Memories of adolescence can come to you in a multitude of ways. Some thoughts are often so hazy, and in many of us, so strange, that even happy reminiscences take on a peculiar sensation of both centered familiarity (we are all still who we are), our teenage years directly in our body and in our being, and yet, entirely remote. All that excitable, depressed or terrified youth has drifted so far off shore that one must stand on their toes and block the sun to see it bobbing in the water. Other times, it hits you like a sharp pain and you are living it all over again, right in your core. This can come to you happily but that rarely seems to be the case – wistfulness usually greets a nice memory. It’s the trauma, loneliness, alienation, guilt – those sensations – that overwhelm us while lost in thought or living through a crisis or from very little drama at all. You could be looking out of a car window or looking at a fish tank or talking to a grocery clerk who treats you like you’re 14 and something just overcomes you. You could, like John Cheever (writing in his journals), be walking outside:
“Walking back from the river I remember the galling loneliness of my adolescence, from which I do not seem to have completely escaped. It is the sense of the voyeur, the lonely, lonely boy with no role in life but to peer in at the lighted windows of other people’s contentment and vitality.”
As Cheever so movingly observed, these are senses one can never escape – because, well, one just can’t. Frank Perry’s Last Summer is suffused with all of these impressions, a movie that reflects the sexually charged, weird, freeing and, at times, inexplicably perverse feelings that swirled in and around you as you were about to touch adulthood (which seems like it happens too fast). As you watch these teenagers on screen, you are right there with them, and yet, at the same time, you feel removed, observing from a distance. In direction, setting, texture, light and sound, the picture feels powerfully foggy, as if these are the last teenagers on earth, or a collection of sensitives we’ve conjured from our own memories. It’s quite an artistic and emotional feat – this in-body/out of body experience the movie manages to convey, a pull in and float out – and you drift along with these characters almost in a hallucinatory state. The sharper moments come to you like Cheever describing his young loneliness – they are “galling.”
The movie begins with what will appear to be a sad but sweet moment – two healthy, tanned, good looking blonde boys meet a lovely, bikini-clad, long-haired brunette girl on the beach at Fire Island as she leans over what appears to be a dead seagull. It’s actually still alive she tells them, with one remarking unconcerned, “Not for long.” In another movie, you might think immediately of innocence crushed or the kid’s yearning for the seagull to be free, but Perry (and his wife, the great Eleanor Perry, who adapted the screenplay from Evan Hunter’s novel) are not trafficking in such thudding clichés. Already the picture feels different, edgier, and these kids appear like how teenagers actually are – more interested in the girl than in the seagull, the girl sizing up her power in this dynamic of two cute boys. Also, there appears to be no one else around – not on the beach anyway – no other kids at all – giving the picture an extra intense lyricism. There’s a dark undercurrent to the sunny exterior with the focus on just these kids – outsiders seem unwelcome or even alien. Later, one alien will eventually appear.
Sandy (Barbara Hershey) snaps back flippantly at the boys, Peter (Richard Thomas) and Dan (Bruce Davison), after requesting they help her move the gull off the beach, which one warns could give her rabies: “Rabies my ass!” she says. Certainly her looks are enough to interest them, but something about her ease with her body and informal exchanges, her intelligence is especially alluring to them, and they indeed help her bring that gull back to her mother’s beach house. You never see any of these kid’s parents in the movie, giving the picture a focused, particularly desolate feel, the kid’s alienation more trapped than exuberant.
Swiftly, the three become best friends, so inseparable that it verges on a sexual three-way, but not quite at intercourse. The boys want to sleep with Sandy, of course. Smart-ass, rather typical Dan, more intent to bang her than the more sensitive Peter, who suddenly feels badly when he bugs her to remove her top – and she does – discuss the coming-of-age query of “should they or shouldn’t they?” These conversations are between boys who are both insecure and confident – or in a more sinister view – boys who will ask or demand. Sandy is free with her body, unafraid to pull her top off or roll all over the hormone raging boys, her hormones raging as well, laughing and drinking and dancing; washing their hair, and in a dark movie theater, letting one feel up her breasts, while the other feels up her legs and up to her panties. It’s a bold, kinky scene, but not unlike many hot and horny teens pushing closer and closer to going all the way. The double grope is sexy to her, and she says so, she gets all the attention, while the boys are observant and even sophisticated enough to question whether she does this to merely flirt, or if she’s just that way and that’s fine. Even if it’s driving them fucking crazy, they’re friends, they play “trust” games and they’re not going to go somewhere creepy-dark. Until they do. All of them.
While occupied with their gull on the beach, which they’ve harnessed and are teaching to fly again, a plump 15-year-old in a dowdy bathing suit, one who looks very much not in their crowd approaches, demanding to know what they’re doing with that bird. Rhoda (Catherine Burns) is lonely and looking for friends, but bold and even bossy, enough to where Sandy tries to wave her off with, “Oh, go suck your mother’s tit!” Rhoda continues to harangue the kids who simply want her to go away, but she’s unyielding about the gull: “You’ve traumatized him. You’ve taken away his sense of identity. He doesn’t know he’s a bird anymore. Well, look at him squatting there. He probably thinks he’s a crab…. He can’t help it, you’ve turned him into a schizophrenic!” It’s a fascinating introduction – part future Shelley Winters in her more tragic roles (like A Place in the Sun), part likable, intelligent voice of reason (they are making that bird crazy). You have no idea where this character is heading, but the Perry’s deepen her, giving her a complexity that’s beyond just the chubby girl who feels left out. Her mother is dead – recounted in a brilliant monologue where you can practically smell the booze and the salt water, where you can see the thinness of her mother, feel a man grasping Rhoda’s backside, all rolled into this vivid, heartbreaking recollection. (Burns was Oscar nominated for this performance) Rhoda even writes a column for her school newspaper called “Feelings,” which sounds corny as anything, but given her monologue, she’s likely a fine writer.
