The Diva Whisperer
BY Ari Karpel
November 19 2010 4:00 AM ET
Antin had directed only one movie before—a direct-to-DVD-thriller, Glass House: The Good Mother, starring Angie Harmon—but, says Culpepper, “I knew that he could do it and he hadn’t gotten the opportunity.” The two shared a vision of burlesque—musical parody with sexual innuendo, as it originated in Europe in the 1800s, before it got muddled together with stripping. “He’d directed music videos and he really gets the whole song-and-dance thing,” Culpepper says. “And he used to be an actor, so I knew he could get the performances.”
Culpepper had confidence in Antin for another reason: They have known each other for 20 years, and they have been romantically involved, a fact that Antin would rather not discuss, beyond “It’s complicated.”
No doubt, the whole undertaking was complicated. Antin had to figure out what the story would be—Ali (Aguilera) is a small-town girl with big-city dreams. She wants to dance and sing on the stage of Burlesque Lounge, a present-day Los Angeles nightclub where Tess (Cher), the reigning former diva, runs the old-fashioned show. Antin then worked with studio executives to bring his fantasy of drama, comedy, romance, and musical diva worship to life.
As is often the case in Hollywood, other screenwriters came in to rewrite him. But unlike most credited screenwriters, Antin is humble enough to admit it. “We brought in everyone,” he says, digging into a chicken breast with steamed vegetables and brown rice. “They rewrote me, I rewrote them, they rewrote me, I rewrote them.” Among those writers: Diablo Cody (Juno); Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich); comedian Bruce Vilanch; even John Patrick Shanley—who won an Oscar for writing Cher’s Academy Award–winning role in Moonstruck.
Burlesque is Antin’s big directing break, but this director is hardly new to the business. One glance at his Wikipedia page brings on a wave of memories: In the video for Rick Springfield’s 1981 hit “Jessie’s Girl,” he played enviable Jessie; in The Last American Virgin, he was Rick, the ladies’ man; in The Goonies, he played Troy, the preppy jock badass who was all about the cheerleader; and in The Accused, starring Jodie Foster, he was one of the drunken rapists. A role in the gay ensemble film It’s My Party and a stint as a homicide detective on NYPD Blue capped his acting career as he moved on to creating the TV series Young Americans and writing the movies Chasing Papi and Inside Monkey Zetterland.
“I don’t watch any of that stuff,” says the 52-year-old Antin, who played teenagers until he was well into his 30s. “I just can’t.” He grew up in Los Angeles’s San Fernando Valley, in an artistic family that was the inspiration for Zetterland, which he wrote, produced, and starred in, about a screenwriter–former child actor with a vain hairdresser brother and a neurotic mother. Antin’s real-life sister, Robin (“We talk every day,” he says), created the burlesque-esque girl group Pussycat Dolls, which Steven has had a hand in producing; his younger brother, Jonathan, a celebrity hairdresser, was the focus of Bravo’s 2004-2006 reality show Blow Out. “We have such a contentious relationship,” says Antin of his famously high-strung brother. “I’ll be at my mom’s house and he’ll be there and he’ll go, ‘Your hair looks fucking weird. Come here,’ and he cuts it, like, in the street, or by the pool. He’ll just chop into it.”