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Like so many of his films, Henry Jaglom’s Last Summer in the Hamptons is a sort of dramatized documentary in which a group of barely fictionalized characters air their ideas on a particular subject. The director doesn’t differentiate between characters and talking heads. Nor can he make a movie in which the theme is simply played out in the narrative: In a Jaglom Terminator, the characters would all turn up at the same cocktail party and discuss the dehumanizing aspects of technology. It seems inevitable that his films will necessitate the coinage of some new compound word—“dramumentary”? “documa”? “don’t-go”?
In Eating they talked about food, in Babyfever they talked about having children, and in Last Summer they talk about acting. In the film, Helena Mora (Viveca Lindfors) is the matriarch of a large theater family that gathers every summer in a rambling house in the Hamptons. The thespians are caught off guard when one of the family members shows up with successful Hollywood actress Oona Hart (Victoria Foyt). The family is in awe of Oona’s celebrity and she of their artistic credibility, which leads to a great deal of pontificating by the former (“A stage is holy, it’s religious”) and gushing from the latter (“You’re pure, you’re like some god”)—all equally embarrassing to watch.
Many of the actors in Last Summer, which could easily be subtitled I Have a Lot of Famous Friends, are more or less playing themselves. Lindfors, a Swede who came to Hollywood in the ’30s and then abandoned it for the stage, plays an actress who came to Hollywood in the ’30s and then abandoned it for the stage. (Further blurring the distinction between drama and real life, clips from Lindfors’ movies with the likes of Errol Flynn and Ronald Reagan appear in the film.) Likewise, acclaimed young playwright Jon Robin Baitz plays an acclaimed young playwright, venerable stage director André Gregory plays a venerable stage director, and so on.
The Woody Allen comparisons with which Last Summer’s press kit is plastered are galling not simply because they are inapropos, but because they suggest that Jaglom has a sense of humor. Theatricality, for instance, has taken its toll on the Mora family. We know this because they sit around a big table in the back yard drinking wine and having colorful arguments that end in lines like, “We’re a barrelful of electrical eels electrocuting and poisoning each other again and again.” (The film was scripted by Jaglom and Foyt, neither of whom has a particularly light touch.)
As it happens, one of the film’s themes is people who are unable to tell the difference between acting and real life. Oona can’t interact without acting. Back in Hollywood, she focuses by acting like an animal, an exercise she continues during the visit. “Put it in your play!” Helena tells her grandson after an especially ugly family incident. She chides another guest with a curt, “You act on the stage!” Yet it is the film’s unwillingness to make this very distinction that makes Last Summer so unsatisfying. CP