Tuesday, February 12, 2013

LAST SUMMER 1969

The occasion of a recent TCM screening of the R-rated edit of this forgotten minor masterpiece from the late 60s (one of several by director Frank Perry yet to make it to DVD - Play It As It Lays, Diary of a Mad Housewife) inspired me to seek out the X-rated version I still remembered so vividly from my youth. And as memories go, that’s really saying something, for the youth I speak of is the summer of 1969 when I was 12 years old. In 1969, the newly-instated motion picture rating system (G, M, R, and X) designated the X rating for films with mature themes from which anyone under the age of 17 was prohibited. Contrary to what “adult” and “X-rated” has come to signify today (porn), back in 1969 Hollywood harbored the idealistically na├»ve hope that such a restrictive rating would both serve to protect local standards of decency while ensuring filmmakers maximal artistic freedom and minimal censorship interference.
(Boy, just writing the above sentence made me all wistful and nostalgic for why the late 60s and 70s remains my favorite era in American film. The notion that mainstream Hollywood believed, even briefly, in the notion that there was such an animal as a mature adult audience is near unimaginable in today’s climate of pandering, lowest common denominator comic book franchises.)
At left: The vague, rather arty newspaper ad for Last Summer containing it original X-rating. Right: The provocative wide-release one-sheet poster with the R-rating. (Newspaper image courtesy of Obscure One-Sheet).
Before America’s repressed and essentially hypocritical attitude about all things sexual reared its head, a slew of intriguing X-rated films were released (The Damned, Midnight Cowboy, Last Tango in Paris, Last Summer, A Clockwork Orange, Medium Cool), giving the false impression that American movies had at last grown up. Alas, it was not to be, and soon “X” was appropriated by the porn industry and the MPAA (the industry rating board) embarked on a course of action — doling out harsh ratings for minor displays of sexuality, yet showing absurd leniency with acts of extreme violence — that over the years rendered it, if not a laughingstock, then certainly irrelevant.
Barbara Hershey as Sandy
Richard Thomas as Peter
Bruce Davidson as Dan
Catherine Burns as Rhoda
The summer of 1969 saw the release of John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy and Frank Perry’s Last Summer within months of one another. Everyone was talking about these two high-profile, controversial X-rated features, and, thanks to the lax admittance policies of my local movie theater, I was able to see both that summer, in spite of my tender years. Midnight Cowboy, of course, went on to great acclaim and a Best Picture Academy Award win, but Last Summer (in spite of having garnered a Best Supporting Actress nod for newcomer Catherine Burns) has been all but forgotten.
I’m not sure whether it was when the film went into wide release in theaters or when it made it to home video, but eventually some of Last Summer’s X-rated intensity (centered mostly on the film’s harrowing climax) was edited down to an R. If you weren't around in 1969 and you managed to catch this film at all, the R-rated cut is most likely the only one you’re familiar with, and it’s this version that Turner Classic Movies recently aired. Mind you, even this mildly truncated version of Last Summer is still pretty strong stuff, its brief omissions only marginally softening the effect of the film’s intentionally blunt sexuality and merciless depiction of a particularly base aspect of human cruelty. Still, this wasn't the film I remembered and I felt cheated. Happily, thanks to the trusty internet, I was able to track down an unedited copy of Last Summer (as well as a copy of the long out-of-print soundtrack album!) and I have to say, getting to see this film in its entirety for the first time in 43 years has been every bit the emotionally wrenching experience it was when I first saw it as a pre-teen movie theater scofflaw. (Taking into account changing times, even in its unedited form, Last Summer would only garner an R-rating today. A soft one, at that.)
In a scene emphasizing Sandy's sexual acquisitiveness and dominance over the boys' relative inexperience, she and Dan come across two lovers making out on a remote part of the beach. When it's discovered that the lovers are two men, Dan wants to leave but Sandy insist they stay and watch.
With its title a darkly ironic harkening back to the innocent, sun-and-sand Gidget movies of the sixties, or those sexually innocuous Frankie & Annette Beach Party romps, Last Summer is perhaps one of the harshest eviscerations of adolescent social dynamics I've ever seen. Neither a youth-pandering idealization of the Pepsi Generation of the sort typified by late-60s films like The Graduate and Easy Rider, nor one of those nostalgically sentimental coming-of-age films that would later flourish in the 70s (The Summer of ’42, The Last Picture Show, American Graffiti); Last Summer is adolescence viewed through a doggedly nihilistic prism.
A trio of teens vacationing with their parents on Fire Island strike up an intimate friendship when callow, future fratboy, Dan, and sensitive go-alonger, Peter (Davidson and Thomas) come upon sexually precocious brainiac, Sandy (Hershey- “Well you asked me, so don’t think I’m boasting, but my IQ is 157.”) tending to a wounded seagull on the beach. Bonding over their shared isolation, sexual restlessness, and an overweening, heretofore unplumbed disdain for the feelings of others, the threesome find the dynamics of their tightly-knit group challenged with the appearance of Rhoda, a bright but shy and awkward girl who insinuates herself into the fold.
Loners
One of the film's few sympathetic characters, Rhoda is introduced committing a simple act of decency: she tries to get the trio to stop tormenting the seagull they're attempting to make into a pet. 
Plump and pale to their tall and tawny; braces- wearing and happy to act her age to the trio’s fevered acceleration into adulthood; it’s fairly obvious from the start that Rhoda’s emotional self-assurance and killjoy, sober decency is a wrong mix for this crowd (who find in Rhoda another “project” like the injured gull). Yet the point is keenly made by the film that in adolescence, the pain of loneliness can be so acute that even the belittling company of those who fail to see your value is sometimes preferable to being alone.
Poignance is derived from the realization that all four teens come from broken or troubled homes and that   together they could have faced their shared loneliness, alienation, and struggles for identity in ways enriching for them both as friends and individually. That summer could have been memorable for a lot of good reasons. But, being at its heart an existential parable on authenticity, dread, and the concept of decency as a choice one makes as readily as one can choose cruelty, Last Summer is a season made memorable for our protagonists in ways none of them could have foreseen and none will likely ever forget.
Rhoda and Peter's tentative friendship threatens the dynamic of the group

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
 Like so many of my favorite films from this era: They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, Midnight Cowboy, Puzzle of a Downfall Child, even Rosemary's Baby; Last Summer is for me a brilliant example of how fascinating the results can be when mainstream movies and art films combine. What all these films have in common is their being accessible narratives that nevertheless convey the darker aspects of American disillusionment in the late 60s. Movies today tend to feed audiences comforting images of themselves and set out to reinforce tissue-thin myths we harbor about everything from sexual politics to racism. Although I don't require it in every film I see, I must say I enjoy it when movies hold up a mirror to American culture that reveals the decay behind the gloss. 
Last Summer fails to skirt the uncomfortable racist implications behind the privileged arrogance of the Aryan blond teens in their all-white enclaves who idiotically mimic the contrived slave dialect of Gone With the Wind, and, in this painful scene, make cruel, racist jokes at the expense of Anibal Gomez (Ernesto Gonzalez) a sweet and lonely  Puerto Rican computer date set-up for the reluctant Rhoda.
Movies in the 60s/70s were comfortable with revealing the darker shades of human nature. In fact, one of my strongest memories of seeing films during this period was getting the distinct impression I was never going to see a movie with a happy ending again. I loved that I was seeing movies that were making me think, making me feel...but at times it seemed as if every movie released during my teens ended in some devastating tragedy. Even the musicals were downers (Sweet Charity)!

