It’s appropriate that the film Last Summer is set on Fire Island, just a ferry’s ride from the Long Island mainland, as the sun-baked atmosphere is as dry as kindling and the cool crashing waves from the Atlantic are no match for the palpable, hot energy surrounding four teens confronted with the challenges of adulthood.
It’s 1969 when two gangly teenage boys, Peter, (Richard Thomas, pre-Johnboy), and Dan, (Bruce Davidson), wander across Sandy (Barbara Hershey), a comely child-woman boasting a 157 IQ, kneeling in the sand, trying to save a seagull dashed on the beach from a fishhook in its throat. Sandy’s intentions are to make a pet of the seagull, as well as the two boys, and to train all three in the art of obedience. As the saying goes, she has hand. As the three become more bound by true confession and experimental groping and intimacy, the aura of the ménage a trios is similar to that of a pack of ferel dogs. They taunt the local toughs with their overt sexuality. They steal beers and drugs from the grownups’ stash. They fill out a blind date questionnaire with erroneous information with intentions of messing with both the dating service’s computer and any respondents.
You get a sense of the period in U.S. history from the setting. Hyannis Port is a far piece up the coast, where Camelot’s tarnished image has been dragged down in the American collective psyche by cynicism toward both Vietnam and Chappaquiddick. Parties of the privileged, up and down the beach, are mired in alcohol and illicit drug use. And the teens are ‘digging’ the rebellious sounds of the late sixties while boredom slowly creates an underlying narcissism.
As the threesome train the seagull to do tricks, a fourth teen, Rhoda (Catherine Burns), enters the picture. She is critical of the perceived abuse of the seagull. Rhoda’s high-mindedness and grandmotherly bathing suits ensure her place as the outcast within the group. She’s far more principled compared to the other three, but she’s heavy-handed, acting like the jailer/babysitter who kids can’t help but attempt to fluster while enjoying every minute of it.
It’s Rhoda’s timid sexuality that sets up the final and disturbing scene. It’s a bit over the top and I can’t help but wonder if something less destructive and, instead, more ambiguous would have equally given the film a more profound conclusion. That said, it was this shocking final scene that I vividly recall from the first time I saw this film 30 years ago and what compelled me to seek out this hard-to-find film. (Since when does a film with an Oscar nomination become lost, priced at $189 on Amazon.com and unavailable on Netflix?) Based on Evan Hunter’s novel of the same name, I can imagine the author’s attempt to illustrate the pathos of the time, equally disturbing and depicted in the rebellious wanderlust of Easy Rider or the death and darkness of Apocalypse Now. All three of these movies end with a shot to the gut, leaving the viewer to either ask “Is that the end?” or to wonder how often dare we forget someone might be watching over us and managing the ledger of deeds and misdeeds.