Bruce LaBruce’s Academy of the Underrated: Last Summer

LaBruce extols the virtues of Frank and Eleanor Perry’s shocking coming-of-age drama that captures the loss of innocence of the late 1960s.

Today we are double-dipping with two pieces by Bruce LaBruce on Frank and Eleanor Perry; go here to read LaBruce on the forgotten genius of the husband-and-wife filmmaking team.

Of all the death-of-the-sixties movies, Last Summer has to be the most heart-rending, the most deceptive and the most underappreciated. Only ever released on VHS, and never in good quality, it’s hard to imagine how Last Summer and several other of the great films of Frank Perry, the independent director known for his incisive character studies of the gentry (see also The Swimmer), have been so unavailable for so long. Neither Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970) nor Play It As It Lays (1972), two of his other masterworks of the era, ever had proper DVD releases, and there is some speculation that the negative of Last Summer has been lost completely. But perhaps it’s not so surprising considering that these films pushed the frank representation of drug use, sexuality and madness to heretofore unexplored depths, including scenes of nudity, rape, suicide and other taboo subjects, and were therefore routinely cut to pieces. (Last Summer was originally released with an X-rating, only receiving a wider Restricted rating after cuts to its infamous rape scene; both Diary of a Mad Housewife and Play It As It Lays have censored versions floating around, including the excision of the notorious amyl nitrite sex seen in the latter.)

The screenplay for Last Summer was written by Perry’s then-wife, Eleanor Perry, based on the novel by Evan Hunter, who also wrote the novel The Blackboard Jungle and significantly, the screenplay for Hitchcock’s The Birds and copious amounts of crime fiction under the name Ed McBain. Last Summer might seem, at first, to be an almost innocuous summer teen movie (like the comparatively anodyne Summer of ’42, directed by Richard Mulligan, which became a sleeper hit two years later), but it quickly becomes apparent, as the victimizations, abuses and perversions of the characters accumulate, that it’s something much more disturbing.

The story begins with two teenage boys happening upon a sexy girl who is tending to an injured seagull on the beach. Richard Thomas, just two years short of his career-defining role as goodie-two-shoes John-Boy on The Waltons, with his blond hair, deep green eyes and signature mole, plays the ambivalent Peter. (Apparently Ralph Waite, Thomas’ future father on The Waltons, briefly plays his father in Last Summer, although, mysteriously, there is no evidence of him in the copies of the film I’ve seen.) Blue-eyed blond Bruce Davison, in his screen debut, plays the cynical Dan, both he and Peter the products of broken homes of the upper middle classes summering on Fire Island. (Davison would play a radical student the following year in The Strawberry Statement, and gain cult status the year after that as the star of the rat movie Willard.) Luscious Barbara Hershey plays Sandy, the dark-haired, bikini-clad girl, who, as a tribute to the death of one of the seagulls used in the production, for which she blamed herself, would change her name to Barbara Seagull for two whole years. (Obviously seagulls were a popular trope of liberation and freedom of the era, with the best-selling novel Jonathan Livingston Seagull published a year later.)

The three teens become fast friends, even though it’s clear from the beginning that Peter and Dan have ulterior motives when it comes to Sandy: their secret summer project is to “lay her.” A brilliant shot near the beginning of the film pans back and forth between the two smirking boys after they’ve won Sandy over by removing a fishhook from the bird’s throat, cutting immediately to the threesome dancing in a frenzy at a club to the very ’60s John Simon score. As in Peanuts cartoons, the adults are generally relegated to off-screen voices, the exception being Snow White, Sandy’s nickname for her mother’s lecherous boyfriend who “turns lobster-red” in the sun. (Sandy tells the boys her mother will never divorce her father and will “make him pay until he dies.”) After a beautiful montage of playing on the beach on a rainy afternoon, the three bored teens take shelter under a tarp to drink beer, which they decide is really truth serum. Under its influence, Sandy confesses that Snow White once “got funny” with her, sticking his hand up under her skirt while her mother was in the kitchen. Along with philandering husbands and debauched rakes, dirty old men often pop up in Perry films, exposing the corrupt underside of the leisure class. The targets of these roués – nubile young girls with questionable innocence – also populate the Perry universe, embodied most sinisterly by Sandy. “Major truth, my top is wet,” she says, egging on her male companions at every turn. “Major truth, I like girls who say things like my top is wet,” replies Peter, to which Dan adds, “Why don’t you take it off?” Ever the libertine, she obligingly complies. The issue of girls’ tops coming on and off, with or without consent, will become a major thread throughout the film, anticipating its monstrous conclusion. But for now, the three teens beer-bond in love, honesty and trust, echoing the hippy platitudes of the era.

