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.
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 well-meaning but 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 directed some 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: