violet (Greta Gerwig) slowly reveals the humanity behind her oh-so-proper façade and wins over the audience.

It's not an easy task, as she keeps putting distance between herself and others. Consider these views, as Violet discusses various life topics with her friends Heather, Rose and Lily.

On dating:

"Do you know what's the major problem in contemporary social life? The tendency, very widespread, to always seek someone ‘cooler' than yourself — always a stretch, often a big stretch. Why not instead find someone who's frankly inferior?"

On goals:

"I'd like to do something especially significant in my lifetime, the sort of thing that changes the course of human history: such as start a new dance craze."

On working at the campus suicide center:

"You probably think we're frivolous, empty-headed, perfume-obsessed college coeds. You're probably right. I often feel empty-headed. But we're also trying to make a difference in people's lives. And one way to do that is to prevent them from killing themselves... Have you ever heard the expression, ‘Prevention is nine-tenths of the cure?' Well, in the case of suicide, it's actually ten-tenths."

Stillman clearly has a soft spot for Violet, who reflects some of his long-standing themes — including his vigorous defense of the bourgeoisie — in such earlier films as "Metropolitan," "Barcelona" and "The Last Days of Disco."

These views, however, seem natural for Stillman, who was born in 1952 into a socially prominent family. His father, John Sterling Stillman, was an assistant secretary of commerce under President John F. Kennedy. And his godfather, E. Digby Baltzell, popularized the term WASP.

And though Stillman grew up during the politically tumultuous 1960s, he did not adopt rebellious ways, staying loyal to what he sees as an essentially benevolent milieu and graduating from Harvard, which serves as the basis for the fictional Seven Oaks campus in "Damsels in Distress."

"When I was young, it was the slightly older people who were really funny," Stillman says. "They also were quite kind. I had an elder cousin in Philadelphia who was the inspiration for the character (Violet), a group organizer for us."

Stillman says he thinks Violet takes a zen approach to life. "She's trying to appreciate the good things in various situations. So when a playboy operator type (in a nightclub) sends over drinks to the cute girls, she sees the virtuous path that he could take, while other people would not assume the best."

And then there's the Violet who loves tap dancing.

Stillman says his all-time favorite movie is 1934's "The Gay Divorcee," starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and directed by Mark Sandrich. And "Divorcee" features lots of tap dancing by Astaire, who plays the dancing celebrity Guy Holden.

"The Gay Divorcee" is also known for featuring the sophisticated Cole Porter tune "Night and Day" as well as for having one of the longest production numbers in cinematic history — the 22-minute "The Continental."

While Violet is no match for Fred or Ginger in the dancing department, she does aspire to create an international dance craze similar to "The Continental." For her, it will be the sambola — a blend of the tango, cha-cha-cha and various other steps.

Her college friends are skeptical, and some of the residents in her dormitory are downright hostile. But Violet persists, declaring that she loves optimism, even when it's absurd.

Stillman says he is similarly optimistic about an upcoming CD featuring the film's music by Mark Suozzo.

"He got the right early '60s feel," Stillman says. "It's called the Brill Building Sound. It's a building at 49th and Broadway in New York" that housed studios where some of the most popular American music tunes were written and later performed by the orchestras of Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller.

Stillman doesn't rule out doing yet another movie spotlighting music and dance.

"One of my favorite musical numbers on film is ‘Lullaby of Broadway' from "The Gold Diggers of 1935,' " directed by Busby Berkeley, Stillman says. "I have a joke project: ‘The Gold Diggers of 2015.' I don't think that will happen, but it would be really fun."

Contact Charles Ealy at 445-3931.