LAST SUMMER IN THE HAMPTONS (1995) *** 1/4
Oona goes to a large country house in the ritzy Hamptons. For financial reasons, the owner, aged stage actress (and ex-movie star) Helena Mora (Viveca Lindfors), has put it up for sale.
As is customary, matriarch Helena's large, extended and talented family, all in theater, gather there in the summer. This is their last weekend. Traditionally too, the clan has mounted a play for a single performance, a yearly, artistic-cum-social event attended strictly with limited invitations.
Oona enters the new milieu with trepidation and a load of complexes. She earns far more from movies than anyone around from stagecraft, but she is insecure, in awe of real pros and (I guess) because while bankable she has not attained true stardom. Without becoming a catalyst she is the main thread of the film as it presents us with a multitude of situations among the regulars.
What sets everyone apart from common mortals is ego and egocentrism, terms that are not synonymous. The second, in addition to self-importance, includes colossal self-absorption. Oona's ego may not be larger than the others', but in an ocean of "I, I, I," her share is gigantic.
She is also a specialist in "You, you, you." In that other thespian movie, "All About Eve," cynic George Sanders advises Marilyn Monroe to go and do herself some good. That's just what Oona is about.
Flitting from person to person, she networks, schmoozes, dispenses gobs of hyperbolic compliments, transparent flattery, heavy adulation and outpourings of fraudulent sincerity. Buttering up director Ivan Axelrod (stage director Andre Gregory of "My Dinner with Andre") she gushes about his work, then admits she has never seen any of it: "But I've heard about it ... You're like a legend."
What, in showbiz lingo, tops the gag, is that Ivan accepts this hook, line and sinker. He doesn't even smile ironically. Later, in fact, he cuddles Oona. At another point he has something like near sex with her as she does her panther exercise, jumping, clawing and roaring. (When she does her baby seal exercise she's just as hilarious).
The performers, all excellent, have zip, zing and verve. I only regret that the great, distinctive Roscoe Lee Browne who can radiate intelligence and irony like nobody's business, has such a tiny role.
The structure of the film is like a string of improvisations, but in reality it is a careful charting of encounters. Large family reunions around Helena's table are done in most un-gourmet fashion as food is barely the background and talk is all. Smaller groups are formed. Dominant are the repeated tete-a-tete two-shots, with the same couple or with a different partner.
Seldom has a movie deserved more the description of "bits and pieces." So many of them that they may try your powers of concentration as you attempt to figure out who's who or what to whom.
Unlike the conventions of the "well-made play," where the exposition starts as the curtain goes up on Act I, Scene 1 and soon we are given basic information about many characters, "Last Summer" is hyper-realistic. It's like getting plopped into a big party and having to fend for yourself in figuring out the identities of others guests.
When Jean Renoir's classic "The Rules of the Game" (an obvious inspiration for "Last Summer") gathered a motley weekend crowd in a chateau, the diverse characters stood out with clarity, as they do in Jaglom's other models: Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard," the older novel, play and film "Grand Hotel," Ingmar Bergman's "Smiles of a Summer Night," its clever Woody Allen version "A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy," etc.
Jaglom takes his non-method a bit far. I thought of viewers who complain that too many subtitles in inordinately talky foreign films block the looking at screen images. Mr. Jaglom might have used occasional identifications, like those on TV news or documentaries: "Henry Purcell, Rio Tonto Police Chief." Not too many of course, since part of the game is figuring out the characters.
English-born (1939)Henry Jaglom, first an actor on American TV, entered movies as an editorial consultant (whatever that means) for "Easy Rider" (1969) before turning writer-director with "A Safe Place" in 1971. "Last Summer" is, as per Jaglom, his eleventh film, but in reality his twelfth if you count his co-direction of the theatrically unreleased "National Lampoon Goes to the Movies" (1981).
Jaglom is an independent and a maverick who makes decidedly non-Hollywoodian movies, super talky affairs of staged "cinema-verite" (documentary),with players who range from many unknown or little known to second-stringers. In his filmic cocktails, he mixes and stirs them with "real" people, often filmmakers like Orson Welles, Bob Rafelson, Monte Hellman, Milos Forman, John Landis.
The average cast is large. Names and no-names generally share the pie democratically.With "Always," Jaglom started increasing the number of parts. With "Someone to Love," "Eating," "Venice-Venice" (60 parts, albeit many microscopic) and "Babyfever" Jaglom became the Cecil B. DeMille of Kammerspiel.
In "Last Summer" what we don't learn about theater people is hardly worth mentioning. Among the revelations (to those unfamiliar with the profession) is that everything, including personal life, is ever sacrificed to getting a part.
Oona, cynically encouraged by her visiting lover (Jaglom) has a fling with a talented grandson of Helena's. He, poor soul, deludes himself that Oona might follow him to the wilds of the Midwest. She: "I don't even know where Missouri is!"
We learn that ambition goes so far that a "gorgeous apprentice" (Nick Gregory) fakes being gay and comes on to young playwright Jake (real playwright Jon Robin Baitz) to advance his (the phony's) career. We learn that a director father is jealous of his successful son and that the first sexual experience of a young woman was with her gay brother. We learn about family relations, problems, alienations, about truths, lies, deceptions, self-deceptions and the terrible toll of aging.
Helena explains that she left Hollywood and returned to the stage because there she could learn much more about her craft. True enough, but wasn't it also because getting old demotes one to lesser parts?
In the most moving scenes, twice Helena watches herself on TV. She sees Viveca Lindfors in her two initial movies, after Hollywood imported her from Sweden. Her first US film ("Night Unto Night") was in 1947, opposite Ronald Reagan. It was shelved until 1949 so that her public screen debut was with Errol Flynn, in 1948 ("The Adventures of Don Juan"). One picture may have been a dud, the other a potboiling swashbuckler, but even if we know those facts, there is pathos in stars looking at their glory days. Think of "Sunset Boulevard."
Miss Lindfors died while on tour in Sweden in 1995. Unlike Helena, she never left the cinema although she did also return to the stage. Her penultimate movie was the 1994 "Stargate." She worked in almost 60 films, few of them worthy of her talents--unlike "Last Summer," where her last appearance is a fitting, touching grand exit.