In the following scene, Peter and Sandy languish on a sailboat as Sandy cooks up a scheme to scam a computer-dating service, a trope of modern alienation also referenced in Perry’s The Swimmer. When Peter asks her if she’s looking for a date with a man, Sandy says, “No, with a locomotive, you jack-ass.” Mature beyond her years, Sandy provokes the boys with her sarcasm, her profanities and her advanced vocabulary. “Well you asked me, so don’t think I’m boasting, but my I.Q. is 157,” she boasts to Peter, who is more concerned with her top. When he says he’d like her to take it off, she once again obliges, relishing the torture the nearness of her naked breasts is putting him through. Peter confesses that he’s afraid what he might do to her, but she reassures him that she “won’t let him.” The idea of consensual versus non-consensual sex will become central to the film, with Snow White’s sexual violation of Sandy begetting Sandy’s violation of others, at first inconsequentially, and finally, malignantly.

As the teen trio tries to get the seagull they’ve been nursing to fly, a string attached to its leg so it won’t escape, enter Rhoda, the fourth protagonist of the film. (Rhoda is played by Catherine Burns, who would be reunited with Richard Thomas two years later in the charming Red Sky at Morning.) “What do you think you’re doing to that bird?” she asks indignantly. With her short, bobbed ginger hair, freckles and persistent baby fat, wearing a ridiculously old-fashioned, one-piece bathing suit, Rhoda, who is vacationing from the Midwest, is a classic outsider, and as such, the conscience of the film, the last stronghold of purity and innocence. “Oh, go suck your mother’s tit,” retorts Sandy, shocking Rhoda with her tart tongue. Sandy and Rhoda are significantly smarter than their male counterparts, bonding them in an uneasy proto-feminist alliance. (“Honestly, how do you get by with such a limited vocabulary?” Sandy asks Dan, who replies, “Oh, well the girls I date in the winter use sign language.”)

“You’ve taken away his sense of identity,” says Rhoda of the bird. “You’ve turned him into a schizophrenic!” Madness is a major theme running through Perry’s work, from the mentally disturbed teens in David and Lisa to Tina Balser (Carrie Snodgress) in Diary of a Mad Housewife to Maria Wyeth (Tuesday Weld) narrating Play It As It Lays from the inside of an insane asylum. That Rhoda ascribes madness to the seagull, the ’60s symbol of freedom and spirituality, caused by its torture by the three teens, themselves victims of psychological abuse, represents a profound rebuke of the spiritual pretensions of the decade.

Last Summer was released in June of 1969, two months before Woodstock, and six months before Altamont, where the ’60s love fest would finally turn into the ultimate bad trip. The peaceful anti-Vietnam war protests of the Summer of Love in 1967 would give way a mere three years later to the violence of Kent State, taking place within a year of the movie’s release. Perry seems to predict this trajectory with Last Summer, the ultimate loss-of-innocence movie. The four teens exist in a bubble in the last summer of the decade, but the bubble is a microcosm of what was going on in the American psyche at the time. “Hey listen, you,” says Sandy to Rhoda. “Don’t go around touching my bird, do you hear me? And don’t stand around psychoanalyzing him, either.” (Almost everyone is under psychoanalysis in a Perry movie.) Sandy understands that Rhoda is her intellectual equal, but also her rival in a battle between good and evil, between civilization and jungle law.

