Phyllis Nefler in “Troop Beverly Hills” showed me the kind of woman I want to be
Newly-arrived in Paris, Sally Jay Gorce, the bright, fizzy heroine of Elaine Dundy’s midcentury classic The Dud Avocado, happens upon the Champs-Élysées one evening at twilight. She walks down the grand, tree-lined boulevard in rapture, the world seeming so shiny and luscious all of a sudden. Here, she thinks, “here was all the gaiety and glory and sparkle I knew was going to be life if I could just grasp it.”
This is the way I felt the first time I watched Troop Beverly Hills.
We watch movies to see our stories or escape them. For me, Troop Beverly Hills was a bit of both. I can’t remember the precise moment I came across it — the specific sleepover or birthday party that culminated in a screening of the 1989 comedy in its purest, VHS form. What I know is that it quickly became an integral part of the cultural rotation in my friend group, along with Grease, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and Clueless. We saw ourselves in the movie’s depiction of spoiled-yet-loveable girl scouts from the 90210. We, too, were divas in miniature, hailing from the privilege-saturated enclaves of West Los Angeles. If not Beverly Hills, then Bel-Air or Brentwood. We had also been scouts (“Brownies,” to be accurate), donning horribly unflattering, Hershey-chocolate uniforms of skort and vest, selling boxes of cookies to the guests at our parents’ dinner parties.
My friends and I lapped up the (exaggerated, hilarious) representation of our niche experience on the big screen. We each picked which troop member was most like us and therefore our favorite. I never identified with one girl in particular, though. If Troop Beverly Hills clicked on something in me, it was this: I knew I wanted to be like Phyllis Nefler when I grew up.
I still do.
In Troop Beverly Hills, Shelley Long plays Phyllis, a sparkly, well-heeled housewife with bouncy curls of clementine hair and a fondness for wearing daring couture fashions in the everyday. Amid her separation from Mr. Nefler (a post-Poltergeist, pre-Parenthood Craig T. Nelson), Phyllis volunteers to be the new leader for her daughter’s beleaguered troop of Wilderness Girls. The troop is full of those sweet, overindulged children — spawns of plastic surgeons, directors, and unspecified jet-setters — determined to prove they are “real” Wilderness Girls. And what’s realer and wilder than the Machiavellian thunderdome of Rodeo Drive?
Phyllis leads the girls in the development of a, let’s say, cosmopolitan and class-specific, set of ethics. Under her guidance, they learn excellent grooming habits at Cristophe, observe the proceedings of divorce court, and model fall fashions for the blind. They peddle cookies at Spago like cigarette girls (ah, the ’80s). They earn patches for skills such as jewelry appraisal, sushi appreciation, and “gardening with glamour.” Stranded in the woods and incompetent with compasses, they use their knowledge of the department store geography on Wilshire Boulevard to inform their sense of direction.
The movie seems frivolous — and, don’t get me wrong, it is — but it also shapes itself into something like an ode to friendship, self-motivation, and girl power. I have to think it was this, paired with its glittery outrageousness and the way it satisfied my youthful narcissism, which made the film such a cornerstone of my childhood.
Phyllis spends the movie fighting to defend her self-worth against the belittlement of her naysayers (a husband who thinks her only talent involves a gold Amex and a flick of the wrist; a rival troop leader named Velda who represents the purest manifestation of evil since the hunter that killed Bambi’s mom). While at times, Phyllis seems about as flighty as the sheer sleeves of her fur-lined, orchid pink nightgown, she retains her indefatigable sense of self. Even as Velda demeans her at every turn, Phyllis smiles and soldiers on. When faced with an obstacle or a criticism, she doesn’t sulk. Sure, she cries in her bed and wears a lacy black muu muu and overdoses on Evian—she’s only human. But, with the help of her girls, her friends, she picks herself up and gets back to work.
As the movie progresses, Phyllis transforms from a woman who, literally and metaphorically, “gets lost in her walk-in closet,” to a capable, confident leader, without sacrificing the core qualities that make her sparkle: her style, her creativity, and her genuine joie de vivre. More than not surrendering these qualities, she embraces and enhances them and uses them to help her troop succeed. Isn’t that a wonderful lesson to learn when you’re a kid? That the key to success lies not in denying your instincts but in becoming more like yourself?
We need to take a moment here to talk about Mrs. Nefler’s outfits. Nowhere does her taste for spectacle shine quite like in her clothes. In roughly 100 minutes, she wears more than 30 different ensembles. In that arsenal, there are pastel bustles, safari jodhpurs, and waist-nipping Wilderness Girl uniforms. There are capes lined in green satin and gold lamé. There are hats: berets; mini tricorns; cloches; fascinators with quail feathers; wide-brimmed, straw disks with a radii of dwarf planets. There are shoulder pads and gigot sleeves and polka dot peplums and culottes. There’s an open-front zebra-print skirt that she wears over matching pants while picking lemons in her backyard, and a garland-trimmed seersucker sundress resembling a stack of hard-shell tacos.
If it wasn’t clear from that list, Phyllis is never going to be the kind of no-nonsense, militaristic troop leader Velda is. Phyllis is very, very pro-nonsense. Every event she plans for the troop has tremendous production value. For the inaugural Wilderness Girls meeting, there’s an al fresco, Lucullan feast (“Is the caviar too much?” she wonders). For their patch ceremony, she throws together an RSVP-only shindig at the marina. For their requisite camping trip, she packs a fondue set in her Louis Vuitton trunks and rents a palatial cabana, only to abandon the site because, she reports from the Beverly Hills Hotel, “it rains there!”
Phyllis’ commitment to making every moment special for the girls and herself reflects her belief that life can be this big, beautiful thing, full of gaiety, glory, and sparkle. There is no shame in wanting splendor and spectacle, in refusing to settle for drab. Entrenched in the movie is the conviction that no one is any less worthy of being taken seriously if she enjoys shopping or cares deeply about things like jewelry and fine dining and avoiding perms. It’s this conviction that makes Troop Beverly Hills a total and utter triumph of fancifulness. And a story that has clung tightly to me since the first time I experienced it, nearly two decades ago.
Beside the inexhaustible moxie and extravagant fashions, there is one other element of Phyllis Nefler’s character that I was always drawn to: her kindness. Phyllis possesses a grace so infectious that it adheres to the mysticism of Reaganomics — it trickles down. The girls in her troop, though spoiled, are not rotten. None of them behave like bratty, greedy Veruca Salt-types. They are friendly and generous. They look out for each other. Inspired by Phyllis, they even look out for people who have wronged them — who have taken every opportunity to minimize their work.
I wasn’t always the kindest child. I was quick to abandon friends when I ascended social ranks. I had a biting sense of humor. I could be vicious, moody, and ungrateful. I once threw a temper tantrum on a Brownies field trip to an aquarium because my mother wouldn’t buy me a giant, exorbitant plush sea otter toy. She stood there in a skirt-suit, having left work early to chaperone, and steamed in mortification as I yelled outside the gift store about how she didn’t love me enough.
I was aware that my temperament was a weakness but the awareness did not change my behavior. It did, however, make me aspire to grow up to be someone like Phyllis Nefler, a woman with cheeriness, gratitude, and creative vision, who looks to the best in people and knows how to savor every last sequin, statement hat, and pearl of cappuccino foam that comes her way. It made me aspire to be someone who approaches life with the same optimism that Phyllis displays at her first Wilderness Girls meeting when she says: “I can see that we’re going to have a fabulous, little time. Because, I can see that you’re all special, unique, fabulous little people just raring to go.”