In any female friendship (or male one, for that matter–though to a somewhat lesser extent), there is a stronger, more powerful party, a manipulator. The manipu-bitch, if you will. In Whit Stillman’s third feature, The Last Days of Disco, Charlotte Pingress (Kate Beckinsale), is that person. Her viewpoint on her so-called charity toward her new friend, Alice Kinnon (Chloë Sevigny), is an indication of her delusion in believing that her actions are motivated by kindness, not self-interest. Tackling the New York club scene sometime in “the very early 1980s,” Charlotte and Alice find themselves in pursuit of the same men and the same job title (they also work together at a book publishing house).
Although Charlotte and Alice went to Hampshire College together, Charlotte insists the two were never friends because Charlotte felt Alice was “a bit critical. The guys there preferred women who are more laid-back.” When Alice indignantly replies, “I’m laid-back,” Charlotte condescendingly returns, “For whatever reason, you didn’t have much of a social life there.” Wearing down all of Alice’s self-confidence, Charlotte continues to use her talents in the art of manipulation by presenting her criticisms as helpful hints about how Alice can improve her love life. Because, after all, as Charlotte puts it bluntly, “I don’t want you to be in that terrible situation again where everyone hated you.”
And, by Charlotte’s logic, getting people (read: men) to not hate you means acting in a less “kindergarten teacher” manner. So adept at making Alice feel uncertain about herself is Charlotte that the former ends up being dissuaded from pursuing her true interest, Jimmy Steinway (Mackenzie Astin), an ad man who has been having difficulty lately getting into the Club in spite of being connected to one of the lower level managers there, Des McGrath (Chris Eigeman). Because of the club owner’s, Bernie (David Thornton), vehement distrust of anyone in the advertising world, specifically stating, “I don’t want that element in the club,” Jimmy is forced to skulk around and disguise himself in order to continue taking clients there to impress them. Meanwhile, Charlotte directs Alice’s interest toward Tom Platt (Robert Sean Leonard), an environmental lawyer who also went to Harvard with Jimmy–in fact, they’re all Ivy League men who know each other from college, further emphasizing the incestuous nature of club life and New York City in general.
As Charlotte subtly hones in on Jimmy, she persists in giving bad advice to Alice about how to keep men interested, telling her she should always find the ways to incorporate the word “sexy” into sentences–this leads Alice to comment of Tom’s Scrooge McDuck collection: “There’s something really sexy about Scrooge McDuck.” Later, this will come back to haunt her when Tom tells her that he was briefly separated from his girlfriend when he slept with her, and that their one-night stand motivated him to go back to her because of how slutty Alice acted. Horrified over her faux pas–over going against what her own inner voice told her–Alice runs out of the club in a flustered state of sadness. Still, Charlotte’s sabotage is too covert in this case to prevent Alice from seeing through her well enough to know better than to move in with her to–very much against her wishes–a railroad apartment in which she ends up getting the middle room (they also have another roommate named Holly [Tara Subkoff]).
Elsewhere, Charlotte’s manipulation extends to the workplace, where she tries to dissuade Alice from recommending a book supposedly written by the Dalai Lama’s brother, deeming her thorough reading of the manuscript “self-indulgent.” In the end, however, Alice’s rallying for the book pays off enough to get her a promotion to Associate Editor. But before this piece of good news, Alice must come to terms with the fact that, after her first time at sex, she has contracted gonorrhea and herpes from Tom, which Charlotte points out in front of all of their friends at the Club.
Even so, Charlotte’s skills in manipu-bitchery keep Alice holding on until Charlotte gets to be the one to decide to terminate their friendship upon learning that Jimmy expressed feelings of amorousness toward Alice. While lying in a hospital bed after miscarrying Jimmy’s child, she tells Alice she wants her to move out, victimizing herself in order to save face and persist in the belief that she is the farthest thing from ill-intentioned. But, one supposes every naïve girl who moves to the city for the first time must go through the pain of befriending a manipu-bitch. It’s a rite of passage, like puberty or death.