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A successful sleeper of the Bicentennial year, Lifeguard was produced by Ted Mann, the entrepreneur who bought the National General Theater chain. The theaters included Grauman's Chinese, which he immediately renamed "Mann's Chinese." The film helped put actor Sam Elliot on the map. One of the handsomest and most natural male stars of the 1970s, Elliot may be the only human alive who looked good in the '70s hairstyle, with the mustache and thick sideburns. Directed at a leisurely pace by Daniel Petrie, Lifeguard captures a particular So-Cal beach vibe during a brief post-pill, pre-AIDS patch of time when a significant segment of the singles scene actually treated sex as a kind of heightened recreational activity. It of course helped if one had the income to support a singles lifestyle, and of course the looks. For the Sam Elliots of this world, La Dolce Vita had been possible even back in the Victorian Era. What makes Lifeguard special is that Elliot convinces us that he's the nicest guy ever to walk a beach.
The movie covers an eventful summer in the life of Rick Carlson (Elliot), a handsome lifeguard still on the job at age 33. Still single, Rick likes the uncomplicated life. He enjoys all the women he can handle, such as stewardess Tina (Sharon Weber). The wise man of the beach, he mentors young lifeguard-partner Chris Randall (Parker Stevenson). Rick also finds himself engaging in a dangerous relationship with Wendy (Kathleen Quinlan), an underage teenager with an irresistible smile. His only aggravation is a father who keeps bullying him to grow up and get a real job. But Rick just isn't into money, as his high school friend Larry (Stephen Young) finds out after going to great lengths to set Rick up as a salesman in a Porsche dealership. Rick has People Skills to spare but would rather use them keeping peace on the beach and saving people from riptides. At his fifteen-year high school reunion Rick reconnects with Cathy (Anne Archer), a high school sweetheart that got away. Divorced with a small boy, she runs a Rodeo Drive art gallery. Cathy's like a dream from the past, but even she sees lifeguarding as something to be left behind.
A laid-back, thoroughly enjoyable summertime tale, Lifeguard puts us in the sandals of a likeable, truly natural guy. Rick Carlson is a rare cheerful guy who likes people and has the temperament to let most petty nonsense roll off his back. The lifeguarding job isn't all suntans and girls in bikinis, as Rick must deal with rowdy teenagers, the occasional thug and more than his share of perverts. "Everything happens on this beach", he tells Chris. We're inclined to think that Torrance of 1975 looks like Shangri-La compared to today's beach-related violence. When Rick chases some thugs away, they leave. They don't come back later with guns, or lawyers.
The movie pushes the sex angle in the glorious California summer, giving us montages of buxom beach babes in scant bikinis, a photo shoot where the model loses her top, etc.. The stewardess pops out of her uniform and into Rick's bed. I have to say that Rick's sex life is no exaggeration, as someone with his looks and smile could easily find a bedmate just by walking into a bar. Of course, the attitudes have changed radically. Rick knows that his "harmless" dalliance with the underage Wendy could get him ten years in the clink, but he doesn't have to worry about cell phone videos being used as evidence against him, perhaps made by Wendy herself. The movie sees their relationship as okay when it obviously is not. Not stopping there, the screenplay treats a flasher and a voyeur that camps out in the ladies' restroom as mild comedy asides. Rick lets the wankers off with a warning and an understanding smile. A group of teen boys out to essentially harass and molest girls are likewise given a wink and a pass. Times have certainly changed on that score.
It's interesting that Rick is a graduate of the class of 1960, the same year for Kathleen Turner in Peggy Sue Got Married. He feels the pressure when everybody's first question is, "what are you doing?", followed by eye-rolling when he says he's still on the beach. Larry at the Porsche dealership is completely logical when he tells Rick that it's time to move on, a theme that Cathy fixates on as well. Additional pressure comes when Rick finds that he's no longer fit to compete with the younger lifeguards in the yearly athletic games. The adorable Wendy is more evidence that he's no longer where he belongs -- when he tries to break up with her, she looks truly heartbroken.
Rick Carlson is a pleasure to spend time with, a real gentleman with a voice that eases the nerves. Young viewers will know him as the Stranger at the Bar in the favorite The Big Lebowski, another movie about Los Angelenos perceived as slackers. Anne Archer is, was, and always will be a find; it's a shame that most of her big roles cast her as "the wife" for an action hero. Parker Stevenson had a substantial following from television and is still well known, while Kathleen Quinlan's fan base has grown steadily since her marvelous stand-out bit in American Graffiti. Stephen Young I remembered as George C. Scott's aide-de-camp in Patton.
The scenes of Rick driving in Torrance look very familiar, as does a quick shot of his Corvette turning off of Barham Blvd onto Forest Lawn Drive, right out by the Warners studio. Back in 1975 there was still a gas station at that intersection! Viewers always seem to take exception to the fact that Rick can afford a late-model Corvette on his lifeguard's salary. They forget that this is Southern California, where people often lived in near-shacks yet drove late model cars. For us teens, cars were a vital life issue -- getting a crack at my father's Mustang was a big thrill, and I certainly did not come from an affluent background. Rick Carlson may not make much money, but basic expenses weren't high in the '60s if you lived in an ordinary apartment and kept a low profile, conspicuous consumption-wise. Sure Rick could have his Corvette. He'd just not be taking any vacations or putting away a lot of money. 1
Golden Age TV director Daniel Petrie handles the film's dramatic scenes with assurance. I like the scene in which Rick declines to sleep with Cathy the very first night they're together -- in 1975 terms he's waving the "this relationship is important to me" flag as hard as he can. The only drawback to Lifeguard is that it leaves a thread or two unresolved. When Rick makes his choice we don't see the reaction of key people affected by it. We prefer to think that he'll make his peace with the consequences and naturally find his way.
The Warner Archive Collection / Paramount disc of Lifeguard looks to me like a normal production DVD. It is perhaps a re-repressing of an out-of-print Paramount title from 2005 that (at this peek) is selling online for $60 in the shrinkwrap. Colors and the general encoding are fine. We're impressed by the good continuity in the beach scenes, which show the beach in a variety of weather conditions and times of day. The feeling of California's Endless Summer comes across quite well.
Paramount's deal with Warners began with Blu-rays but we're starting to see more OOP Paramount DVDs resurfacing on the WAC pages. They're very welcome, as many are now collector's items.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. Car enthusiasts will like a short scene in the dealership with a number of 1975 Porsches on view. Have things changed? Whenever some associate wanted to celebrate his success (and let the losers know what they were missing) he'd go buy a Porsche. Nothing's worse than a pack of art directors and effects cameramen sitting around talking about cars. The Porsche lot in this movie was a scary sight for me - I can see an Audi from 1973 or so, already a used car. I bought one from a studio draftsman in 1978 and it was a total disaster. Perhaps the most repair-unfriendly car imaginable, to re-do the disc brakes (which went out every year) the mechanics had to open up the engine. Total financial disaster for a guy scraping by with a new baby. My opinion of expensive foreign cars is that they're for my next life, but only if I'm financially solvent.
Corvettes were known for breaking down as well, so maybe the detractors have something when they say that Rick couldn't keep one going on a lifeguard's salary.
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Also, don't forget the 2011 Savant Wish List.
T'was Ever Thus.