The Strawberry Statement (1970) Stuart Hagmann

    By 1970, the film studios of Hollywood, or what was left of them, were trying to desperately connect with the hip and new power of the youth market that exploded on to the scene in the late sixties. Films like “The Graduate”, “Bonnie and Clyde” and  “Easy Rider” proved  if you made them, they will come…..maybe.  MGM, a studio that epitomized the essence of old Hollywood, purchased  James Simon Kunen’s best-selling non-fiction book, “The Strawberry Statement”, which detailed his personal experiences as a student at Columbia University during the April 1968 student protest and eventual takeover of University buildings.

    Playwright Israel Horovitz was hired to turn Knuen’s journalistic book into a screenplay. Among Horovitz works was the off-Broadway play, “The Indian Wants the Bronx” which opened in 1968 and starred two unknown actors by the name of Al Pacino and John Cazale. Pacino and Cazale won Obies for Best Actor and Best Supporting, respectively.   “The Strawberry Statement” was his first screenplay.

    Unlike the book, the film is set at a fictional University in San Francisco instead of Columbia in New York City. Most likely because, and this is an assumption on my part, Columbia did not want to  relive or re-ignite the 1968 uprising and refused to let the film be set on its campus. Subsituting San Francisco for New York was a good and reasonable choice.

    Our counterculture hero is Simon (Bruce Davison), an apathetic jock on the University’s rowing team. He only becomes involved in campus politics because of his attraction to Linda (Kim Darby) a cute girl who is supposedly an activist but other than spitting out a couple of lines about caring and causes seems  not to do much more than be  Simon’s girlfriend. Women in general are treated mostly as sexual objects and gofers for the men who are really doing the organizing.

    A group of students are protesting the Universities decision to build an ROTC center. The organizers call for the students to strike.  Simon seems to be only half-heartedly into the entire movement but that all changes in the last 15 minutes or so of the film when life becomes drastically more confrontational.

   The students are occupying the administration building. Outside the police and the National Guard, equipped with tear-gas, stand ready to close in. The students are sitting on the floor in a large circle chanting John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance” as they prepare for the oncoming assault. The police and National Guard begin to move in, a full-scale riot breaks out with the police and National Guard beating on the students with nightsticks. Simon and Linda are caught in the middle of the riot. Separated, they are fighting for their lives as the film ends with a frozen shot of Simon trying to jump over the police who are reaching out to grab him.

    Whether one sympathizes are with the students or think they got what they deserved I’m sure depends on one’s point of view. (One posting on IMDB naively called the student protests “communist riots”). While many students were radicalizes by the times, or at least became more politically aware, many others did not participate in these demonstrations, they just wanted to go to school, get an education, get a job and probably avoid the draft and getting this asses shipped off to Vietnam.

    Looking at the film today, the students come off as naïve; the film itself is part satirical (thanks to Horovitz’s writing) and part Kent State. Were the shootings at Kent State where National Guardsman fired more than 60 rounds of ammunition killing four students and wounding nine others, influential to the filmmakers? It’s doubtful since the incident at Kent State happened on May 4th and the film was released in Mid-June of the same year. The timeline seems very tight. Clashes between the authorities and protesters already had a history i.e. the 1968 Chicago Democratic National Convention.    

    One of the highlights of the film is its magnificent soundtrack, that begins during the opening credits with the Joni Mitchell song, “The Circle Game” sung by Buffy Sainte-Marie. Other works include, “The Loner” and “Down by the River” by Neil Young, ‘Our House” and “Helpless” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, “There’s Something in the Air” by Thunderclap Newman and as previously mentioned the students chanting  a powerful version of “Give Peace a Chance” just prior to the final confrontation with the police and National Guard.   

   Overall, the film is erratic; there are times when it conveys a realistic feel of the time and place, mostly through the music and art direction. A nice touch is a scene in Simon’s room where we hear an LP on his turntable playing   Richard Strauss’ “Also sprach Zarathustra”, a nod to Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.”  Thanks to Horovitz there is some absurdist humor, though irrelevant to anything else going on in the film contributes to the personality of those times. That said, our counterculture hero Simon is not very radical, his interest in the movement has more to do with hooking up with Linda and hopefully getting laid than that of any higher political calling. His dedication to the movement is limited as we see when he sneaks out of the building, controlled by the students, to attend his  team’s rowing practice.   

