For about a decade, Frank and Eleanor Perry made some of the most powerful American films of their era, but only recently has much serious attention been paid to their work. The Quad Cinema’s retrospective of some of their key titles, including several movies Frank directed on his own after the couple’s divorce in the early 1970s, should go some way toward restoring their reputation. It’s about damn time.
The duo debuted with 1962’s David and Lisa, an independent production that went on to win a major prize at the Venice Film Festival and garnered Oscar nominations for Best Director and Adapted Screenplay — a major achievement for an indie made far outside the Hollywood system. It’s a tender, well-acted drama about two teenage mental patients who connect in unlikely fashion: Lisa (Janet Margolin) speaks in odd, singsong rhymes, while David (Keir Dullea, later of 2001: A Space Odyssey fame) is an obsessive-compulsive who refuses to let anyone touch him. David and Lisa is, admittedly, somewhat dated in its attitudes about mental illness, but its sensitivity to these characters, the delicacy with which they’ve been drawn, still shines through.
Credit this compelling humanism to the unique alliance of director Frank and screenwriter Eleanor. He was a long-haired New York hippie and a hotshot theater director. (Fun fact: He was also Katy Perry’s uncle.) She was sixteen years his senior and had already had careers before their partnership as a crime novelist and playwright. Eleanor also possessed a degree in psychiatric social work, which perhaps contributed to the clinical precision of their characterizations. After David and Lisa, most of their films would center in some way around extreme, somewhat delusional personalities and the psychological games that they played.
Starring Burt Lancaster and adapted from a John Cheever story, The Swimmer is probably the best known of Frank and Eleanor’s collaborations. And while it is an incredible film, Frank insisted that at least half of The Swimmer wasn’t really his: Sydney Pollack had been brought in to reshoot much of it. Regardless, the Perrys’ stamp is evident in this tale of a strapping suburban patriarch who decides one day to take an unlikely route home: He will swim through his neighbors’ pools. As our hero progresses on his journey, he is systematically stripped of all his illusions — his masculinity, his wealth, his reputation — until we realize that all along we’ve been watching a portrait of broken self-deception. He’s perhaps also a metaphor for a world of bourgeois privilege that’s rapidly decaying. The year, after all, is 1968.
The children’s game as metaphor and vessel of societal deconstruction — this was the Perrys’ great theme. And nowhere is it more evident than in 1969’s masterful Last Summer, in which a trio of teens become close friends one summer on a beachside Fire Island community. Adults are barely present in the film — when we do see them, they’re subjects of mockery — and the story unfolds as a series of games and challenges that, when combined with sex, status, and jealousy, escalates to monstrous levels. The insular, isolated world these teens inhabit gives the movie the aura of a post-apocalyptic fable, despite the lovely seaside location. But don’t let that setting fool you. This is a dystopia: Not unlike with The Swimmer, what we’re really witnessing is a civilization that’s about to be undone by the social upheaval occurring just outside the frame.
This twilight world truly hits home in 1970’s Diary of a Mad Housewife, the only one of the Perrys’ features to be set in the genteel milieu of the Manhattan literati that they knew so well. It’s possible to sense, in this portrait of a wife (the beautiful Carrie Snodgress) whose frustrations with her opportunistic husband lead her into the arms of a contemptuous but charismatic young writer (the even more beautiful Frank Langella), the fraying of Frank and Eleanor’s own marriage. That may be why, in contrast to the hermetically sealed and methodical narratives of their earlier works, Diary is such a wild, messy, painful film.
After the couple’s divorce, Frank would go on to direct a number of pictures of varying quality. He became notorious for the camp idiocies of Mommie Dearest (1981), which is a shame because he made several extraordinary films before that: the moody, revisionist Western Doc (1971); the highly stylized, anti-Hollywood screed Play It As It Lays (1972); and the shambling, neo-Western picaresque Rancho Deluxe (1975), featuring near-career-best performances from Jeff Bridges, Sam Waterston, and Harry Dean Stanton.
I would love it if this series prompted further explorations of the Perrys, both as collaborators and individual artists: about the struggles of Eleanor Perry in the 1970s, working as a female screenwriter and rarely getting the respect she was due. About how the overbaked Mommie Dearest could have benefited from her eye for extreme personalities and her psychological insights. About how Frank, the further he drifted into the studio system in later years, made increasingly compromised pictures, often at the mercy of temperamental stars and craven executives. About how, because their films were produced independently and not under the auspices of any big studios or production companies, many of the Perrys’ works are uniquely hard to locate these days. (Last Summer, for example, is showing in a 16mm print found in Australia, since all screenable 35mm copies of it appear to be lost. Several other key movies are missing in action.) And also about Blue Pages, Eleanor’s thinly fictionalized and howlingly savage 1979 novel about her years working with Frank. So, here’s an idea: Let this vital, must-see retrospective at the Quad be the beginning of a serious conversation about this most wonderful, complex, and undervalued of cinematic partnerships.