Nether Regions 08.30.11: Last Summer
Posted by Chad Webb on 08.30.2011
Let's take a trip back to 1969 for a coming-of-age story involving kids who save wounded seagulls, wash each other's hair, and get foreigners drunk and beaten. And you were wondering why this Frank Perry film is hard to find...
Nether Regions started as a segment of the Big Screen Bulletin that meant to showcase films that have been discontinued on DVD, are out of print in the United States, are only available in certain regions outside the United States, or are generally hard to find. Now it is a column all its own! You might ask, "Why should I care about a film I have no access to?" My goal is to keep these films relevant because some of them genuinely deserve to be recognized. Every time I review a new film I will have a list of those I covered below so you can see if they have been announced for DVD release, or are still out of print.
Featuring: Barbara Hershey, Richard Thomas, and Bruce Davison Directed By: Frank Perry Written By: Eleanor Perry Running Time: 97 minutes Original Release Date: June 10, 1969 Missing Since: Never Released Existing Formats:VHS Netflix Status: Not Available Availability: Extremely Rare
I'll start off with a little background on how I obtain certain titles to watch and review them. Sometimes I can find them streaming online, but more often than not, I will track down the out of print DVD or VHS through a website and purchase it. Knowing where to get good bootlegs also helps. However, every now and then, TCM (Turner Classic Movies) airs rare films. A former 411 colleague would graciously inform me when these films would be on the schedule so I could record them. This was the case with Last Summer from 1969. It sat on my DVR for months, mainly because I wanted to tackle other titles. Perhaps that was a sign from above.
Peter, Sandy, and Dan tend to a seagull that is already planning his revenge.
This is one of those movies where it seems my view is different than most critics. Roger Ebert awarded the film four-stars back in 1969, and many other articles I perused tossed praise onto this tale. In my opinion, this is one of the most bizarre, unintentionally hilarious coming-of-age tales of the genre, perhaps in cinematic history. It is reportedly one of Warner Archives most requested titles. Granted, many of the efforts on director Frank Perry's resume are hard to find, but this particular one is not likely to build a large following. For starters, the amount of superior coming-of-age sagas are endless, but this is also the very definition of the word "dated."
Our story kicks off with Sandy (Barbara Hershey), Peter (Richard Thomas), and Dan (Bruce Davison), three young teenagers on vacation with their families in Long Island. Sandy finds a wounded seagull, and the guys waltz over to see what happened. Methinks they don't care about the seagull. You see, Sandy is almost always in a bikini, but she is also an extremely attractive, tanned brunette. Eventually, they discover that the bird has a fishhook stuck in its mouth. Peter performs surgery with pliers to extract the hook. I felt bad for the poor bird, not because of the hook, but because some psycho with pliers was coming towards him. The seagull plot thread does not stop there. Sandy decides to keep it as a pet, because you know, kids in the 60's did that. It was groovy. She even makes it a leash. To make matters weirder, they try to teach the seagull how to fly again. This is accomplished by throwing the bird (attached to a leash) in the air and waiting until it crashes to the ground, clearly being tortured. Soon, they do this without the leash, and the bird does fly, but for some reason, returns to them. One day, the bird bites Sandy. What's the logical reaction to this? Bashing its head in with a rock of course. This is the threesome we must endure.
These youths have serious issues. They frolic and play in the water like they're five years-old. In one sequence, Dan manages to finagle a Heineken six-pack. Ok, underage drinking is pretty common. Time is of the essence though, so with the first gulp, they are tipsy. Sandy suggests that the beer is called their "truth serum," so each of them must divulge a personal, crazy thing that happened to them. Dan saw his mother having sex with her boyfriend. Sandy discusses how her mother's friend, Mr. Caddell (whom they refer to as Snow White), put his hand under her skirt at one point. One would assume that a confession like this would be met with concerned responses. Nope, each of them thinks Sandy's story is hysterical, and they laugh, for what feels like 20 minutes. Peter, always the rebel, put snot on Ritz crackers and gave them to his cousin. This would be a grand prank…if he was cast in a cheesy TV sitcom. Peter gleefully admits, "I am a creep! Bwahahahah" Some time (or days) later, Peter and Sandy are relaxing on a boat. Like the crazed sex maniac that he is, Peter stares at Sandy incessantly, and asks if she will take off her top. Boy, if only I had his guts when I was young. She does this, and goes back to her activity, and once Peter has an eyeful, he tells her to put it back on. End of scene. This awkwardness acts as the bloodstream of Last Summer.