    The cast includes Bud Cort and Bob Balaban as two of the students, James Coco, as a grocery store owner, who sympathize with the “revolutionaries”, though in he credits he is listed  as being one of  “The Establishment.”   The book’s author James Simon Knuen also has a small role as well as screenwriter Horovitz.

    For director Stuart Hagmann, this was his first feature film. His film career was mercifully short. With a commercial and TV background, his camera technique, is filled with zooms,  twirling upside down camera movements that he may have seen as hip but was then and now just plain annoying. His motto seems to be forget substance, just check out what I can do with this camera!

     During this period, Hollywood came out with a series of films about student unrest, most of which were dismal like “Getting Straight” and Stanley Kramer’s “RPM” in which student Ann-Margret was having an affair with Professor Anthony Quinn!  Some were more successful works like Haskell Wexler’s “Medium Cool” and Paul Williams little seen, “The Revolutionary.” 

    The title of this film, by the way, supposedly refers to a statement made by a Columbia administrator who said the opinions of the students on administrative manners meant no more than as if they said they like the taste of strawberries. The administrator has since stated that he was misquoted. Kunen also offered the statement that the title partially refers to the rock group, The Strawberry Alarm Clock.

    The copy of this film I watched was a severely edited TCM version; one of the few “R” rated post 1970’s films I have watched on TCM. I was appalled by the sloppy unnecessary editing; after all, the film was shown in the middle of the night, somewhere around 2:30AM. Anyone up at that late time should be old enough to make their own decisions about whether they want to watch an “R” rated film or not. There were obvious cuts for female nudity and a ridiculous fogging of Bruce Davison ass in a shower scene. Editing vulgarity resulted in a lot bull…that made Simon sound like a stuttering idiot in one particular scene. I know TCM has shown other films that contained nudity. When originally released, the film “Kramer vs. Kramer” has nude scenes, so  I now wonder how TCM handled this. I always thought TCM had the integrity to show films uncut but I guess I was wrong.


Last Summer (1969) Frank Perry

Last Summer LC2

As an adolescent, acceptance into your peer group is always an undeniable desire, rejection from the group scars you for life. Few films broach this topic as compelling and intelligently as “Last Summer.”  Based on a novel by Evan Hunter (The Blackboard Jungle), “Last Summer” is the story of three middle class teenagers who spend a summer on Fire Island with their parents, though the parents are never seen. Sandy (Barbara Hershey), a beautiful dark longhaired girl is highly intelligent and while she expresses a sexual confidence her actual experience is limited. The two boys, Peter (Richard Thomas) and Dan (Bruce Davison) are sexually less sure of themselves; they talk a lot about getting laid, would Sandy be willing, when should they make a move.

The three form close-knit circles of friendship. When they first meet, Sandy is on the beach nursing a wounded seagull. They remove a hook and the three nurse and rehabilitate the injured bird back to health. They spend the summer swimming, drinking beer on the beach, smoke pot and bonding. The threesome go on a date to the movies on the mainland where the boys work up the nerve to feel up Sandy, sharing a breast each. The look on Sandy’s face tells you she’s excited. Outside the theater she tells the boys how sexy they made her feel. They run into some local punks and are chased, barely escaping their reach by catching the ferry back to the island.Last Summer -poster

Into their tight circle comes Rhoda (Catherine Burns), a short plump lonely girl who practically forces her way into their company. She really does not fit in but they let her hang out with them, mostly because they take spiteful pleasure in taunting and mocking her. One afternoon, the boys discover Sandy has killed the seagull after the wild bird bit her. Admonishing her for lying, Peter begins to spend time with Rhoda teaching her how to swim.

Sandy instigates a decision to push the reluctant and inexperienced Rhoda to go on a computer matched date that Sandy initiated as a kick to “trick the computer” with a shy Puerto Rican man named Anibal (Ernesto Gonzalez). At a bar, after a night of drinking and dancing, they run into the same bullies who they escaped from a few nights earlier at the movies. They run off again abandoning the inebriated Anibal who is beaten up by the three punks. Rhoda, the only one reluctant to leave the scene, is dragged away by the others. Later she berates Peter for his behavior which only makes him run take with Sandy and Dan.

