Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
David and Lisa was a minor art-house sensation in its time, a sleeper of an independent film
that the critics who showered with praise. It was the brainchild of Frank and
Eleanor Perry, a top creative couple who brought out a series of 'East Coast Liberal' pictures
throughout the sixties. It was exactly what the art crowd was looking for in an American film -
an uplifting story about people dedicated to social issues. David and Lisa is a Romeo &
Juliet story with characters who resemble something out of Greek mythology: she speaks only in
rhymes, and he cannot bear to be touched.
Disturbed high schooler David Clemens (Keir Dullea) is delivered to a State psychiatric
home by his status-conscious mother (Neva Patterson), but rebels against the
friendly efforts of Dr. Swinford (Howard Da Silva). Intelligent but socially volatile, David
flies into a rage when touched. He remains stubborn despite the limitless patience of Swinford and
his professionally unflappable staff (Clifton James and Nancy Nutter), and he repels the other
patients in residence - all except for Lisa Brandt, a schizophrenic who stomps around and communicates only
in a childish singsong rhyme. At first playing psychologist himself, David treats Lisa with care
and kindness, and when she responds, they connect. But David's parents try to pull him out of the
hospital, and Lisa becomes jealous when David proves capable of associating with others.
Frank and Eleanor Perry had something as a team, an intelligent toughness that made their films classic
'liberal cause' pictures. David and Lisa may not be a very realistic study of
disturbed kids, but it has firm belief in the essential goodness of progressive medicine and social
service. Audiences approved of both this picture and John Cassavetes' equally earnest A
Child is Waiting, a drama with a much more realistic take on children with mental problems.
The school in David and Lisa is a really civilized place, and not a nuthouse. The actual
maladies of the other inmates are neither debilitating nor unpleasant, and we never find out exactly
what most of them are. There's a quick round-up of interesting faces at the beginning. One boy, Simon
(Matthey Arden) has a vague emotional disorder, whereas Carlos (Jaime Sanchez of
The Wild Bunch in a very early role) seems to have a sex problem, coming on to both Simon
and - in a rather blunt scene for the time - David's mom. All the kids dress respectably, eat their
meals in an orderly fashion, and require minimal maintenance. There are no cases of severe mental
retardation, and unlike today, we don't see any drugs being dispensed. David and Lisa are the toughest
cases, and when it comes down to it, their problems seem to be more family-related than mental.
This doesn't keep David and Lisa from being an interesting story, as it often has the feel of
a stage play opened up for the screen. The speeches are stylized, as are the two 'lovers' complimentary
ailments - when they appear to be each other's perfect cure, we start to care very much about them.
The ending doesn't disappoint, building to a tense climax and then resolving it with a symbolic
scene of tender communication. It's the perfect feel-good liberal climax. If David and Lisa can
find their way, can't the rest of us?
Keir Dullea is suitably rigid and antiseptic-looking, fastidious in his attire and eager to
offend those who try to help him. He's obsessed with order and the concept of time, and Eleanor
Perry's screenplay keeps his neuroses tidy and consistent, as he designs a clock on paper that
will always be accurate because it is controlled by radio (a very real thing now, of course). Mocking
his doctor (played with enormous sensitivity by blacklisted actor Howard da Silva), David learns
to empathize with others by 'playing psychiatrist' with Lisa. It's an understandably mannered
performance that holds together well.
Janet Margolin, later to make some good appearances in Woody Allen movies, is delightful as the
immature, mysterious Lisa, a role that could easily come off as idiotic or superficial. Margolin
is convincingly adolescent, and charming in her enforced baby-talk way of speaking. When David
connects with Lisa, it's as if someone turns on a switch inside her. Affection and kind
attention don't create cures in real life as they do here (did Lisa just need to be loved?) but
Margolin makes it work.
The film's fantasy ending implies that David and Lisa are going to be all right, giving the impression
that mental illness is an emotional misunderstanding that can be fixed by improved communication. It's
even implied that David might continue to study and become a doctor (or is Swinford humoring him?).
