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Saturday, June 18, 2011
The American Nightmare of Frank Perry
There may never be a film director more incisive at filming the American Nightmare than Frank Perry. For over thirty years he has made films that deftly articulated the despair of American life. Although he was fortunate enough to garner big stars and major studios to fund his projects his films never failed to disturb people for their ability to hit nerves that didn't want to be tampered with. In light of so-called "genius" auteurs like Tim Burton with his tired goth fantasies and David Lynch with his dancing midgets Mr.Perry remains more relevant than ever.
Most of his best films were written by his screenwriter wife Eleanor and her contributions were no less brilliant. Most of their films were adaptive works and her ability to remain true and in certain cases even exceed the impact of the written works is an amazing feat in itself. The six most intense films by him are as follows:
David and Lisa (1962): His first film was a revelation, the story of two highly dysfunctional teenagers learning about trust and dependency in a society that doesn't want them (watch the field trip scene to see tolerance denied). Janet Margolin ("Take The Money and Run"), Keir Dullea from "2001: A Space Odyssey", and HUAC black-listed actor Howard Da Silva star give amazing performances.
The Swimmer (1968): Burt Lancaster has played many cerebral roles in the past but this may be his magnum opus, playing an aging family man from the suburbs who plans on swimming his way back home via his neighbor's swimming pools. Considering Lancaster's past as a physically fit trapeze artist reaching the autumn of his years the role seems tailor-made for him. As the film progresses we realize he is a philandering, morally decrepit business executive newly released from a mental institution. Just like the cycle in a life he's treated with love and respect (infancy) and by the end he's hated and reviled by all (old age). From the short story by John Cheever who even makes an appearance in the party scene, Eleanor Perry's adaptation fleshes out the story brilliantly, even reportedly incurring jealousy from Cheever himself.
Last Summer (1969): Basically the YA (Young Adult) movie from hell, two teenage boys (Richard "John Boy" Thomas and Bruce "Willard" Davison) befriend a cock-teasing teenage girl (Barbara Hershey) on the beach. Just when their hormone-overdriven hijinks begin to bore an overweight, homely girl invades the triangle and the trio play cruel, sadistic games on her including setting her up on a fake date. The girl is spared none of the mercy shown a crippled sea gull at the beginning of the movie.
Diary of A Mad Housewife (1970): Richard Benjamin plays the most obnoxious, annoying husband in the history of the cinema, nagging his suffering wife played by Carrie Snodgress to death. His snobbery is so over-the top it puts Patrick Bateman to shame. She meets a very mod Frank Langella at a groovy Manhattan party featuring a very young Alice Cooper ("Easy Action" era). Scads of wild sex ensue, bringing out the sexual vixen held back by her suffocating Manhattan brownstone bourgeois family.
Play It As It Lays (1972): Based on the Joan Didion novel, Tuesday Weld plays the manic depressive ex-actress wife to a temperamental film director. Her idea of fun is doing large quantities of speed and driving like a demon on the freeway for hours with no destination. She's reunited with her "Pretty Poison" co-star Anthony Perkins, who plays a gay film producer and her conscience. Frank and Eleanor divorced before the film was made so the film's pacing lags terribly since her contribution was absent.
Mommie Dearest (1981): Similar in tone to "Diary of A Mad Housewife", only this time the sadistic wretch is Joan Crawford and the sufferer is her daughter Christina. I have to confess I never believed for a minute this was a true portrayal of Joan, but that didn't tamper with my enjoyment of this ridiculously insane film. Faye Dunaway is perfect in the role and rumor has it that she didn't have to do much acting to play the psycho actress. Notice the padded walls in her bedroom, a great touch kicking off the creepiest opening credit sequence in movie history.
Frank Perry passed away eight days after his 65th birthday from prostate cancer. The last thing he filmed was a documentary of his battle with the disease and it was no less intense than his fictional movies. Needless to say he appears angry all through the film. Like the rest of his movies this most definitely doesn't end happily, but happy endings are a con, anyway. His films, although European in tone like the finest Bergman, remain idiosyncratically American and shine a light on the darkness which we call the American Nightmare.