Attention: This article contains spoilers for readers who have not seen “Last Summer”.
Fifty years ago, 1969. Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy, both pillars of the New Hollywood, exploded onto screens. The maturation of filmmaking was taking unprecedented leaps forward. On June 10, 1969, another film premiered which also sought to extend cinematic boundaries…Frank Perry’s Last Summer. Based on a novel by Evan Hunter, Last Summer, a tour de force look at the dark side of human nature, has criminally been overlooked in comparison with other classics of that era. As with Midnight Cowboy, Last Summer was originally designated with an X-rating in the United States, but soon was reassigned an R-rating for restricted after further editing. At this time, the rating system in the United States considered an X-rating to be films with mature content unsuitable for children but not necessarily pornographic. To be sure, Last Summer does contain nudity and violence, but it is the psychological examination of four characters that haunt viewers long after the ending.
Director Frank Perry filmed Last Summer on location at Fire Island, a stretch of sandy beach adjacent to the southern shore of Long Island, New York that is a popular summer destination for wealthy families and the LGBT community. Additional town scenes were filmed in nearby Bay Shore, Long Island. The expansive beach setting is perfection and pulls viewers in immediately. As the film begins, Peter (Richard Thomas) and Dan (Bruce Davison) are playing a portable radio on a hot day at the beach, listening to WABC from New York City. They encounter Sandy (Barbara Hershey), who is busy tending to an injured seagull on the sand. As the disc jockey announces the temperature and segues into another song, the camera moves in, and we are right there with them. The two boys come to the rescue by pulling a fishhook from the downed bird’s throat. An instant bond is formed and the three are next seen dancing wildly together that evening. What follows is a dark tale not only in adolescence, but human nature in general.
Director Frank Perry, along with his then-wife Eleanor Perry, who wrote the screenplay, were consummate New Yorkers. This made for a perfect match in regard to making this film. An East Coast vibe is definitely present in Last Summer. The teenagers and their parents, while spending the summer at beach houses, easily commute back to the city when necessary…albeit off camera. The beach is the natural mise-en-scene in the film, where the characters come to life. Sandy, intensely portrayed by Barbara Hershey, is the dominant and manipulating teen. She is immediately aware of the obvious attraction the boys have for her and she uses it freely to get her desired results. In contrast, Peter (Richard Thomas) exudes an aura of emotional confusion and insecurity. Dan (Bruce Davison) comes across as the most predictable, willing to play along in life for his own advantage, as long as the odds are in his favor. The issues dealt with here go far beyond simplistic teen angst. These personality traits define each character, and the film may cause viewers to reflect upon past personal growth during their own youth.
Strong desire, mixed with feelings of indecision and fear. Cruelty for the sake of power, or simply because one can get away with it. Shock and disgust one moment, eclipsed by thoughts of potential casual sex the next. It’s all here, mirroring real life. Last Summer forces an investment from viewers, not only in context of the characters, but in their own conscience. There is nothing exploitative here. Every scene has a purpose moving the narrative forward. As the film increasingly flirts the possibility of a sexual threesome between Sandy, Peter, and Dan…a second girl, Rhoda, suddenly appears on the beach.
Catherine Burns portrays the plain-Jane, reserved Rhoda, and she does it expertly. A soft-spoken girl, she nonetheless stands her ground when she believes Sandy may be mistreating the now tethered seagull. There is initial friction between the two girls. As for the boys, they are still clearly infatuated with Sandy, and Rhoda is seen as invading the intimate space between the three. Regardless, summer carries on, and Peter and Rhoda begin to experience romantic feelings for each other as she learns to swim. For Rhoda, the feeling is much stronger, and she eventually confesses to Peter that she loves him. In contrast, Peter is conflicted between feelings for Rhoda and his lust for Sandy. There is a lovely scene involving Peter and Rhoda, relaxing on the sand, kissing peacefully and looking out towards the ocean. The performances of Catherine Burns and Richard Thomas are spot-on here. What comes across is the realization that many of us have experienced tender moments…seemingly insignificant at the time…but so very important in retrospect. Rhoda offers a heavy-handed (albeit loving) sense of morality and stability…something the emotionally torn Peter was not anticipating in a summer that was gearing up to be fun-loving with no strings. The chemistry of Richard Thomas and Catherine Burns works very well, and they starred together again two years later in Red Sky at Morning (1971).
So what’s the big deal about a teenage drama at the beach? Last Summer is much more than merely a study in adolescence. The film displays how cruelty can be dished out in subtle but effective ways. If the limits of bad behavior are then easily pushed sans reproach, how far can one go? Sandy initially helps the seagull, and later Rhoda, as sort of pet projects for her own amusement. When both the independent Rhoda and seagull snap at Sandy’s control, the results are horrific.
Sandy may be a borderline psychopath, but allegorically, she (and the others) represents a privileged class of youth, who have access to everything except moral guidance and purpose. They reinforce their flawed perceptions of superiority by indifference towards others. Though Rhoda also originates from this class, she is the exception that exhibits empathy, possibly due to her shyness and unpopularity. Case in point, Sandy sets up a computer date with a humble Puerto Rican man and convinces the reluctant Rhoda to play along. This sincere man is dealt with condescendingly by Sandy, Peter, and Dan as simply an evening’s entertainment. When the man, after being urged to drink heavily, is abandoned to some local thugs, only Rhoda protests with outrage. The others show no remorse, viewing the man as a distant object rather than a feeling human being.