At this juncture, I should mention that this was initially given an X rating when it was released. They would make some edits, which would put it down to an R. Since this was a television recording, I can't be sure just how much of Sandy moviegoers saw. During the segment with the seagull, which lasted entirely too long, the trio meets Rhoda, a shy and naive young girl who is not as appealing as Sandy. She introduces herself by lecturing them for their treatment of the bird. Sandy says: "Go suck your mother's tits." I thought Rhoda was gone after this, but I was wrong. Somehow, for reasons that are never explained, this girl whom the trio couldn't have given a crap about worms her way into the group and hangs around them. To a degree, one can understand why, at least on Rhoda's part. They represent taking risks, getting into trouble, and encountering new experiences. But why do Sandy, Dan, and Peter keep her around? Apparently just to tease and make fun of her. This never wears on Rhoda.
Bruce Davison's Dan hands out his super secret joints.
The three main stars would all go on to have some level of success. I suppose it's possible that this film helped them on that road, but for the life of me, I can't see why. There is no chemistry between them, and the ways director Frank Perry and writer Eleanor Perry try to reaffirm that bond are incredibly ridiculous. Need proof? How about what they do when they're bored? They wash each other's hair. Yes, there is a sequence involving all three of them rubbing soaps and suds all over themselves because darnit, the beach became tiresome. Barbara Hershey (Hannah and Her Sisters) is quite striking as Sandy, but her performance is annoying and exaggerated. The evil qualities she is given are dumb and borderline cartoonish, especially as the conclusion draws near. Richard Thomas (The Waltons) is Peter and Bruce Davison (X-Men) is Dan, two blonde-haired young men who want to "lay" Sandy. The phrase "hit that" had not been coined just yet. What the acting from all three share is being undeniably over the top. The portrayal of friendship here is just too cringe-inducing, uncomfortable, and occasionally cornballish. There is also an underlying creepiness infused with each depiction that makes it difficult to truly connect with them. Their thoughts and conversations are not necessarily outlandish, but how they treat them is.
Take one scene where they go to see a Swedish film. Dan takes it upon himself to feel Sandy up (and down). Peter notices this as Sandy simply stares ahead as if this happens to her regularly. Peter then joins in, so now both of them are going to town, and the rest of the audience is glued to the screen, oblivious to the teenagers rounding the bases. No doubt they are watching an Ingmar Bergman film. At least the rest of the audience knew enough to pay attention! They also smoke pot, which Dan is able to retrieve from his parents. This joint resembles a broken piece of twig that somebody pulled from their butt. Adding to the mood, Sandy puts on Indian sitar music. They handle this joint and talk about it as if it is a secret treasure of some sort. The easy comedy of being high does not last very long. Sandy comments that Peter's acne resembles a flower garden… and they move on to the "washing hair" portion of the day. Peter and Dan seem to talk about pursuing Sandy a lot, but it never amounts to anything, which is odd considering how much time the Perrys spend on it.
