PCA Retro Review – Summer Fun Edition: Last Summer (1969)

Last Summer (1969) – Warning.  Frank Perry’s Last Summer, based on the novel by Evan Hunter, is not what it seems.  You think you’ve signed up for a coming of age film, but be careful.  Last Summer, no matter what it seems, is pure Grindhouse at its rawest.  Part Summer of ’42, part I Spit On Your Grave, there isn’t really a summer movie quite like it.  Sexy, disturbing and provocative, Last Summer is a powerful film that won’t leave your consciousness any time soon, although it has become one of the forgotten gems of the 1960’s despite early performances by pop culture powerhouses like Barbara Hershey, Richard Thomas and Bruce Davison as well as an Oscar nomination for Catherine Burns for Best Supporting Actress.

The young and talented cast of "Last Summer" (1969) left to right - Bruce Davison, Cathy Burnes, Richard Thomas and Barbara Hershey

During summer vacation on Fire Island, two friends, Peter (Richard Thomas) and Dan (Bruce Davison) encounter a beautiful young girl named Sandy (Barbara Hershey) on the beach tending to a wounded seagull.  Helping Sandy take the seagull home, a natural kinship grows between the trio as they take care of the bird in the early weeks of the summer.  Eventually a sexual tension between the pernicious Sandy and the two obviously inexperienced boys occurs, although Sandy doesn’t seem to give any indication that she likes one boy or the other.  However, it soon becomes clear that Sandy might be a bit deranged, but for the sake of their friendship and the fact that the boys, and especially Dan, wants to lay Sandy, they over look early signs that she could be a sociopath.  Big mistake.  Soon the three encounter the socially awkward Rhoda (Catherine Burns) who, in an attempt to find friends while on vacation, basically invites herself into Peter, Dan and Sandy’s lives.  As Sandy actively loathes Sandy, subtly humiliating for her own pleasure, a hint of a romance buds between the dumpy girl and Peter.  However, things turn for the worst on a hot day near the end of vacation, where a heinous act is committed that changes the lives of the four teenagers forever, ensuring that this will be the last summer of their innocence, and one filled with tormented memories and regrets.

In a post John Boy Walton performance, Richard Thomas gives the most powerful performance of his career as Peter in "Last Summer"

The real draw to Last Summer is the brilliant performances by all four of the leads.  Richard Thomas, in a pre-John Boy Walton role, is exactly what you expect his character to be.  The more sensitive of the two boys, his character Peter is the most likeable of the trio, and the romance between him and Rhoda seems to have an odd sweetness to it, which pulls in the audience.  However, in the end, Peter’s goodness is compromised and the final shot of Richard Thomas’ hollow eyes sends a haunting chill down the spine of viewers, realizing that all innocence has been stripped from this young man. In comparison of Thomas’ performance, Bruce Dern, despite also giving a strong performance, is the more two dimensional of the pair that seems to have only one thought on his mind – getting Sandy out of that bikini.  Dern eventually becomes a symbol of Sandy’s power over people as her pull on him seems to strip him of any decency that he may have ever had.

Barbara Hershey gives a stellar performance as Sandy in which she oozes both sex and cruelty

Barbara Hershey, in the role of Sandy, not only gives the most dynamic performance in the film, but just oozes sexy.  Spending nearly the entire film in a white bikini, Hershey not only seduces Peter and Dan, but she seduces the audience as well, and although it quickly becomes clear that she is a cruel and sadistic young girl, the audiences own desire for Sandy makes you quickly forget just what she is capable of, which only makes the impact of the final moments of the film even more shocking.  Sandy becomes a symbol of many things including lust, desire and fantasy, but in the end the reality of her character is the darkness behind the film.  Hershey plays Sandy without a sense of pathos, but with a sensibility which fools the audience into liking her and trusting her, even at her most loathsome and untrustworthy moments.

Despite a star making performance and an Oscar nomination, Catherine Burns soon dissapeared from Hollywood after making "Last Summer"

Actress Catherine Burns gives a standout performance as Rhoda, which earned her an Oscar nomination.  Although Rhoda seems shy, awkward and often pathetic, she is possibly the strongest of the characters in the film.  She has an actual sense of self which rarely unwavers, and despite getting manipulated by Sandy throughout the film on multiple occasions, she is also the only character in the film strong enough to stand up to her.  However, despite Burns’ nomination and star making performance, she dropped out of sight within a few years of making Last Summer and is no longer anywhere to be seen on the pop culture radar.  A sad reality from a brilliant actress who had so much potential.

When the seagull used in "Last Summer" died while filming a key scene, Barbara Hershey temporarily changed her name to Barbara Seagull for the first half of the 1970's, much to casting agents dissapproval

Last Summer would be the result of an odd footnote in the life of Barbara Hershey.  During the scene where the teenagers try to get the seagull to fly and first meet Rhoda, the bird became tired after multiple takes and eventually died.

Feeling immense guilt over the seagull’s death, Hershey believed that the spirit of the bird had entered her body and, in tribute to it, changed her name to Barbara Seagull during the filming.  This would not prove popular to casting agents and directors who sought to cast the rising star in their films considering that she had already established herself under the last name Hershey.  In fact, when she was offered the film The Crazy World of Julius Vrooder (1974) the producers told her that they wanted her to return to her original name.  When she refused, they told her that they would cut her salary in half if they were forced to put the name Seagull in the credits.  Hershey stood her ground.  The producers made due on their threat and Hershey took the reduced salary.  Ironically, by 1976 she had once again dropped the name Seagull and was once again using the last name Hershey.

Last Summer is a summer film like no other.  Once again, I can’t express enough that viewers should go into this film with caution.  The film’s events, no matter how off kilter they might seem at times, never hints at the shocking end of the movie.  A popular bootleg, Last Summer is not yet available on DVD, but deserves a collectors DVD treatment.  A true gem of the Grindhouse genre, Last Summer is a film that will fascinate and shock film fans who can track this gem down.

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