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Last Summer (1969) might make you squirm if you were an adolescent in the 1960s, or if you were an adolescent, period. The drama's extremely narrow focus precludes any possibility of high artistic merit, but since its obsessions - sexual attraction, sexual confidence, sexual rivalry - coincide precisely with the obsessions of the characters, it accurately captures what life was like for teenagers growing up absurd in midcentury American society. Although the picture doesn't contain any "major truth," to borrow a phrase from the dialogue, its minor truths feel almost embarrassingly authentic until its one completely false scene - an outburst of violence and melodrama at the very end - brings it to a close.
The action takes place almost entirely on Fire Island, a long sandbar off Long Island with the Atlantic Ocean on one side, the Great South Bay on the other, and upper-class summer homes built on its beaches and dunes. The main characters spend school vacations on those beaches and in those homes. The story's dominant figure is Sandy, a pretty girl from Manhattan with a penchant for mischief, a rude vocabulary, and (she claims) an IQ in the genius range. One sunny day two boys wander into her life: Peter and Dan, who take an immediate liking to Sandy's brash manner, not to mention her willingness to shed her bikini top now and then.
As soon as they meet, a test of courage appears: Sandy has rescued a wounded bird that will die if they don't remove the fishhook stuck in its throat. The boys rise to the challenge, earning Sandy's delighted thanks. They are now three teenage musketeers, shielding one another from the company of boring grownups. Before long they're joined by a fourth companion named Rhoda, a prim and slightly younger kid who values their friendship even though she disapproves of their wild ways. Together they have various small adventures - training the seagull, taunting boys on the mainland, going on a collective blind date with a surprised Latino who proves to be a very good sport. Meanwhile they flirt, occasionally pet, and play an ongoing game of chicken with their sexual urges, bringing about the story's overcooked and arbitrary climax.
Released in 1969, Last Summer was directed by Frank Perry from a screenplay by Eleanor Perry, his wife and frequent collaborator, based on an eponymous novel by Evan Hunter, whose writing credits range from the screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock's classic The Birds (1963) to numerous TV episodes and crime novels. The Perrys had dealt sensitively with youthful emotions in their first feature, the low-budget drama David and Lisa (1962), about two severely neurotic teenagers who meet in a mental institution and work their way slowly and painfully to a trusting relationship. The year before Last Summer the Perrys made The Swimmer (1968), another unconventional look at emotional anxiety, with Burt Lancaster as a troubled man paddling through miles of backyard swimming pools, revealing his past in conversations along the way.
Last Summer called for a youthful cast, and Frank Perry assembled a good one. For the key roles of Sandy and Peter he chose 21-year-old Barbara Hershey and 18-year-old Richard Thomas, both seasoned performers with extensive TV credits to their names. The slightly older Bruce Davison made his first screen appearance as Dan, and Catherine Burns made her second as Rhoda, earning an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Although she plays the youngest character, Burns was the oldest member of the quartet - at 24, she was a year older than Davison - and her mannerisms seem a bit studied, as if Rhoda weren't longing for a taste of emotional freedom but trying to become even more uptight and stuffy than she already is. Burns probably owes her Oscar® nomination to Rhoda's one big scene, a lengthy monologue describing the untimely death of her mother, who drowned as the result of exactly the kind of impulsive, irresponsible behavior that Rhoda is edging toward with her new friends. This said, Burns is always likable in a challenging part, and when she becomes the victim of reckless sexual violence in the final scene, Perry's camerawork refrains from making a spectacle of her - perhaps out of sympathy with the outrageously abused character, but also because Allied Artists recut the climactic rape to dodge the X rating initially given to the film.
Reviews of Last Summer were mixed. Time said that bits of dialogue and the story's oscillation between poignancy and shock revealed an "enormous debt to J.D. Salinger," adding that the debt goes unpaid except for Burns's performance as a quintessential outsider who is "exactly the kind of kid Holden Caulfield wanted to catch in the rye." Taking a more generous view, Richard Schickel wrote in Life that the characters are "constructed not out of social science statistics...but of flesh and blood," and that they live "in a film of very subtle dynamics, wonderfully sensitive to the endless, unannounced shiftings of adolescent moods." New York Times critic Vincent Canby called the screenplay "tough and laconic" and praised the actors for seeming "variously awkward and strident, dense and dumb, and sometimes very innocent, without ever being self-conscious about it," although he found Burns's monologue "too good, and...so calculated that it stops the movie cold." Roger Ebert loved the "brilliantly acted" monologue, however, and his Chicago Sun-Times review pronounced all four lead performances "the best that could possibly be hoped for." Today's viewers are likely to have equally diverse opinions, making Last Summer a lively candidate for discussion and debate.
Director: Frank Perry
Producers: Alfred W. Crown, Sidney Beckerman
Screenplay: Eleanor Perry; based on the novel by Evan Hunter
Cinematographer: Gerald Hirschfeld, Enrique Bravo
Film Editing: Sidney Katz, Marion Kraft
Art Direction: Peter Dohanos
Music: John Simon
With: Barbara Hershey (Sandy), Richard Thomas (Peter), Bruce Davison (Dan), Catherine Burns (Rhoda), Ernesto Gonzalez (Anibal).
by David Sterritt