Here are two character studies that deal with people in their early thirties aging out of their youth oriented careers/lifestyles. These characters are struggling with adapting to society's expectations of them as adults. I believe these to be strong characters who make decisions somewhat outside of the norm and are at a point in their life where a crucial decision has to be made. It is rare to find films, even today, about such unique individuals who are still single this late in the game. What to call this genre? It's not coming-of-age; maybe it's better defined as -dropping into age-.
The title of this post also alludes to the fact that (non nude) Playboy centerfolds are featured in both of these films - however, I would not say that this makes these movies particularly representative of that magazine. The women in Lifeguard, are independent and sassy, for the most part. And The Third Girl From The Left, while produced by Hugh Hefner, can also be viewed as a feminist film, as the script was written by singer Dory Previn and might even be considered thinly guised autobiography.
Sam Elliott, famous for his roles in Western movies and TV shows, stars as Rick. An aging surfer, Rick has worked as a lifeguard in Los Angeles since he was in his early twenties. Now, at 32, he begins to feel pressure to be someone else. These pressures come from outside as his 15 year old high school reunion approaches. He also runs into an old classmate. This friend is now a car salesman at a Porsche dealership and makes the potential offer for Rick to make more money.
Despite these influences, Rick remains self-confident and charming. His good looks are intact and he spends most of the film in nothing but his bathing suit. He loves everything about being on the beach; the contemplative times during the winter as well as the rowdier summer months. And he is great at his job, even though it offers few rewards. He is also a mentor, taking a college student named Chris (played by Parker Stevenson of Hardy Boys fame), under his wing and offering life advice as well as beach safety skills.
Conflicts begin to arise when Wendy (Kathleen Quinlan), a cute seventeen year old loner, takes an interest in Rick and demands that he make love to her. Rick is reluctant and shows genuine concern for the girl - the two become friends. He does eventually give in, and sleeps with her once - but he knows this type of relationship is in the past for him. Later, he ends up saving her from a drowning/ suicide attempt at the beach. The relationship is expressed honestly despite this somewhat melodramatic description.
At the school reunion, Rick meets up with Cathy (Anne Archer), his former high school sweetheart. She is divorced and the two are interested in each other romantically. She encourages him to take the car salesman job and he contemplates starting a family with her and her five year old son.
Rick also visits his parents and his disgruntled father expresses a sincere disappointment in him. He yells, "Why is it that I still have to worry about what you'll be when you grow up!"
Ultimately Rick decides to stay at the beach and his persistence against outside pressures is a surprise - both attractive and romantic in its own way. The viewer is left feeling unsure of Rick's future after the film ends, but you certainly root for him and wish him the best.
The entire film is beautifully shot and captures Los Angeles beach life as it probably no longer exists. Paul Williams also contributes a catchy original song to the soundtrack. Direction is by Daniel Petrie, a long time television veteran, who would later direct the underrated coming-of-age films The Bay Boy and Square Dance. Everything about this film looks beautiful - the actors, the actresses, the beach, the cars. It's just a joy to watch all around.
The Third Girl from the Left (1973)
This is an obscure made-for-tv movie despite having two very famous actors in the lead roles: Kim Novak and Tony Curtis. Rarely shown, it was released on DVD a few years ago as part of the Warner Archive collection. As I mentioned before, this was a Hugh Hefner production, which would make it a curio in its own right. But what makes it even stranger is that Dory Previn wrote both the script and songs for this picture - essentially penning a "woman's film" - making the Playboy connection even more atypical. Previn worked on the music for several more famous films with her husband Andre Previn - most notably Inside Daisy Clover and Vally of the Dolls. She later got divorced, had a famous breakdown and reemerged as an independent singer/songwriter who has gained a cult following for her autobiographical books and 4 records.
Kim Novak has always been one of my favorite actresses. There is something so subtle, sad and unsettling about the characters she plays. As an actress she is the master of the understatement and the characters she defines always maintain a sense of mystery about themselves. She did try to separate her personal life from her Hollywood persona too...and lived in Big Sur in the 1960s, perhaps the embodiment of the character Elizabeth Taylor played in the wonderful film The Sandpiper. In terms of Novak's output, Vertigo and Picnic are probably my two favorite films of the 1950's and she is equally as alluring in the 1964 film Of Human Bondage. In The Third Girl From The Left, we get an older Novak, and I must say that the casting is perfect. She is essentially playing a showgirl aging out of looking the part- which is true to life for Novak as her star was fading after being one of the most sought out talents of the 50s and 60s.
This combination of Kim Novak and Dory Previn makes for a very personal film that is anything but run of the mill. Certainly not for everyone, the movie has a dreamlike feel to it. What it lacks in story, it makes up for in statement - the movie has an ending that asks a question rather than offer a conclusion.
The story focuses on Gloria (Novak), one of the last showgirls in New York City with an old-fashioned (not topless) act. She has a long term relationship with Joey Jordan, lounge singer and playboy. She loves Joey, and would like to marry him, but Joey is still fooling around and is unwilling to settle down. He has an affair with a girl in Vegas (played by Hefner's then wife Barbi Benton) even though he genuinely cares for Gloria - he is unwilling to commit.
The main conflict comes from the fact that Gloria is becoming too old for her act as she approaches her mid thirties. She is going to be phased out by a younger, more attractive girl - and eventually the act itself will be phased out altogether. She'd like a commitment from Joey, but doesn't have the confidence to ask him straight out. All of this puts her at unease about the future.
When Joey leaves for another Vegas trip, she has an affair with a younger man. David (played by Michael Bradon) is a 23 year old hippy and sandwich delivery boy. The two care for each other, but Gloria wants more for David than he possibly wants for himself. The relationship becomes even more complicated when Gloria begins to consider that David was initially interested in her only as a nostalgic novelty.
Gloria's affair and ultimate decisions in the film are presented in the fashion of a metaphor and the viewer is left uncertain of the facts - Was this affair Gloria's daydream OR was it one of many affairs? What we do realize is that Gloria's decisions are difficult, certainly more difficult than Joey Jordan's. This makes Previn's song, "I Will Always Be Alone", sung by Tony Curtis, even more haunting.
Ultimately, I feel as though this is Previn's statement about the difficulties of being a female entertainer in the 1970s and the triumph over societal restrictions and norms.
I absolutely loved both of these movies. They are dated, for sure, but I think that is part of the fascination. Watch them and they'll take you back to a Los Angeles and New York City that really no longer exists. As character studies, both of theses films continue to offer bold statements and left me with questions. I appreciate the ambiguity, especially as someone in my thirties myself. Not all the answers result from a "coming of age". There remains a struggle worth seeking.