The odd idea that mental patients were just ordinary people with antisocial quirks surfaced many times in the
service of director's larger aims, in 'meaningful' films like The Rain People. The convention
was so familiar that 1988's Rain Man came as a big surprise, when Dustin Hoffman's character
not only isn't magically cured, but also will never return his brother's affection. Such feel-good scenes
were a 'must' for proper dramatic closure in early Liberal Independent films. David and Lisa is
worthy and valid as a drama, but unless the
patients in Swinford's clinic are only meant to be mildly antisocial, it's a total fantasy.
Eleanor Perry's script follows the progressive trend to blame the parents, especially David's mother
who dresses like Jackie Kennedy and thinks of her son only in terms of her own needs and
expectations. David's father is rich but weak, giving in to the domineering mother, another favorite
theme of the time. David's disturbance is so family-based, that David and Lisa almost seems an
offshoot of the Rebel Without a Cause delinquency-apology films, the ones that blame anybody
but the kids.
The rest of the patients all are potentially interesting but have very little screen time. Besides the
prolific Sanchez, only Karen Lynn Gorney continued in films, playing Stephanie Mangano two decades
later in Saturday Night Fever. Social worker/psychologist John
is played by Clifton James, who of course became famous as Sheriff J.W. Pepper in two James
Bond films. At this point, he was an East coast actor familiar in liberal independents,
especially several by Jack Garfein - The Strange One, and Something Wild with Garfein's
wife Carroll Baker. James is so tender and patient in the role, you won't believe it's the same actor
who did the crude imitation of a Southerner for Roger Moore's 007.
After this success, the Perrys veered in the direction of Stanley Kramer, and
the pitfall of even more self-conscious art filmmaking. Their followup Ladybug, Ladybug is a true
story about panic in the wake of a false atomic alert at a small New England grade school. It's
drags, and its message, War Is Not Healthy For Children and Other Living Things, is far too obvious.
The Swimmer was slick but extremely pretentious, a surreal idea given a literal presentation and
TV commercial visuals. Last Summer isn't seen
much now but provided a nasty kick in 1969 with its tale of amoral teens committing rape and
murder, years before the nihilistic kicks of The River's Edge. It's marred by more deep message
mongering, but has breakthrough performances by a young Barbara Hershey, Richard Thomas and
Bruce Davidson. And finally came Diary of a Mad Housewife, an encounter with a worst-case marriage
horror scenario so harrowing that it did its feminist cause an injustice - our only reaction to poor
Carrie Snodgress' persecution by her husband Richard Benjamin, is deep despair. Interestingly, the Perry
pictures after David and Lisa are all depressing downers, or openly apocalpytic.
After Housewife, the Perrys seem to have broken up as a filmmaking team, and although Frank
notable titles (among them the cult disaster Mommie Dearest), they never garnered the same
critical approval of the couple's early pictures. Their first, David and Lisa, is perhaps still their best.
Producer/Art Director Paul M. Heller went on to produce a wild selection of films, including
Enter the Dragon, Withnail and I, and My Left Foot. He's anonymous here; on
an Anchor Bay or Home Vision Entertainment disc, we'd probably learn all about him.
Fox Lorber's DVD of David and Lisa is an acceptable, if not exemplary disc. The full frame
transfer is a bit on the dull side, and looks as though some after-transfer digital
sharpening was done to improve contrast - some edges are roughly stairstepped here and there. The
sound is also a bit weak, even considering the nature of the
original track - I kept turning the volume up to hear certain bits of dialogue. But the show is
intact and very presentable, especially on a smaller screen: this isn't one of those bleary older Fox
Lorber discs that we've been warned away from.
There are really no extras, just a couple of lists of 'highlight' credits. Showing a distinct lack
of sensitivity, Frank Perry is given a partial filmography, but his equal partner Eleanor is not.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
David and Lisa rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Good -
Sound: Good -
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 29, 2003
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2003 Glenn Erickson
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