PERFORMANCES:
Playing perhaps on type and using his young cast's relative acting inexperience to their benefit (Last Summer is the film debut of all but Barbara Hershey, who appeared in Doris Day's last film, With Six You Get Eggroll just the year before) Frank Perry gets natural and surprisingly complex performances out everyone, particularly Catherine Burns. Although lacking in the sort of easy, obvious camaraderie Peter Bogdanovich was able to achieve with his cast in The Last Picture Show (most apparent in an uncomfortably forced, "teens bonding" sequence that gives credence to Hershey's claim that despite the intimacy required of their roles, the cast didn't become close during the making of the film), each actor achieves a kind of heroic bravery in allowing themselves to be presented so unpleasantly.
New Blood
Bruce Davidson found success starring in the 1971 thriller, Willard; Barbara Hershey went go on to make headlines throughout the 70s for being David Carradine's "old lady" and breast feeding their child on The Dick Cavett Show; and Richard Thomas became world famous as TV's John-Boy Walton. Ironically, it would be Cathy Burns, garnering the lion's share of the film's best reviews and Last Summer's sole Academy Award nod, who, after being reunited with Richard Thomas in 1971's Red Sky at Morning, disappeared into oblivion after years of TV appearances.
Much has been made of Burn's virtuoso monologue that most deservedly won her an Oscar nomination, and indeed, Burns does give the film's most shaded performance. But Barbara Hershey's assured and dynamic performance as the dreamgirl sociopath is one that has really stayed with me over the years. Carnal, conniving, straightforward and deeply troubled, I think her characterization is so genuinely terrifying because she is just such a recognizable brand of emotional / intellectual bully. Long a favorite of mine and a definite object of my boyhood crush, I'm glad she's still around making films (even scarier as the ballet-mom in Black Swan!) and proving herself a talented and enduring actress.
Barbara Hershey  (born Barbara Hertzstein) briefly changed her name to Barbara Seagull after she claimed the the spirit of a  seagull accidentally killed during the making of Last Summer had entered her body. She stated that it was a moral choice born of feeling guilty about its death. It was also a very hippie-esque one for the actress who would later name her illegitimate son by David Carradine, "Free," and planted the child's afterbirth under an apricot tree in her back yard "...so he can eat the fruit nurtured by our own bodies." Coming to her senses, Hershey eventually dropped the Seagull, and her son now goes by very un-Flower Child  but less giggle-prone name of Tom. 
Poster for the 1975 film, Diamonds, featuring Barbara Hershey with her "Seagull" billing
THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
Perhaps the parallel symbolism is all too heavy-handed for some, but what I loved about this film in 1969 and what still stands up marvelously in 2013 are the parallels drawn between the film's early sequences involving the attempt to rehabilitate and then train the wounded seagull, and the introduction of the character of Rhoda into the group. The foreshadowing of the film's agonizing denouement is as clear-cut and unalterable as a self-fulfilling prophecy, but what grips me is what lies behind why it happens at all.
To see this film now is to understand what occurs inside any group or individual in power when threatened with the loss of that power. Whether it be the behavior of the GOP in the last election or the reluctance of certain states to grasp the inevitability of same-sex marriage; it all fit paints an ugly portrait of cowardice cloaked in entitled domination. To find all of this within a teenage coming-of-age film is just brilliant, and why this film deserves to be seen.
The casual distractions of an idle summer gradually escalate into experimentation with sex and drugs.
THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
For years on the internet there have been reports of Last Summer finally getting a DVD release. Its reemergence on cable TV and a recent American Cinemateque screening of a long-lost, uncut 16mm print  hint that perhaps one day soon this will  be be the case. I certainly hope so. Not only is it one of the best of several forgotten films of the late 60s and 70s worthy of re-discovery, but its themes are no less relevant today than they were in 1969. Sure, the antisocial behavior and so-called explicit dialog of these teens looks positively quaint in the face of what goes on in the hyper-sexualized, accelerated world of adolescents today, but one of the points Last Summer makes clear that still applies, is that play-acting at being grown-up by engaging in adult behavior is by no stretch of the imagination the same thing as genuine maturity. A smart and insightful character-driven motion picture, Last Summer is a reminder of how good movies can be when filmmakers care about something beyond being a hit at the boxoffice.
Notes:
I read Evan Hunter’s novel Last Summer not long after seeing the film and I’d highly recommend it. Eleanor Perry’s screenplay is a faithful adaptation of the book, which is every bit as disturbing as the film. The slight novel provides a bit more backstory to the characters and is told in the form of a flashback memory recounted by an emotionally shattered Peter to his psychiatrist. In 1973 Hunter wrote a sequel to Last Summer titled, Come Winter. I’d say that both novels are unavailable and out of print, but is anything really out of print with eBay around?

Evan Hunter, famous for the novel Blackboard Jungle, is also well known to Hitchcock fans as the screenwriter of The Birds. He was fired from his duties on Hitchcock’s next film, Marnie, for reasons far too ironic to recount here. Those who are interested can find the info in the trivia section of IMDB’s Marnie page.

The late director Frank Perry, largely forgotten today, was one of the heavy hitters in the Golden Age of the New Hollywood. He is responsible for two of the best films to come out of the era: Last Summer and Diary of a Mad Housewife. Making it all the more incomprehensible to me that this is the same Frank Perry who gave us the execrable laugh-fest, Monsignor (1982), and the exquisite awfulness of Mommie Dearest. Talk about your loss of innocence.

Copyright © Ken Anderson

20 comments:

  1. Would it be cruel of me to suggest that whatever mistakes Frank Perry made as a director in his film career, that was the part of him that flowed down the family tree to contaminate a certain other Perry with an overwhelming lack of talent?

    (Yes, I was surprised, too).

    No apologies, her songs are awful.



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    1. I couldn't agree more. Serious ear torture in that department (and yes, I was surprised by that fact gleaned through internet research, too).

