Touchstone and Beyond: A History of Disney’s “Down and Out in Beverly Hills”

Splash proved that Touchstone was a viable idea and could be the home for more adult films that veered from the traditional wholesome family movies that the Walt Disney Company was known for. Splash also convinced the Walt Disney Company executives that audiences would gravitate towards these types of films and they would not face a backlash. When Michael Eisner and Frank Wells took over at Disney in 1984, they were just starting to see what Touchstone could bring to company coffers and carried on Touchstone’s mission.

Splash needed to be successful to prove that the label was worthwhile, 1986’s Down and Out in Beverly Hills was important because, as then CEO Michael Eisner stated in his autobiography Work in Progress, that Down and Out in Beverly Hills, “…was at least equally significant as a statement to the creative community about our intentions”.

This was Disney’s first R rated movie. With countless expletives and by today’s standards light sex scenes, Down and Out in Beverly Hills was making a statement that the Walt Disney Company was growing and changing. The fourteen-million-dollar budgeted film would recruit quality talent like Bette Midler, Nick Nolte, and Richard Dreyfuss for the lead roles. Grossing over sixty-two million dollars at the box office, Down and Out in Beverly Hills would be another win at the box office.

In celebration of Richard Dreyfuss (whose birthday was at the end of October when our editor was supposed to post this!), “To Touchstone and Beyond” will take you back to 1986 and Down and Out in Beverly Hills.

The Movie

The opening shot of the film is of a homeless bum named Jerry, played by Nick Nolte and his dog Kerouac. While the opening credits play over the glamorous scenes of Beverly Hills, we watch as the reality of life with the palm trees, expensive homes, and fancy cars, also have homeless people living day to day on the streets. Beverly Hills is beautiful, but according to director Paul Mazursky, there is more to the famed city then just mansions and luxury cars.

From the streets we move to the Beverly Hills mansion of the Whiteman family with Dave played by Richard Dreyfuss and Barbara played by Bette Midler. Surrounded by floral pink walls and a portrait of the happy couple, the shot pans down to Dave and Barbara in bed, who are anything but happy with each other. Their son Max is trying to catch the attention of his parents, either through dressing differently or by leaving video taped messages. Their daughter Jenny is heading back to school, and Dave passingly mentions how he’s worried about her eating habits. Jenny looks fine, but deep down we know there is something about her that’s not quite right.

Jerry loses his dog Kerouac and goes in search of his only friend. Eventually, wandering the back alleys to the mansions of Beverly Hills, Jerry stumbles into the Whiteman backyard, and plans to drown himself in their pool. Dave, witnessing this from the balcony, runs through the house diving into the pool and saving Jerry.

The moment Dave hit the water the Whiteman family would never be the same. From the beginning of the film, each member of the family was just an illusion of happiness when they were truly miserable. Success was not the key to their happiness. After Jerry is brought to the surface and revived by Dave, it’s time for Jerry to revive the Whiteman family.

Jerry is welcomed into the home by Dave, while others are leery of his presence. Barbara is disgusted by Jerry and fears that he will murder them all. As the story progresses and Jerry becomes a guest in the house, the masks of wealth fall away. Jerry as the interloper will have a profound effect on the family.

Dave the workaholic husband who spends most of the film yelling at his son Max, worrying if his daughter eats enough, and continues his affair with the housekeeper Carmen, changes as he spends time with Jerry. Though Dave never ignores the importance of his hanger business, he tries hard to get to know Jerry. Dave seems to crave the idleness that Jerry has. They both live in Beverly Hills, but the term down and out applies to Jerry and Dave in different ways.

Slowly but surely as the narrative plays out on screen Jerry is cleaned up and given a makeover by Dave. Rather than being the bum he looks like a friend and starts to influence the family. Dave spends the night at the beach with Jerry and some friends, and in the few moments we meet this group of friends on the sandy Pacific beach, these homeless people are not vagrants or bad people, they are just people like Dave.

Jerry’s influence extends to Barbara when he initiates an affair with her. This dramatically changes Barbara in a profound way. No longer ignoring her husband, Barbara has a passion for Dave which angers Carmen. She in turn has an affair with Jerry, which angers Dave, but does not sour his relationship with Jerry. Dave is willing to tolerate Jerry’s antics, because Dave likes him.

Max is desperate to show his true self to his parents and it is Jerry that helps him find the courage to be the person he is. When Jenny returns home for Christmas, she too does not trust the stranger in the house, but falls for Jerry’s charming ways, and has an affair with him. Leading up to the big party that is designed to secure a deal with China for Dave’s hanger company, Jerry’s antics enrage Dave, and what may look like an all out fight, comes off looking like a celebration that not only ends the narrative on a joyous note, but will help Dave secure the business deal he needs.

