Unsung Auteurs: Frank Perry

September 23, 2021
FilmInk salutes the work of directors who have never truly received the credit that they deserve. In this installment: Frank Perry, who helmed a series of fascinating and highly unusual films throughout the 1960s, 70s and 80s.

When Frank Perry passed away in 1995 after a painful, lengthy battle with prostate cancer, the American film industry lost one of its most unassuming and quietly idiosyncratic film directors. Perry’s passing was made even sadder by the fact that he had chronicled much of his journey through illness in the deeply personal 1992 documentary, On The Bridge. Made way before the documenting of personal struggles had become commonplace thanks to chronic oversharing on Facebook and other social media platforms, the film delves deep into what it means to have cancer and to face your own mortality front-on. Through his films, Perry had proven himself a sensitive but always offbeat figure, and in On The Bridge, you get to see exactly where his films got their quiet sense of rebellion.

Born in 1930, Frank Perry expressed an interest in the arts while still in his teens, taking his first “industry job” as a parking lot attendant for The Westport Country Playhouse in Westport, Connecticut. Perry studied under legendary acting teacher Lee Strasberg in New York City, and eventually moved up through the rank to produce plays for The Westport Country Playhouse. He then moved on to produce plays in New York, and worked on TV documentaries as well. Around this time, Perry met and eventually married the sixteen-years-his-senior playwright Eleanor Beyer (who would become Eleanor Perry), who would become the nascent director’s most valuable collaborator.

Frank and Eleanor Perry

The pair shared an interest in psychology and the horribly varied foibles of the human mind, and ploughed these into their first film together. A complete neophyte (legend has it that he had to ask how to turn on the camera on his first day of shooting), Perry financed 1962’s David & Lisa independently, but had a fine script to work from in Eleanor’s adaptation of Theodore Isaac Rubin’s book. The crushing but wonderfully poetic story of two young people (the amazing Keir Dullea and Janet Margolin) with serious mental health issues who find love, warmth and acceptance with each other, David & Lisa enjoyed great acclaim and saw Perry receive a surprise Oscar nomination for Best Director, while Eleanor was also nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay.

The film now has a small, quiet cult of adoring fans (it was remade for television in 1998), but is still something of an unsung game-changer in the world of independent film. “Perry was the first to make a ‘respectable’ independent film and to be noticed by the mainstream,” says Perry’s biographer Justin Bozung, whose book Character Is Story: The Life & Films Of Frank Perry will be released in 2022. “In his way, he changed things. Even with someone like John Cassavetes, who by 1959 was a well-known and very established Hollywood film actor, his film Shadows still didn’t afford the average guy the idea that maybe he himself could just go out and raise the money and make his own film as a profiteer.”

Frank Perry with Burt Lancaster on the set of The Swimmer.

After this success, Perry moved immediately onto a series of equally challenging, fascinating films, often with Eleanor Perry creating their vivid, finely nuanced screenplays. While the impact of 1963’s Ladybug Ladybug (in which a small rural school sweats under news of an imminent nuclear attack) was fleeting, Perry equalled David & Lisa with his next suite of films. An acclaimed but under-appreciated zeitgeist work, 1968’s The Swimmer (adapted from a John Cheever story by Eleanor) slyly attacked the concept of American suburbia as Burt Lancaster’s deeply troubled apparent “everyman” swims across his suburb via his neighbour’s swimming pools. Frank Perry walked off the film to be replaced by Sidney Pollack, and has disparaged his work on it, claiming that less than 50 per cent of it is his. That said, The Swimmer has Perry’s fingerprints all over it. It’s a profoundly unusual film, jammed with witty, pithy social commentary and crisply imaginatively visuals.

Perry returned to more youthful protagonists with 1969’s Last Summer (adapted from an Evan Hunter novel by Eleanor), a confronting, brutal and psychologically complex tale of adolescent sex and cruelty featuring a superb, perfectly chosen young cast in Barbara Hershey, Richard Thomas, Bruce Davison and the Oscar nominated Catherine Burns. The film is gloriously in tune with its young characters, and its depiction of the famed Fire Island – an iconic New York holiday destination – is wonderfully bucolic but also dangerous. “It is one of the finest, truest, most deeply felt movies in my experience,” wrote critic Roger Ebert in a rave review.

