Paula Van Oppen, left, Christina Aguilera and Chelsea Traille in "Burlesque." (Screen Gems )
Christina Aguilera isn't the first struggling pop diva to try to become a big-screen star. Sony Screen Gems isn't the first low-budget studio to gamble on a bigger-budget picture. And Steven Antin isn't the first filmmaker to get his big break from a romantic partner.
But "Burlesque," a PG-13 musical opening Thanksgiving weekend, is freighted with all these elements, making it one of the riskiest and most unusual projects to come out of Hollywood this year.
Antin wrote and directed the $55-million movie — which tells the story of an Iowa girl (Aguilera) who goes from barmaid to leading lady as a singer and dancer in a Sunset Strip club — at the urging of Clint Culpepper, the president of Screen Gems and Antin's partner of 20 years.
The fishnets-and-bustiers extravaganza marks Aguilera's acting debut as well as the return of 64-year-old Cher to a starring role after an absence of more than a decade. But following a difficult production filled with on-set conflicts and a new ending shot at the last minute, it's unclear whether "Burlesque" will strike box office cabaret gold à la "Chicago" or will become a laughingstock like "Showgirls" or Mariah Carey's bomb "Glitter."
"There's an incredible amount of pressure on me that this movie performs well," said Antin, 52, whose only previous feature directing credit was a straight-to-DVD thriller starring Angie Harmon, also made for Screen Gems. "I know what it means for a studio to say yes and give you a lot of money."
Indeed, Antin has had a front-row view into the workings of showbiz at many levels over the years. His mother was a television executive, and he started acting at age 9, in a variety of roles including the film "Goonies" and TV's "NYPD Blue." His brother, Jonathan, is a celebrity hairstylist who was featured on the Bravo reality show "Blow Out." His sister, Robin, founded the Pussycat Dolls, a burlesque pop group. And before meeting Culpepper, Antin was romantically involved with music and film mogul David Geffen.
Antin's post-acting career has involved movie and TV projects, but nothing on the scale of directing a high-profile feature film. He wrote and starred in a movie accepted at the 1993 Sundance Film Festival, created the short-lived 2000 WB network teen soap opera "Young Americans," and produced reality shows starring the Pussycat Dolls. However, he acknowledges that many will see "Burlesque" as a movie that got made only because a studio executive did a favor for his boyfriend.
"I'm somewhat concerned about that, but ultimately, I know the truth," Antin said over lunch at the Polo Lounge, an entertainment industry hotspot where he frequently ate with his family while growing up. "No one gets a movie greenlit based on a relationship."
Screen Gems typically spends less than $30 million making its pictures and gravitates toward horror, action and teen comedies. It put more than twice that sum, before the benefit of a state tax credit, into making "Burlesque." Nevertheless, Culpepper, who noted that he has worked with 18 first-time directors in his career at Screen Gems, said he never even considered another director for the project.
"I thought that if the fact that we have a relationship going back 20 years is our biggest problem, we'd come out OK," Culpepper said of working with Antin. "There is no one else I would have had complete confidence in to make this movie like I did with Steven. I don't think I would have made 'Burlesque' with a stranger."
Before getting a green light to make "Burlesque," Antin met several times with Culpepper's boss, Sony Pictures co-chairman Amy Pascal, to convince her he was the right man for the job — and that he could land A-list talent.
Attracting big-name stars was one of the primary hurdles for "Burlesque," a project that Antin and Culpepper had discussed since the late 1990s but didn't gain momentum until several years ago, when the executive learned Aguilera was seeking a film role.
The singer said she was impressed by the intense preparation of Antin, who assembled hundreds of drawings, photographs and set models in an effort to recruit his leading ladies. "You could just tell this man had an appreciation of a woman's beauty in the most amazing, flattering, unbelievable way and I knew he was going to shoot me good," said Aguilera, adding that she decided to "throw caution to the wind" to work with Antin, despite his inexperience.
Aguilera's film debut comes in the wake of disappointing sales for her June album, "Bionic," and the postponement of a planned 20-city tour this past summer. Last month, the 29-year-old filed for divorce from her husband of five years.
Cher was a tougher sell than Aguilera. She got the script via her friend Geffen, who knew about the project because Antin and Culpepper had worked on it during a 10-day vacation on the mogul's yacht.