The movie ends with the family waking up outside from the previous night’s party. Jerry is asked to leave. The family is fed up with his antics. They let him keep the dog Matisse. As both man and dog are walking away through the back alleys of Beverly Hills, Jerry turns around to see the entire family staring from a distance. Each member of the family has a look of content on their face, and though none of them say a word, Jerry knows they want him back, and he and Matisse saunter back to the only family they know and the story fades to black.

The Best

Nick Nolte is the standout of the film. His portrayal of Jerry allows the audience to see the homeless man we meet at the first second of the movie as a real human being, not some vagrant monster that will kill them all as Barbara states. Jerry is a very human character that just happens to be down and out on his luck. His goal was not to be homeless, it just so happens that’s how he ended up.

Matisse the family dog played by ‘Mike’ is the perfect example of how the priorities of the family is so misplaced. Rather than focusing on the kids like Max and Jenny, Barbara constantly frets about Matisse, and even brings him to a dog psychiatrist. There are many moments when Matisse looks at the camera and expresses what many viewers are thinking, such as “can you believe these people”? The relationship between Matisse and Jerry is touching, and while everyone has their own preoccupations about Jerry, Matisse accepts Jerry for who he is.

Little Richard has a great role as the neighbor Orvis Goodnight. In the first act of the film we see Dave and Carmen together, and Matisse sets off the alarm, which draws the attention of the cops. The response is overwhelming. From patrol cars and helicopters, the police are at Dave’s house within minutes of the alarm going off, which introduces the audience to Orvis.

Down and Out in Beverly Hills makes some quick social commentary that move beyond making the homeless into human beings. When Orvis comes over to Dave’s house complaining about how the cops took over half an hour to come to his house when had a real emergency shows in a slightly humorous but truthful way the difference in how you are treated by the police depending on your skin color, even though you have the same amount in your bank account.

When Jerry takes Dave to the shelter to pick up his things, viewers get a reality check of the life of the homeless. A quick conversation between Jerry and the clerk at the shelter mentions another individual who died. There is a moment of sadness that disappears quickly between the two men. The film does not glamorize homelessness, nor does it ridicule. We meet people who are down and out on their luck.

The Worst

The fact that Jerry sleeps with Dave’s wife, lover, and then daughter is a little disturbing. Jerry has helped change the Whiteman family for the better. Why does he need to sleep with the daughter too? It’s at that moment that viewers may lose their respect for Jerry. Jerry is also a pathological liar. Everything he tells Dave and the family about his past is not true, and the more they get to know him, the family doubts the validity of his tales.

Fun Facts

  • Director Paul Mazursky appears in the film as accountant Sidney Waxman
  • This was the first of five Touchstone movies that Richard Dreyfus would appear in
  • Burt Reynolds was offered the role of Jerry first.
  • Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson were initially offered the lead roles.
  • There are multiple references to past work by Richard Dreyfuss with Dreyfuss driving by a marquee for Jaws, Max running out at the start of the film when the police helicopter is overhead and filming the copter saying this was take one of Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind, when Dave was complaining about Max always having a camera, Barbara mentions that Steven Spielberg got his start the same way.
  • The film spawned a short-lived television adaptation of the same name the following year.
  • This is the only film appearance by Mike the dog.
  • Nick Nolte reportedly spent five weeks as a homeless person to prepare for the role.
  • The film is based on Jean Renoir’s Boudo Saved from Drowning.

See It/Skip It?

See It. if you have a chance. While Down and Out in Beverly Hills has many moments that will bring joy to the viewer, this 1986 commentary on the differences between the wealthy and the poor will connect with and play well to today’s audience. Down and Out in Beverly Hills not only humanizes a part of our community that is often neglected, it hints at the disparity between the treatment of people with different skin color, and still hits the notes about how money doesn’t buy happiness. Since the movie premiered in 1986, these social issues continue today. Down and Out in Beverly Hills is timeless and will connect with audiences for a long time to come.

Bill Gowsell
Bill Gowsell has loved all things Disney since his first family trip to Walt Disney World in 1984. Since he began writing for Laughing Place in 2014, Bill has specialized in covering the Rick Riordan literary universe, a retrospective of the Touchstone Pictures movie library, and a variety of other Disney related topics. When he is not spending time with his family, Bill can be found at the bottom of a lake . . . scuba diving