Frank Perry with Richard Benjamin and Carrie Snodgress on the set of Diary Of A Mad Housewife.

Though 1969’s highly literary Trilogy (on which Eleanor collaborated with Truman Capote) is now largely forgotten, Perry’s next film was another zeitgeist work. Starring the Oscar nominated Carrie Snodgress, 1970’s Diary Of A Mad Housewife (about a housewife with an abusive husband who has an affair with a writer) tracked suburban malaise and gender issues in a wholly prescient way, and also per Perry’s penchant for the unusual. The film is a brilliant performance showcase for Carrie Snodgress, and another example of Perry’s fine work with actresses.

Perry followed suit with Play It As It Lays. One of his most rare and often discussed films, the darkly comic 1972 anti-Hollywood tract (adapted by Eleanor from Joan Didion’s novel) boasts a seminal performance from minor cult figure Tuesday Weld, who shreds the screen as Maria Wyeth, an actress on the brink of insanity. “I became a Didion freak,” Perry told Roger Ebert. “I think I’ve read her book, Slouching Toward Bethlehem, three times. When I heard she was writing a novel, I knew I had to film it. I wrote to her publisher for the galley proofs.” The result is one of Perry’s most unusual and ambitious films.

Tuesday Weld and Frank Perry on the set of Play It As It Lays.

Wedged in between these two unconventional companion pieces was 1971’s Doc, one of the weirdest depictions ever filmed of the famed friendship between western icons Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp. With the brilliant Stacy Keach and Harris Yulin in the roles, and the wonderful Faye Dunaway in support, the film is the very definition of western revisionism, exploding myths and setting fire to tradition with violent and blackly funny aplomb. Doc is one of the most interesting westerns of the 1970s (a decade packed with them), and desperately demands re-evaluation today.

Frank Perry split from Eleanor after Play It As It Lays, and from then on, his films had a decidedly less literary and refined quality. 1974’s Man On A Swing is a rock-solid thriller starring Cliff Robertson as a small-town cop who works with Joel Grey’s duplicitous psychic to solve a murder. The film has enough odd flourishes to identify Perry as its director, but it’s not amongst his best work.1974’s cockeyed neo-western Rancho Deluxe feels much more like the work of its screenwriter – novelist and occasional scripter Thomas McGuane – than it does Frank Perry, but the film is an utter delight, with fine lead turns from Jeff Bridges and Sam Waterston.

Faye Dunaway with Frank Perry on the set of Mommie Dearest.

After the excellent legal-themed 1979 telemovie Dummy, Perry’s work started to waver considerably. Though loved by many for various reasons, 1981’s Mommie Dearest (in which Faye Dunaway notoriously essays film legend Joan Crawford with slash-and-burn hamminess) is a bizarre exercise in camp that cuts against the director’s body of cool, sensitive work. If that film was uncharacteristically over-the-top, then Perry’s next – 1982’s Monsignor, starring Christopher Reeve as a priest caught up in shady Vatican business – was uncharacteristically dull. He followed that with the little seen 1985 suburban satire Compromising Positions and the silly 1987 Shelley Long comedy Hello Again before delivering his cinematic capstone with the aforementioned On The Bridge.

Nowhere near as exalted as he should be (perhaps because the quality of his earlier work practically dwarfs that of his later films), Frank Perry was a great filmmaker when truly on his game (and working from the fine scripts of Eleanor Perry), and a gifted documenter of the fragility and madness of the human condition. “When you watch a Perry movie, you know that you are watching yourself and those that you know,” wrote Ariel Schudson on a retrospective of Frank and Eleanor Perry’s films at Quentin Tarantino’s New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles. “And while that’s scary, it’s also comforting because there is a universality to that psychological trauma.”

If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Amy Holden Jones, Stuart RosenbergPenelope SpheerisCharles B. PierceTamra DavisNorman TaurogJennifer LeePaul WendkosMarisa SilverJohn MackenzieIda LupinoJohn V. SotoMartha Coolidge, Peter HyamsTim Hunter, Stephanie RothmanBetty ThomasJohn FlynnLizzie BordenLionel JeffriesLexi AlexanderAlkinos TsilimidosStewart RaffillLamont JohnsonMaggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins


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