On a hot summer’s day, the three go into the woods to cool off from the burning sun, Rhoda tags along. Annoyed that she followed, Sandy removes the top of her bikini swimsuit and badgers Rhoda to do the same. Disgusted by Sandy’s unashamed behavior Rhoda attempts to leave however, Sandy pushes the boys to stop her. Sandy’s desire to destroy Rhoda results in a brutal scene that will bind the three forever.Last SUmmer - Still

     Sandy, Dan and Peter, lack a moral compass. Everything they do is just for kicks, not seeing any problem; heck all they were doing was having a few laughs. They didn’t mean for the Puerto Rican guy to get beat up; the whole date thing was just an attempt by Sandy to screw up the computer-dating model. This callous treatment is seen throughout the film, Rhoda, is similarly treated, like the wounded seagull, at first she is somewhat accepted into the group and then disregarded always at the mercy of the callous indifference of Sandy.

The four leads are all portrayed so well that it is challenging to select a standout though, Catherine Burns as Rhoda, has a touching monologue sadly describing the circumstances of her mother’s death that is extremely moving. Burns received an Academy Award nomination for her role. Richard Thomas was still a few years away from his career making role of John-Boy in “The Waltons”, and fans who associate Thomas only with that role may be a bit shocked seeing him here as one of the two callous immature teen boys. Of the two, Thomas’ Peter at times shows a sensitivity the others lack, yet his strong bond with Sandy and Dan draws him to side with them in the film’s final heinous conclusion. Bruce Davison adds a strong and convincing dimension as the cocky, sex minded Dan. The two boys are well matched and come across as realistic buddies. One of the film’s strongest features is the authenticity of the way the characters talk, like real teenagers. Barbara Hershey was the best known of the four actors, having already starred in the TV series “The Monroes” a few years earlier. As Sandy, she uses her beauty and brains to sexually tease the horny boys as well as manipulate them. A combination of heartless cruelty and teenage seduction, she’s a dangerous adolescent mix, at one point killing the rescued seagull, then turning the boys against Rhoda.

There are few adults in their lives with who they can connect. When we do see an adult it turns out to Sandy’s mothers’ boyfriend who she confesses, as a “major truth” to the boys, attempted to molest her. The boys talk about uncaring parents who are too busy with their own lives to have much concern for their kids.

Last Summer-LC “Last Summer” was directed and  written by the husband and wife team of Frank and Eleanor Perry. Eleanor adapted the screenplay from  Evan Hunter’s novel. During the 1960’s the Perry’s worked on the fringes of Hollywood, other films included “David and Lisa”, “Ladybug, Ladybug”, “Trilogy”, “The Swimmer” and Diary of a Mad Housewife.”  Overall, their career together, they separated in 1970, was an interesting mix of flawed successes and misfires.  “Last Summer” fits right in as a flawed (technically, I noticed some mismatching shots in some scenes) though engrossing lifelike middle class story about the growing pains of adolescence.

A recurring theme in the Perry’s work is the battle between the sensitive individual dealing the more callous tougher personalities met in life.  Here it is Rhoda versus Sandy. In “Diary of a Mad Housewife”, you have Carrie Snodgrass’ meek wife finding her independence faced against an obnoxious husband and a sexiest callous lover.

Add “Last Summer” to the list of films unavailable for DVD. The film was released on VHS video many years ago (Key Video), however it has since remained an elusive work to the home video market, as has “Dairy of a Mad Housewife”, another that has only seen a VHS release. I found a used VHS tape some years ago at a video store  specializing in used videos. The film was released with an R rating though it was originally given an X until scenes from the explicit ending were toned down. Be careful if you find the film on TV. Apparently, there are some PG versions floating around that will ruin the premise.  Overall, “Last Summer” is an effective though disturbing look at youth with too many empty summer hours to fill with experimentation, sexual awakening, the desire to fit in, and the cruelty of just growing up. Then again, isn’t that what adolescence is all about.