Back to Rhoda. The term "peer pressure" must have been invented for her. She is played by Catherine Burns, who actually earned an Oscar nomination for the role. The reason for this can be relegated to one scene. Since she is new to the group, she must reveal a suppressed fact just as they did during their Heineken chugging. She goes on to talk about how her mother drowned. At the end of this heart-wrenching personal story, certainly the best moment in Last Summer, Sandy ruins the emotion almost immediately by asking Rhoda to tell them "something really terrible." I guess that wasn't bad enough, she needed a secret only about Rhoda. Good grief. Rhoda cannot swim, so Peter elects to teach her via force, yelling, and getting upset when she does not obey his commands. But Rhoda never says to herself, "Hmm, maybe I could find nicer friends." A sporadic romance begins with Rhoda and Peter, but there is no logic to this, and again, nothing comes of it. This sub-plot is used as a desperate time-filler. What are Dan and Sandy doing while Rhoda is tolerating swim boot camp? They are spying on smooching couples, the first of which turns out to be homosexuals. Dan reacts normally to this and wants to leave, but Sandy stays, sporting a sociopathic gaze.
Burns gives a competent, relatively even performance, but an Oscar nod might have been a bit of a stretch. The viewers are asked to accept so many sequences as simply teenagers being teenagers in the summertime, but it becomes increasingly ludicrous. Early on in the film, Sandy and Peter fill out a survey for a dating service. They enter fake information to be humorous. Ultimately, they get a phone call for a date with a Hispanic man named Anibal. The great fun of the night is convinciong Rhoda to go on the date, while the other three tag along. I say "convince" her, but it was more of a guilt trip. They get Anibal drunk and then lead him outside where a group of random thugs want to start a fight. Rhoda, Sandy, Peter, and Dan all flee, leaving the man to get obliterated by a trio of large guys. Umm, sure. In case you haven't caught on by now, these characters are totally unlikable. If we're meant to establish sympathy for them, further understand the teen angst and the maturity process, the project is an unmitigated disaster. In every instance where the kids are behaving like a normal hellraising teen would, Frank Perry takes it too far, and into the deep end. Examples of better coming-of-age films that cover the same themes: Bridge to Terabithia, My Life as a Dog, C.R.A.Z.Y., and Mon Oncle Antoine. Even Y Tu Mama Tambien, which deals with a threesome, is infinitely more engaging, emotional, and organic.
Richard Thomas' Peter gives Rhoda a maniacal glance.
Putting all my criticisms aside, Last Summer has not aged well. It reeks of the period in every conceivable manner, and is hard to watch as a result. The hairstyles, the set design, and most importantly the soundtrack stick out like multiple sore thumbs. Aside from a track by The Band, the other songs, not to mention John Simon's score, are comprised of music that might have been popular at the time, but are foul and unwelcome now. Last Summer comes across as much older than it genuinely is because few aspects were constructed to last longer than a month past the release date. This is an issue with several of Frank Perry's films, even The Swimmer, a terrific drama. Some supporters of Last Summer have argued that it is unfair to attack the acting and the dated traits because "that's the way they did it then." This is a poor excuse. The fact is, some films age well despite the characteristics of the era, and others do not. This one doesn't.
I'm sure the image of kids drinking, doing drugs, being nude, and :gasp: washing each other's follicles was daring and shocking to audiences of the late 60's. But I feel the shock factor is exactly what people are distracted by when rating Last Summer. Underneath that facade, Perry's intentions were admirable, but the execution was sloppy and outrageous. Another major flaw is the lack of consequences for the kids' actions. The parents, who are touched upon briefly at the beginning, are never an issue. They just allow their children to roam free without the worry of being scolded, suffering penalties, or facing any form of punishment whatsoever. You can only sweep so much dirt under the rug before it needs to be dealt with. After everything else, the ending of Last Summer is a joke, an incident so out of place that is concluded so abruptly it's as if someone just slapped you in the face to wake up. Many writers have given this more credit than it deserves and are seeing significance that isn't there. Without spoiling anything, I will just say it makes no sense within the context of the story.
My prediction that is even if Last Summer gets a release on DVD, or even Warner Archives, I doubt it will be recognized as a classic no matter how many times it airs on TV. The coming-of-age genre is not small, and there are plenty of titles that have been made since this one that are worth your time. Skip this, unless you enjoy the thought of Barbara Hershey in a bikini 24/7.
Trivia: Barbara Hershey changed her surname to Seagull for many years because of the sub-plot in this movie. Wow.