Obituary: Frank Perry

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The Independent Online
Frank and Eleanor Perry were doing exactly the right thing just when America needed them: making an independent movie - David and Lisa (1962). He directed it, she wrote it (from a book by Theodore Isaac Rubin). By this time the work of Hollywood's most gifted generation of movie- makers was showing signs of strain, especially when measured against the innovative films coming from France and Britain or a reinvigorated Italian film industry.

Till then the number of independent movies of any significance or popularity could be numbered on the fingers of one hand. John Cassavetes had just made Shadows, but Americans were not yet about to be easy with Manhattan drifters and inter-racial romance. David and Lisa seems close to the new European models which, on internal evidence, the Perrys admired. It concerned a mental home, a boy with a neurotic objection about being touched and a wild girl with a tendency to speak in rhyme. She runs away and he, remembering her passion for the Metropolitan Museum in New York, finds her on the steps and allows her to touch him.

Neither Keir Dullea nor Janet Margolin were stars or starry; the head of the institution was played by Howard da Silva, a fine actor making a comeback after being blacklisted in the McCarthy furore. There was nothing "Hollywood" about the movie; it was "sensitive" and the Perrys were obviously dedicated, earnest and valiant. Hollywood welcomed them into the fold.

Eleanor had taken her master's degree in psychiatric casework and had written several short plays on the subject. The Perrys were approached with dozens of similar tales; but, denied filming The Fall by Camus, they settled for an anti-bomb picture, Ladybug, Ladybug (1963), which, in Eleanor's words, "got clobbered". The offers dried up and stayed that way for five years.

The Perrys' interest in the dysfunctional attracted them to The Swimmer (1968), an eight-page John Cheever fable about a man swimming his way home through the pools of Connecticut. It was to be a study in schizophrenia; it turned out to be about Burt Lancaster meeting a lot of wealthy commuters, all with rotten values. Lancaster was imposed on the Perrys by the producer Sam Spiegel who, given the film's minute commercial potential, insisted on complete control. He lost interest and Lancaster paid out $10,000 to get one final day's essential shooting.

Last Summer (1969), adapted from Evan Hunter's novel, was their best film to date, a regret for vanished times, specifically those days spent idly by the sea before the pressures of adulthood close in. These youngsters were not without angst and turmoil (one girl is raped while another holds her down), but that was as nothing to the problems of Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970), in which Carrie Snodgress takes to sex in the afternoon with a young writer, played by Frank Langella, in response to the constant fault- finding by her husband, Richard Benjamin. Hollywood comedies of adultery had traditionally been sophisticated (deMille: New Wives for Old) or slapstick (McCarey: The Awful Truth), but there was real hurt in those made about this time, including Irving Kirshner's Loving (1970), but the Perrys' film, adapted from a novel by Sue Kaufman, may be the most cruel and the most original.

The Perrys themselves endured the same trauma, a divorce, and neither did anything else as brave again. Frank Perry's Doc (1971), written by Pete Hamill, tried to debunk the Wyatt Earp / Doc Holliday legend before deciding that a man's still gotta do what he's gotta do. Faye Dunaway was Katie Elder, and she played a Grande Guignol Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest (1981), which featured Howard da Silva as Louis B. Mayer. Perry directed and was one of the four writers adapting the memoir by Crawford's daughter, Christina. It was the best of his last few films.

David Shipman

Frank Perry, film producer, director, writer: born Westport, New York 1930; married (marriage dissolved 1970); died New York 29 August 1995.