Tuesday, January 18, 2011

SEE THIS MOVIE: "Last Summer" Will Air on TCM February 1st

Frank and Eleanor Perry’s Last Summer (1969) is one of the lost gems of American cinema – long unavailable on DVD, only briefly available on VHS eons ago (buy a $75 copy on Amazon here!), and pretty much never screened retrospectively. The folks at Warner Archive have said that it’s one of most requested titles in their library, but their plans to release a DVD were scuttled (hopefully only temporarily) last year by the unavailability of a decent master. So, its appearance on Turner Classic Movies in early February is a momentous event, especially if it actually winds up being a decent copy. (The TCM website suggests it will not be letterboxed, but I don’t know how wide the cinematography was to begin with – I’ve only ever seen it on VHS.)

I wish I could say that Last Summer’s lack of availability was an aberration, but the fact is that most of the Perrys’ films are languishing in obscurity. Which is, frankly, a goddamned crime. On his own Frank is probably best known today (somewhat unfairly) as the guy who directed Mommie Dearest, but the first decade of his career – from David and Lisa in 1962 to Diary of a Mad Housewife in 1970 – in which he collaborated with his then-screenwriter-wife Eleanor, represents an amazing run of unusually sensitive, offbeat and mesmerizing films. Together, their best-known film is probably The Swimmer -- a bit ironic because it was taken out of their hands and much of it reshot by Sydney Pollack. 

Several years ago, I wrote an overview of the Perrys’ work for Moving Image Source. The bad news is that it's one of the few attempts at a critical assessment of their films anyone has written, anywhere. The good news is that a lot of people have contacted me over the years about it, suggesting that there's genuine interest in the Perrys' films out there. If only they were easier to find.

Last Summer is a strangely creepy coming of age film about three teenagers -- Sandy (Barbara Hershey), Peter (Richard Thomas), and Dan (Bruce Davison) – who befriend each other one summer in a beachside community, just as they’re discovering the awesome power of their own sexuality. They are teens, but like many of the Perrys’ characters – adults and kids -- they actually seem younger, almost childlike. The story plays out as a series of games these characters play with each other and with others; the central game involves each telling one truth about him or herself. 

But even as the kids profess to be truthful, they seem to be spinning greater and greater lies, their made-up world of increasingly cruel games only reinforced by the isolation (and desolation) around them. Their parents are virtually non-existent (Sandy’s mother might as well have that Peanuts wah-wah adult voice), and the outside world in general seems like some kind of distant planet. Into this potentially toxic environment walks Rhoda (Catherine Burns), a plump, precocious and troubled young girl who seems a lot wiser than these kids but also, perhaps, more trusting: When she chooses to play their truth game, she opens up in a way none of the others ever have. 

The story takes on darker and darker overtones, until we begin to realize that what we’re watching is not just an unusually focused psychodrama but also, perhaps, an allegory. There is a certain Lord of the Flies quality to it, I suppose, except that these kids aren’t stranded on some forgotten island. What seems at first like a typical rite of passage eventually turns into something monstrous. I have this strange theory that one could view almost all of Eleanor and Frank's films as post-apocalyptic -- their events and characters are always hovering around traumas both seen and unseen -- and sometimes I catch myself thinking of Last Summer as being set on some post-nuclear, semi-lunar landscape (albeit one with pretty beaches). I'd be curious if anyone else catches that vibe.

I realize I'm making the film sound rather grim and bleak and unpleasant, which it's not. The Perrys bring an odd mixture of lyricism and gothic menace to it, similar to how they took The Swimmer’s moody portrait of suburban angst and turned it into a kind of rhyming fairy tale about madness. The film is in no way naturalistic; the young actors give unusually mannered performances (which some viewers will no doubt find off-putting) and there’s an otherworldly look and sound to the whole thing.

I’ve never read the Evan Hunter novel Last Summer is based on, and I’m curious as to how much of what I’m seeing on screen comes from Eleanor’s script and how much of it comes from the book. I can say though that there are startling echoes between this film and so many of the Perrys’ other works.

Speaking of Eleanor: Those that are interested in these films should check out her novel Blue Pages (long out of print but easily findable for cheap), which is a fictionalized memoir of sorts, full of thinly-veiled portraits of people like Sam Spiegel, Burt Lancaster, Truman Capote, and (of course) Frank himself. I have no idea how much of it is actually true; it’s extremely mean-spirited, written after her divorce, but also extremely readable. Eleanor was a remarkable figure in her own right, having had a distinguished career as a suspense novelist and playwright -- in collaboration with her previous husband -- before hooking up with Frank. One wonders what she might have done in a world that didn’t insist on seeing her success in light of her husband’s.  Though let's give Frank his due, too: In the years immediately following their divorce, he continued a rather impressive run of films, including Doc, Rancho Deluxe, Play It As It Lays, and Man on a Swing.


  1. "Peanuts wah-wah adult voice." Great.

    Looking forward to this. I've been mesmerized by The Swimmer since the first time I saw it even though, as you've mentioned, Pollack's involvement is ironic. Thanks for the heads up!

  2. Thanks for the tip! I just watched it tonight and was mesmerized. It was very nearly as edgy in its own way as "Y Tu Mama Tambien," which I wouldn't have expected from a movie of its era.

  3. It played here a few years ago on a double bill with THE SWIMMER.

  4. Haven't seen it yet, but in early childhood caught "The Swimmer" on TV and it burned itself in my subconscious.

    Something caught my attention reading your article: Rhoda's relationship to Sandy, Peter and Dan reminds me of... bear with me....Lar's von Trier's "The Idiots" (1988). Spoiler ahead: a simple-minded woman named Karen (Bodil Jørgensen) runs away from a personal tragedy and finds refuge in a bizarre commune of rebels w fight against the system by behaving in public like, well, idiots. Little by little, their callowness is revealed and their commitment to the "cause" is compromised. Only Karen takes the idea to the limits, paying a high price for it.

    Have you seen "The Idiots"? Am I onto something?