We will become wary of Sandy, if we weren’t already. She’s clobbered the gull’s head in, secretly (the boys find out), after the poor thing bites her. She’s upset that this damn gull turned on her after she saved his life, and so she simply kills it – either out of demented power, or hurt that anything could not love her, or both. (The novelist, Evan Hunter, also adapted Daphne du Maurier’s The Birds for Alfred Hitchcock, and I can’t help but think of the woman vs. birds subtext of that picture, and the one panic-stricken woman unfairly blaming the bird invasion on outsider Melanie Daniel, screaming: “I think you’re evil! Evil!”) Here, Sandy demands and commands the gull: “I’m absolute ruler over your world and I have absolute power over you and what I say goes… Therefore when I say fly, you fly.” That sounds all tough-cute in the moment, perhaps, but it’s actually more fitting of her personality, which is revealed to be manipulative and cruel. Something is off and disturbed in her – or maybe she’s just not learned anything about empathy yet (her family life isn’t entirely stable, but then no one’s is) – or maybe she’s drunk on her feminine power. Whatever the case, the picture’s not going to give you an easy answer. Sandy and the boys put up with Rhoda, sometimes casually annoyed, or curious to see her in a funny situation and they set Rhoda up on one of Sandy’s self-humoring computer dates (with a sweet Puerto Rican man) whom they treat terribly. Rhoda is appalled by but remains “friends” with them, even as their silly games continue and, as smart as Rhoda is, she trusts them. Or is willing to. Again, she’s only 15-years old.
She even trusts them to teach her to swim, and they, or rather Richard sticks to the task. The kids think it’s weird she can’t swim (given that her mother drowned one can understand why she is scared), and Richard starts taking a more tender, romantic interest in her. In one moment, the two lie on the beach and he waxes poetic about the ocean: “Wait till you see how beautiful it is down there. The colors, the way the light shines on things. The plants. Just the shape of things. You know, even a piece of broken glass can be like an emerald! And the fish move, gentle, you know, nice … You do everything I tell you to do. You learn how to swim, and you learn how to dive, and you know what?” Rhoda asks, “What?” And Richard declares, romantically, “I’m gonna kiss you at the bottom of the sea.” It’s lovely and heartfelt the first time you see it, and maybe it is, but watching it a second time when you know what happens to Rhoda, it seems a bit sinister: “You do everything I tell you to do.” Richard’s small soliloquy reflects the shifting tones of the movie – poetic and pretty to subtly disquieting. By film end, Rhoda’s sexual “awakening” will not be her choice.
Last Summer was the Perry’s fourth collaboration, their first three: David and Lisa, about two mentally ill teenagers (one can’t stand touch, the other suffers a split personality, talking in rhyme, the other can’t speak), Ladybug, Ladybug, about school panic under nuclear attack, in which a 12-year-old girl locks herself in a refrigerator and suffocates, and then The Swimmer (starring Burt Lancaster), a transfixing, powerfully allegorical and disturbing adaptation of John Cheever’s short story. The direction was taken away from Frank Perry on that picture (an uncredited Sydney Pollack shot the rest) but what you see is another expression of their lyricism and cynicism that, through the early 60s and up until 1970, made them two of the most unique and fascinating independent filmmakers of that time. Probing the alienation and/or rot within adolescence or in the supposed stability of suburbia, or of marriage, they were a potent pairing – their partnership ended with their divorce (Frank went on to make films without Eleanor, notably Doc, Play It As It Lays and Mommie Dearest). Their last film is one of their best, Diary of a Mad Housewife, an especially lacerating portrait of matrimony, which also weaves a dreamlike, almost mentally insane spell of both abuse and masochism.
Characters are trapped in the Perry’s films, literally, in refrigerators, or swimming pools, or in marriages and affairs giving no profound satisfaction or release. Burt Lancaster banging on the door of his empty house, as if he’s trying to break through to another consciousness or world (one he’ll never reach) while revealing how lonely and empty he feels, is a refrain in the Perry’s work. This all may sound incredibly depressing, but there’s a sly sense of humor to these pictures as well (Housewife in particular), a mordantly humorous touch that, at times, comes off like Sandy’s weird charm in Last Summer – disarming.
In Last Summer, Rhoda is lonely but she’s certainly not empty, and her emotions are right there on the surface. In this particularly cruel universe, that makes her prey to the socially dominant Sandy, Peter and Dan. She’s a kid who, like Cheever’s memory, “peers into the lighted houses of contentment and vitality,” only the other kids in Last Summer aren’t exactly content. In the cinema of the Perrys, no one is.
From my piece that ran at the New Beverly