Sunday, March 18, 2012

Cruel 'Summer'


"Last Summer" is a terrific coming-of-age drama from 1969 about the dynamic of a quartet of teens.

The director is Frank Perry, whose small yet intriguing filmography includes 1962's "David and Lisa," which deals with problems that confine the teens to a mental institution, "Last Summer's" teens are more freewheeling yet no less troubled.

"Last Summer" opens with Peter (Richard Thomas) and Dan (Bruce Davison) wandering by themselves along an Eastern seaboard beach carrying a radio under the hot sun. They come upon the beautiful Sandy (Barbara Hershey), who is trying to save an injured seagull. They think she's hot, but she's more interested in enlisting their help. The three save the bird and become fast friends.

Beer becomes their truth serum. Peter and Dan want to bed Sandy, and she teases them with her sexuality. Sandy knows she holds the power and becomes a ringleader to these two willing followers. Her ever-present bikini becomes one of her most powerful weapons, and she enjoys keeping Peter and Dan keenly interested without giving in to them.

One afternoon on the beach with the seagull, the three are approached by Rhoda (Catherine Burns), who assumes they are hurting the bird. They ridicule her and send her off, but Rhoda returns again. She's the opposite of Sandy - not a beauty, with braces and a frumpy swimming suit. But while Sandy boasts of her high IQ, it's Rhoda who's the smart one. The three allow Rhoda to stay although at times verbally abuse her.
I like how there are few others around in "Last Summer." It reminded me of "Lord of the Flies" and how a hierarchy evolves without adults present. It's as if these four are on their own island, trying to act like adults but not fully comprehending the consequences of their decisions. At one point Dan says "We're not kids here," but they aren't yet adults, either.

Unfortunately, their parents are not the best role models. Sandy's divorced mother is sleeping with a man who once fondled Sandy; Dan's parents smoke marijuana and party and do a poor job of hiding this from their son; and Peter's parents fight so much that he just wants to get away from them.

Rhoda replaces the seagull as a project for the other three. But the level-headed Rhoda brings an unsettling reality to this group, and Sandy in particular feels threatened, especially when Peter begins to show a protective interest in Rhoda. However, Rhoda's weakness is a need to belong, and Sandy uses this to her advantage, leading to a shockingly cruel climax.

Perry clearly can tap into the emotions facing teens, starting with "David and Lisa." At that time, it was independent films or the British new wave that treated teens seriously while studios equated teens and summertime to bubble-headed beach films. But moviemaking changed so much that by the late 1960s, "Last Summer's" emotional openness was more in line with a new wave of storytelling, from "Midnight Cowboy" to "Easy Rider."

The actors are amazing. This was Davison's and Burns' first big-screen film, and it was one of the first for Thomas and Hershey. Burns earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination for her efforts.

"Last Summer" surprised me with its emotional impact. While it may not be as shocking as it must have been in 1969, the story still feels fresh. Director Perry (who also made "Diary of a Mad Housewife" and "Mommie Dearest") and screenwriter Eleanor Perry (Frank's first wife), adapting from Evan Hunter's novel, deserve credit for giving 1960s teens something beyond endless beach parties.

14 comments:

  1. Strong review of a potent, disturbing film that used to be something of a cult movie. The Perrys' early films all warrant viewing, especially DAVID AND LISA and THE SWIMMER. By the way, LAST SUMMER resulted in Barbara Hershey temporarily changing her last name to Seagull. When one of the birds died during filming, Hershey commented that she felts its soul enter her. She changed her name back to Hershey a few years later.

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  2. Thanks, Rick. "The Swimmer" is an unusual film, as is the short story from Cheever. I like that Perry mostly tackled projects that weren't mainstream. And thanks for the tidbit on Hershey, which I did not know.

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  3. I do remember Barbara changing her name to Seagull. Those were the days of children named Rainbow and Moonflower - LOL! CFB, I've never seen this movie, and I really would like to. It sounds good, and now I'm dying to know what the climax is! Good review!

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  4. Thank you! We're going to a production of "Hair" this weekend ... I've actually never seen it, not even the movie, so in keeping with the late '60s trend ... LOL

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  5. I got to see a production of the Broadway troupe of Hair in about 1969/70 at the Circle Theatre in Downtown Indianapolis. I remember the Sheriff and deputies were there to stop the show if they did the famous nude scene. It was electric that night -- everybody wondering what would happen, the show was great. The scene was done and lighted in such a way, though, that it didn't show anything really, so the police just stayed and watched the show!

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    1. That's terrific! I am definitely looking forward to the show.

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  6. I have not yet seen the classic film, "Last Summer", because I'm not really a Richard Thomas fan. Your awesome review has peaked my interest.. I will look for it.

    I have seen the movie "Hair". I think you will like the play, if you are into the "60s".

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    1. Watching "Last Summer" has put me into a '60s frame of mind, so I am looking forward to "Hair."

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  7. I haven't seen this one, Brian, though I do remember the Barbara Seagull era. And I remember that she was involved with David Carradine of "Kung Fu" fame for some years. I've never been a great fan of hers or of Richard Thomas (though I did think he was fine in "Red Sky at Morning" from around the same time), which may be why I haven't seen "Last Summer" yet. Bruce Davison's career took a strange and interesting turn with "Willard" - yet he managed to move on and enjoy a long, busy career without having to portray nothing but social misfits.

    Your recommendation carries more weight than my former aversion to Hershey and Thomas, so I think I'll track "Last Summer" down.

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    1. I hope you do check it out. I think you may be surprised by it. Let me know if you see it.

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  8. CFB,
    Thanks for reviewing this film. I've heard about it in passing but I've never seen it aired.

    Richard Thomas was pretty cute in that "Beatles bob" and the way you described Rhoda with her braces and frumpy swim suit. While Sandy uses her beauty to get what she wants. Barbara Hershey is a great actress! Another reason I'd like to catch this film.

    Did you ever see "Shy People" 1987 with Hershey and Clayburgh? Hershey plays a disturbed back woods hillbilly but it's a really good film. Bizarre but gripping.

    I hope to find Last Summer but for now I'll be looking forward to your Blogathon contribution.
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  9. You'll definitely have to check this one out. I did see "Shy People" and remember liking it, although I don't remember it well.

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  10. I just found this on your blog. I loved this movie since I first saw it back in '69 ( I know I am aging myself here). Believe it or not this film was originally rated X before being changed to an R. Not sure if they had to clip a scene or not (they may
    have won a change on appeal) but I have seen newsparper ads from the period that can attest to it. The acting is particularly good, even Richard Thomas who I generally find annoying. I reviewed this myself a while back.

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  11. Glad to hear you liked this one, as I did too. I wonder, if like Midnight Cowboy, it was an X and then later became an R because what was considered X in 1969 changed in less than two years. Anyway, it's still a great film.

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