Double Feature: The Dangers of Peer Pressure (Last Summer & The Party's Over)
Hey kid, wanna watch two really depressing movies about other kids ruining each others lives that'll make you cry a little? Do ya', huh? What're you, chicken or something?? Psh, okay loooooser. Whatever, the rest of us'll be right over here, talking about Frank Perry's Last Summer and Guy Hamilton’s The Party's Over, two movies from the 1960s that set out to shatter your naive dream of peace, love and rock'n'roll. In fact, watch these two films at once and you'll come away realizing not only was the dream of the 1960s a lie, but we've never actually accomplished anything.
First Billing: The Party's Over (1965)
An American man named Carson (Clifford David) travels to London to find and bring home his fiancé Melina (Louise Sorel) so they can finally settle down. But Melina, an American heiress, has been actively avoiding him because she’s depressed at this semi-arranged marriage by her wealthy father to Carson, who is the Vice President of her father’s company. In order to cope with the impending marriage, she turns to alcohol, pot and the company of her British beatnik friends. It starts out all fun and games, as Carson knocks on several doors trying to find Melina while her friends continually give him the run-around, but soon enough it becomes clear to Carson that Melina’s genuinely missing. The movie then turns oppressively dark, as each friend recounts moments from the night they last saw her; scraps of memories of her inebriated body being passed around, her clothing being removed, and even a makeshift funeral celebration being held for her as she lies naked on the ground. All of her so-called friends are slowly revealed to be vultures, jealous and angry that she dares be unhappy and run from her 'perfect' life as a rich American.
The Party’s Over was withheld from audiences for two years after it was made due to it having scenes that British censors deemed to portray “necrophilia.” I will spoil the movie enough to say that I would not define anything in this as full-on necrophilia, though that’s not to say the film isn’t pretty shockingly dark in general. What starts off as your typical swinging sixties romp very quickly turns into a deeply depressing and disturbing film about peer pressure, not unsimilar to the nightmare tales we hear in the news of college hazings gone wrong. The innocent “fun” quickly ramps up into dangerous criminal behavior as each person tries to top the actions they see their friends take. If they were “too drunk” to realize it the night of, by the next morning it’s obvious everybody knows exactly what they did. Yet, because they are all guilty, nobody wants to be the first to break the spell of serenity. It’s only after the guilt begins to pick off each person one by one, culminating in a public suicide, that anybody will even acknowledge that perhaps something did indeed happen.
Oliver Reed, one of my favorite jerks, knocks it out of the park as the leader of the beatnik gang, who transforms from a biting sarcastic and charmingly dickish playboy to a cold-blooded, dead-eyed predator. He embodies both the ego of youth and latent misogyny; he feels so entitled to indulge his every whim that even being involved in multiple deaths of friends cannot stop him. Louise Sorel is also mesmerizing as Melina, a perfect balance between “poor little rich girl” and a lost soul just trying to make a connection. Unfortunately for her, because she’s never experienced real love or friendship, she is destroyed by her inability to navigate between sincerity and spiteful opportunism.
While it’s possible to just see this film as a tragedy, The Party’s Over also comes across as a supremely moralistic movie in a lot of ways. It’s almost an after school special, with Melina’s smoking and drinking hepcat friends all revealed to be horrible human beings, while her square goodie-goodie fiancé remains unwaveringly righteous throughout. There's also a whole lot of talk of "growing up" as opposed to partying all night or following your passions. In that way, The Party’s Over comes across as more of a broad dismissal of the ‘60s youth movement (which is extra ironic when you think of how it was banned for years over its controversial content). Whether or not that was the intended message, I'm not completely sure, but the film certainly shines a light on the darker side to these supposedly progressive movements. The film’s depiction of unequal treatment and outright shaming of women at a time when the concept of “free love” was blossoming rings loudly; while women are publicly allowed to choose their sexual partners, it still comes at the price of their reputations and lives. That these young people are coming together based on common interests doesn’t truly erase their economic statuses or covetous desires. The Party’s Over is a sharp knife in the bubble of youth culture, a dark mirror on just how far we haven’t come.