There is nothing subtle about the final minutes of Last Summer. A brutal rape occurs near the end of the story…a graphic rape on screen. Director Frank Perry sets up an atmosphere of agitation which seems to permeate beyond the screen. Sweating profusely, the four escape the beach for the coolness of the forest. Tension is at a breaking point as the beer flows. The sudden rape is primal and vicious. Rhoda, viewed as an outcast from the very beginning, is violated and left behind on the ground. Sandy and Dan simply walk away…and Peter is left staring into space…wondering how he will live with this the rest of his life. End of story. This description of events is as stark and cold as the actual scene. As the camera sweeps upward out of the forest and over the dunes, the viewer is left stunned, acknowledging the real possibility everyone involved will just put this in the closet, return to school in the fall, and live out their lives in upper middle class America.
This was Catherine Burns’ first big screen appearance (following her television debut in 1967), and her efforts did not go unnoticed. The young actress was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for Last Summer. Rex Reed, one of the most popular film critics at that time, proclaimed on the Dick Cavett Show prior to the Academy Awards, “My favorite actress in the supporting actress category was a wonderful little girl who I thought gave one of the most startling performances…Cathy Burns in Last Summer, and I don’t think Hollywood knows who she is. I really don’t think they’re aware of her.” How prophetic Rex Reed’s words were to be. Catherine Burns did not win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, and drifted into obscurity. Last Summer, although critically acclaimed and successful at the time of release, faded from public consciousness and is nowadays barely mentioned even amongst ardent film buffs. Barbara Hershey, Richard Thomas, and Bruce Davison have had very successful careers up to the present, but this title is rarely mentioned when discussing their body of work. This begs the question of why such an engaging and relevant movie has remained relatively obscure since its initial release.
Last Summer offers no justice or closure for the crime that is committed. The camera merely observes. In the era of the Me Too Movement, this can be a tough sell. Last Summer does, however, present blunt scenarios that raise tough questions. Sandy uses her sexiness to basically get away with anything she desires. She knows that her beauty often gives her a pass for being indifferent or cruel. Peter and Dan are willing to put their conscience aside, and follow Sandy blindly. Rhoda, tagging along, fails to make much impact with her moral compass. The boys are completely subservient to Sandy (and have no premeditation to commit any crime right up to the point of no return.) The rape itself is an act of control, not desire…committed by three perpetrators in a flash of heated frustration and savagery. The prospect of one female rabidly encouraging the sexual violation of another female strikes a blow to societal perceptions. Last Summer does not play by any rules.
In spite of the controversial ending, Last Summer holds up extremely well in a contemporary sense. The subject matter remains as serious as ever and the minimalist environs of Fire Island give the film a timeless appeal. Besides a rainy day scene of Sandy, Peter, and Dan smoking marijuana, then washing each other’s hair and listening to records, the drug of choice is beer (referred to as truth serum throughout the story.) There are no psychedelic fashions, no stylish cars, and most importantly, the teenagers don’t mention anything remotely anti-establishment. Although all four routinely criticize the failings of their elders, they seem to be learning quickly how to navigate within the establishment rather than fighting it. This was a very rare approach for the time, but it works well here. Another scene that gives a contemporary feel is when Sandy and Dan spy on two gay men making love in a remote area of beach. The teenagers simply watch and move on, offering no moral judgement. The scene helps set up the reality of what one may encounter on Fire Island during summer, without sensationalizing.
Last Summer is surprisingly claustrophobic despite its beach locale. It’s as if the entire Universe is made up exclusively of Sandy, Peter, Dan, and Rhoda. It’s their world. Their parents are entirely out of sight throughout the film, reinforcing the dysfunction and disconnect which is felt. Even on the beach, passersby appear very distant.
Author Evan Hunter had previously written The Blackboard Jungle in 1954 which was brought to the screen in 1955. He was also a prolific writer of crime fiction under the name Ed McBain. The novel Last Summer was published in 1968. Eleanor Perry’s screenplay is extremely faithful to the book, retaining much of the original dialogue. There is slightly more interaction with parents and islanders in the novel. The film adaptation, however, excels perfectly as is. The contrast of sunny beach with dark forest is present in both novel and film. While sun and waves seem to mask the darkness, the foreboding, almost mythical forest provides a place where evil is physically enabled against the seagull and Rhoda. Frank and Eleanor Perry did a masterful job of creating the feel of an art film and mainstream production simultaneously. Evan Hunter later wrote a sequel, Come Winter, which was published in 1973 but never adapted for film.
As prominent as Last Summer was during its release in 1969, many cinephiles have yet to view it. As of this writing, there has never been a restored version released on DVD or Blu-ray. It’s difficult to place Last Summer within any specific genre. Though it flirts with psychological horror, its raison d’etre is firmly elsewhere. Furthermore, Last Summer bucked the trend in 1969, presenting youths who completely ignore counter-culture philosophy. If anything, our privileged teens will succeed their parent’s lifestyle with even more materialism, disillusionment…and alcoholism. Last Summer’s pessimism foreshadows the reality of the seventies (and beyond), while dismissing the naïveté of the Summer of Love. The film reflects a time when art rarely apologized, nor sought remedies, for humanity’s dark side. It simply acknowledged it.
There is an undercurrent of melancholy throughout Last Summer. It’s the sense one gets when summer seems to be fading faster than the actual calendar indicates. John Simon’s effective score helps define this feeling, including sitar music from Collin Walcott and participation by members of The Band. Last Summer reveals how choices made in a flash have potential to haunt us a lifetime. The line between joy and despondency, heroism and cowardice, good and evil, can often be very thin. There is another sadness associated with Last Summer that transpired during filming. A seagull used in the making of the movie was accidentally killed. This incident affected Barbara Hershey very deeply, and she changed her name to Barbara Seagull for a period of time, honoring the spirit of that bird. The poignant mood of Last Summer endures, both on and off screen. As in life itself, the film guarantees neither comfort nor resolution, but it’s still definitely worth the effort.