Ditching Rhoda, the trio takes in a Swedish (read: sex) film on the mainland, resulting in one of the most over-heated, three-way make-out sessions ever set in a movie theatre. In a series of extreme close-ups, with Sandy in the middle, the boys surreptitiously invade her body with their fingers. She finally grabs their hands and mixes them up with hers in her lap: a finger orgy. As they head for the ferry after the movie, they’re accosted by three local boys, one of whom says to Sandy, “Get rid of those two queers and we’ll show you where it’s at.” The louche, rich summer residents are identified as impotent and effete, while the local, working-class boys are aggressive and masculine. The three protagonists narrowly avoid their pursuers by jumping on the ferry at the last minute, the two threesomes facing each other in mirror image, anticipating the finale in which the victims will become the victimizers.

Later, roasting marshmallows on the beach while the parents have a party at Peter’s house in the background, the threesome slowly begins to allow Rhoda into their closed world. Rhoda confesses that she’s from Cleveland, and that she writes a weekly column called “Feelings.” (Full disclosure: I borrowed this title for a column a wrote for a Toronto weekly for six years!) “Sounds sexy,” says Sandy provocatively. “It isn’t,” counters Rhoda. The authentic Rhoda is aghast at their computer-dating scheme, although her own prospects for real-life dating seem sadly limited. Peter talks about his parents: “I wish the hell they’d get divorced so there’d be some peace around the house.” When asked which one he would live with, he tells them they’re both pains in the ass. The next day, Sandy asks Rhoda why she wears “such creepy bathing suits” and if her father is a dirty old man who ogles girls in bikinis. “My father isn’t a dirty old man, he’s only 38 years old.” This bit of naivety is met with gales of laughter from the trio, reinforcing her sexual cluelessness and their burgeoning attempt to exploit it. Meanwhile, Sandy is reinforced even more thoroughly as the sexual sophisticate when, in a remarkable scene, she and Dan happen upon a gay male couple making love in the sand dunes. “I think we should go,” says a disgusted Dan, to which Sandy replies, “No, I want to watch.”

The centerpiece of the film is a monologue by Burns that probably by itself captured her an Oscar nod for best supporting actress. On a rainy afternoon at Sandy’s place, Dan teaches Sandy and Peter how to smoke grass, which he has stolen from his parents. (“The maid told me my mother sprinkled it on the baked clams last Sunday,” he tells them.) Stoned Sandy sees the beauty and profundity in Peter’s acne and Dan’s dandruff, another cynical jibe at the spirituality of the drug age. After a sensual, three-way hair-washing orgy, Rhoda arrives. She is finally offered entrance into their private club on the condition that she share something extremely personal with them. She tells them the heartbreaking story of how her mother drowned at a party on Martha’s Vineyard five summers ago on a bet gone horribly wrong, and confesses that she spit on her grave for dying so stupidly. It’s a mesmerizing piece of acting by Burns, who turns a simple monologue into a tour de force. After her confession, Sandy says, “I’m going to wash your hair,” sealing her initiation. (Hair, of course, was another sixties symbol of counter-culturalism and spirituality, most famously expressed in the Broadway musical Hair, which debuted in 1967.)