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  2. This was on TCM recently! Luckily I recorded it. LOVE Barbara Hershey.

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    1. Hi Brad
      I'm really grateful TCM brought this film to a lot of people's attention. It is really one of the great lost films of the 60s. And yes, loving Barbara Hershey is pretty easy ( I had a crush on her since way back when I first saw her on "Gidget"). Thanks for commenting!

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  3. It is weird how two of Perry's best and most talked-about (in their day) films have vanished - "Last Summer" and "Diary of a Mad Housewife."
    He really was a pioneering American indie filmmaker and he doesn't get the credit he deserves. Even "David and Lisa" is off most movie buffs' radar these days and it was a big hit that got Perry a best director Oscar nomination.
    With almost everything turning up on DVD these days, I've assumed that the disappearance of the distributor of "Last Summer" (Allied Artists) might have something to do with it vanishing.
    You are so right about the role of the X rating in 1969-73. "If..." was another key film of that time that a major distributor (Paramount) put out in an X version without anyone seeming to mind.

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    1. Hi Joe
      Yes, given how much Frank Perry's work embodies so much of what the New Hollywood was about, it surprises me as well that he and his films are so seldom discussed. I think his films stand up remarkably well, although I seriously don't know what was going on in his later career.
      thanks for mentioning "If..." - a well-received X-rated film that i have yet to see. Those days of "X" signifying films with adult themes that didn't need to water -down their presentation to be acceptable to teens was a brief but important time in cinema. I mourn it.

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  4. Ken, you and others are so right about the initial X rating, that was eventually tweaked into NC-17 (which is still a category that practically no one wants to fall into!) It's a shame.

    As to Miss Hershey and her seagull phase, I recall reading an interview in which she and her Carradine husband(?) had intended to eat the placenta that came along with their new baby, Free, and they attempted it, but weren't able to continue, so they went out into the yard and buried it.... Ah, the 70s... I saw her the other night in The Stunt Man and thought she was quite good in it, especially in a scene that had her manipulated into crying on cue. I still need to see Last Summer, but enjoyed reading about it. Thanks!

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    1. Hi Poseidon
      The trajectory of "X" from being an accepted rating that didn't stigmatize a film, to one associated with the likes of "Myra Breckinridge" and "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" was swift. Too bad. Kind of like the Pre-Code Hollywood days...it was just interesting what stories could be told when filmmakers felt free.
      As for Barbara Hershey, throughout the 70s her oddball life choices played havoc with her career. She was no Lindsay Lohan, but for a time she was mentioned in "Rona Barrett's Hollywood" more for her ostentatiously hippie-esque behavior than for her usually terrific performances. Oddly, her biggest high-profile success (Beaches) is my least favorite performance of hers.
      She's a big fave of mine and I hear she is a real sweetheart. Thanks for always stopping by, Poseidon!

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  5. Regarding Barbara Hershey's so-called placenta eating incident, in a 1987 Playboy magazine interview, she categorically denies that rumor. Much of her early career was mis-reported which is one reason why she chooses not to discuss that time of her life in interviews. People tend to believe gossip so whatever she says to attempt to clear those stories falls on deaf ears. She has since then reinvented herself time and again proving to the industry that she is a compassionate, versatile and talented, albeit underrated performer whose career remains in full swing to this day. Love you Barbara!

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    1. Thank you very much for stopping by my blog and taking the time to comment (as a Hershey fan myself, I would love to have known what your thoughts were on her performance in “Last Summer” and if you've seen it).

      And as per an earlier commenter's claim to having read about Hershey and the whole placenta-eating thing (I did too: People Magazine, May 1979) I have to say, as a film researcher, it is common to come across conflicting tales about a celebrity. If history has taught us anything, it's that celebrities want us to disbelieve the negative press and wish us to believe the positive press. My sympathies lie with the public, which is fed what the press or the PR people want us to believe on either side….and rarely is it the truth either way!
      If history has taught us anything, it's that today's unsubstantiated gossip is tomorrow's dyed-in-the-wool fact when the celebrity is good and ready to reveal it (or gets caught).
      Stars like Rock Hudson (gay), Loretta Young (illegitimate child), and Diana Ross (affair with Berry Gordy) have all gone on record denying "gossip” that eventually revealed itself to be fact. Inconvenient fact, but fact. No one really knows because all-too frequently the celebrities themselves prove to be the least reliable resources (because in spite of it being “their” personal experience, they are the ones who have the most vested interest in lying about it).
      As producer Robert Evans said (and I try NEVER to quote Robert Evans) "There are three sides to every story: your side, my side, and the truth, and no one is lying."
      So whether we read it in “People” or “Playboy,” the position we take on an article’s veracity is the one that best serves us what we want to believe. Thus, what’s fair is to believe what we want about a celebrity and let others believe what they want.