Second Billing: Last Summer (1969)
Last Summer begins with Dan (Bruce Davison) and Peter (Richard Thomas), two middle-class teenagers who are spending their summer in their beach homes with their families. One day, they run into the beautiful and enigmatic Sandy (Barbara Hershey) right as she has found a wounded seagull on the beach. The boys help her remove the hook from its mouth and the three of them become fast and close friends. They spend their days dancing, drinking, sharing secrets, and flirting with each other; Sandy’s good looks and free wheeling attitude keeps the two horny teenage boys at her beck and call.
All goes swell until their teen flirtation party gets gatecrashed by Rhonda (Catherine Burns), a socially awkward and heavier-than-Sandy teenage girl who’s looking for friends and clearly wants in on their club. Unlike Sandy, Rhonda is uptight and has no interest in pushing any boundaries, sexually or otherwise. While neither of the boys find Rhonda particularly attractive, the whiff of another potential “conquest” around distracts them enough that it brings out Sandy’s sadistic side. Sandy begins to act out, killing the seagull they saved supposedly in retaliation for biting her. This overtly violent act makes the boys begin to think twice about their new best friend, yet their friendship continues based on the strength of the three of them taunting Rhonda for everything from her looks to her inexperience with boys.
With the seagull’s death as a symbolic line in the sand, the group dynamic begins to change. After an incident where they leave a shy boy in the hands of a group of thugs, Rhonda openly chastises them for their cruelty. Unfortunately her pleas only succeed in alienating her further from the group. The film ends with the four of them in the woods as Sandy sadistically dares Rhonda to remove her top. When Rhonda gets up to leave, Sandy goads Peter and Dan into holding her down. By the end of the film, we see three adults walk away from the scene.
I can’t overstate how absolutely brutal this film is. Despite the fact that Catherine Burns was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award, the film seems to have been all but forgotten in comparison to other high profile releases the same year. I’d argue this film is easily more powerful than Midnight Cowboy (a movie I love) ever was; where Midnight Cowboy feels very specifically character-driven, Last Summer boasts a far more common and universal message. It’s a powerful musing on of the loss of innocence mixed with that half-baked teen wisdom that runs on desire, hate and loneliness.
We get hints of the lonely and broken homes some of these kids come from, and how they perpetuate the pain they feel on each other. Barbara Hershey is outstanding as the beautifully cruel Sandy, all at once a teenage dream mixed with a pathological need to be wanted. She’s a product of patriarchal oppression, made to feel she has no value except for in her looks, so when her reign as most-desired is threatened she chooses to lash out at those around her instead of the system. Of course, even her lashing out is by design – the boys aren’t interested in objectively measuring hotness and rewarding it as much as they are in just trying to get laid however they can. Catherine Burns’ Rhonda is equally recognizable as the girl who grew up with a genuine sense of self, most likely because she didn’t have her “looks” to fall back on, who is quickly alienated for not fitting into the pre-cast mold of what is expected of girls. She knows the crowd she’s hanging out with is rotten, but as a teenager she doesn’t want to face the loneliness of the alternative.
Like The Party’s Over, Last Summer also parallels the pitfalls of the ‘60s sexual revolution, which rings especially loud seeing as it came out right at the tale end of the decade. We watch these three bright young things give into their insecurities instead of rising above them, destroying the pride of another in order to build their own. Sandy betrays Rhonda in order to build herself up to Dan and Peter, playing into a game that will ultimately chew her up and spit her out as well. The dream of “free love” is only free when you conform to it and play by its strict rules. The final silent scene of Last Summer feels like the collective sigh of a generation who thought they had made real moves towards changing the future only to realize they never even got off the couch. It reminds me of a coming-of-age interpretation of Easy Rider, a final scene that ends with a bang, followed by a whimper. “We blew it.”