While playing an aggressive game of Frisbee, aiming at each other’s crotches, Dan and Peter discuss Sandy’s top yet again. “I don’t think she takes her top off to be sexy,” says Peter. “I think she takes it off to be friendly.” “If she let us lay her that would really be friendly,” Dan muses, just as Sandy and Rhoda arrive from the mainland. Rhoda awkwardly shows off the bikini Sandy has bought her, prefiguring its violent removal in the finale. Earlier Dan and Peter had confronted Sandy after they found her pet seagull dead in the forest with its head crushed by a rock. Sandy, who had told them the bird had escaped, finally confessed that she did it after the ungrateful bird bit her hand, and promised never to lie to them again. Now, they take on a new summer project, teaching Rhoda how to swim. Throughout the film Rhoda is paralleled with the injured bird, allying her with the age of innocence that is about to be horribly shattered. Peter begins to develop feelings for Rhoda during swimming lessons in a couple of charming scenes, but when he broaches the subject to Dan, he’s ridiculed for it. The trio then recruits Rhoda into their computer-dating scheme, talking her into going on a date with their victim, a painfully shy Puerto Rican named Anibal, whom they constantly call Annabelle to impugn his masculinity. At a restaurant, the trio proceeds to get him drunk, but Rhoda refuses to participate in his humiliation. “Tell us about Spanish Harlem. Are there really roses there?” Dan asks Anibal sarcastically. “I heard there were rats there,” offers Sandy. “What about the rats here?” Rhoda retorts. Afterwards, the three local goons confront them once more, and they abandon Anibal to be bashed by them, throwing him to the wolves. When Rhoda tries to help him, the trio forces her to escape with them. Sandy puts her hand over Rhoda’s mouth, and she bites it, setting up the final parallel between the bird’s fate and hers.

The infamous finale of Last Summer is not for the faint of heart. Under the sweltering sun, Rhoda confesses her love to Peter, and then admonishes him for what the trio did to Anibal, calling him a coward, which makes him lash out at her. “I think you’re attractive and sexy and all that,” he tells her, “But honest to God, Rhoda, when you start to analyze everything, you give me a terrible pain in the ass.” The foursome descends into the forest brambles to escape the heat, the first time Peter and Dan have gone there since they discovered the dead bird. The libidinous teens try to convince Rhoda to drink beer, but it tastes bitter to her. Dan burps crudely, which offends Rhoda. “You know they have a very high level of civilization in Cleveland, Ohio,” says Sandy, mocking her Midwestern roots, and her repressed sexuality. In fact, the trio has finally rejected civilized behavior completely, giving into the pleasure principle. It has come down finally to a confrontation between the Id, represented by Sandy, and the Superego, represented by Rhoda. Sandy takes of her top off yet again and pours beer over her bare breasts as Dan and Peter watch lasciviously. It’s a brilliantly conceived scene, the set design and lighting transforming the location into a hellish version of the Garden of Eden, and the make-up turning the three teens, with their deeply bronzed skin, into malevolent, sweaty wood nymphs. Sandy suggests that Rhoda take her top off, seconded by Peter, and when she refuses and attempts to leave, the trio blocks her, then begins to assault her. Dan constrains Rhoda, and Sandy rips her top off. They wrestle her to the ground, and Peter, at first reluctantly, helps Sandy hold her down while Dan violently rips off her bikini bottom and penetrates her. It’s a grotesque, brutal rape scene, lasting only a few seconds. Afterwards, in the deafening silence, the three stand in formation around the supine Rhoda with their backs to her while Sandy slowly puts her own top back on. As they leave, Dan heartlessly steps over the eerily calm and inert Rhoda. The trio heads back to the beach, with Peter lagging behind, his gait reverting to that of an awkward little boy. Shot against the backdrop of a magnificent sunset, symbolically standing in as the twilight of the ’60s, Peter turns to the camera, his expression indicating that he understands the enormity of what has just happened, which, unlike Dan, will probably haunt him for the rest of his life. A helicopter shot leaving him standing there alone, opening up the frame, in silence, to the vista of the beach, forces the audience to allow the implications of the rape to sink in. Rhoda’s innocence has been cruelly, unspeakably torn away from her, and the sexually revolutionary ’60s have died a violent death.

Bruce LaBruce is a filmmaker, writer, photographer and artist based in Toronto, Canada. Recently there have been retrospectives of his films at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto and at MoMA in New York City. His latest feature, The Misandrists, will be released in 2018.