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    2. I believe Ms. Hershey did comment that the placenta was used to fertilize a fruit tree that her son could later eat from when he grew older. The telephone game may have come into play so the story could have morphed into her actually eating the placenta herself. Regardless, when it comes down to it, it's none of our business really. This gossipy rhetoric detracts from her career accomplishments which are greatly admirable. We all have cringe-worthy decisions we look back on with regret. Celebrities have to content with the public microscope which comes with fame. I wish her nothing but success in all her new ventures.

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    3. Folks, I'm always greatly gratified when people take the time to stop by my blog, but really? No comments relating to the film at hand? I'm afraid this will have to be the last comment I'll publish on the dreaded "placenta" topic. If there's more to say you can write my personal email.
      I love give and take exchanges of differing opinions about movies and their stars (both pro and con) wherein both sides respect the other's perspective or position. I'm less fond of celebrity defense campaigns. They tend to stifle discussion and reduce everything to "fan" vs. "haters"

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  6. I would compare the late 60s/early 70s Hollywood to the pre-Code early 30s era, in which a combination of technologies and social upheaval combined to free movies (for a time) of certain stale, accepted conventions and stereotypes (the 30s had sound and the beginning of the Depression; the 60s had various cultural revolutions and younger filmmakers raised on watching TV and developing a more acute visual sense). I like your point about movies with unhappy endings (also seen frequently in pre-Code films; if you get a chance, check out the 1931 'Safe in Hell'); it may sound weird, but I prefer them when it would be the more honest, truthful solution. The sense of unreality given off by so much Hollywood product is frustrating, especially compared with European art cinema.

    And you make another great point, which you've discussed in other blog posts, about why some films are inaccessible and not released on DVD. I know sometimes it's an issue of rights; but often it's just baffling why major movies haven't made it to the video market, whereas forgettable TV series are rushed to the store shelves. I'm dismayed by what seems an increasing lack of interest in our cultural history. Even with the vastness of information on the Internet, people seem so incurious today about what happened more than a week ago. It's as if our shared cultural past is slipping away.

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    1. Hi GOM
      As always, another thoughtful post that had me scurrying to Google to search ""Safe in Hell", a film I've never heard of that sounds amazing (and bleak!). Thanks for the tip on that one.
      The parallel you make with films from my favorite era and those of Pre-Code Hollywood is a good one, and I agree with you in nothing that they were inspired by changes, both cultural and technological. Formula is fine for some film, but I do enjoy it when films break from the established and take us out of our complacency with fresh narratives and startling ways of seeing the world through film.
      And indeed, as for the whole DVD availability issue, it sometimes borders on the criminal the vast amount of worthwhile films that have yet to be released in this format. I suspect that there are too many marketing people in charge of DVD releases and not enough true lovers of film. Good to hear from you again, GOM!

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  7. Does anyone remember Last Summer ending after the rape scene with a shot later with Rhoda on the beach playing in the sand with some children in her old swimsuit?

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    1. The ending you speak of occurs in the book, but not the film. In the book, there are a few more days left of summer and Sandy, Peter, and Dan encounter Rhoda one day and they exchange cursory hellos. There is a lack of remorse on the part of the three that is chilling.

      In an interview about the film some time later, director Frank Perry has stated that, unlike the book, he wanted to end the story with Rhoda left "psychologically crushed" in the forest like the seagull. And, to have the obviously stunned Peter shown physically at a distance from Dan and Sandy, hinting that, as the more sensitive of the three, he had fallen the lowest and was perhaps as damaged by what happened that summer as Rhoda.
      Thanks for an interesting question!

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  8. Last Summer still is a brilliant trip...Barbara is the best!

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    1. I agree! Sure wish it would get a crisp DVD release.

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  9. You said you found an unedited version online? Where can we find this? I saw this movie on TCM in 2009 when I was 15, and I haven't seen it since would love to see the unedited version, thank you - Hannah

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    1. Hi Hannah
      I haven't checked this site since I wrote this, so it may not still be up, but here is the link to the movie online. Hope it works for you (better yet, I hope it comes out on DVD soon!) Thanks!

      http://www.topmovies4free.com/watch-last-summer-1969

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