Sunday, January 6, 2013

Enchantéd, Pt. II: The Last American Virgin

Enchantéd: A Retrospective Tribute to Diane Franklin 

II. The Last American Virgin (1982)
(R, Cannon Films)

Welcome to the first film in my always independent but never disengaged look back at the films starring American actress Diane Franklin. This is dedicated not just to a true heroine from my childhood, one who brought soulful and sincere qualities to any number of roles from well-remembered cult films from the 1980s, but to those who, like me, at least remember. If you haven’t read my introductory piece, please go back and read it by clicking here and you’ll know what I mean. With all the love and respect born from years of memory retention and genuine affection, as well as a naturally inquisitive, informative disposition, I’m eternally grateful to Diane Franklin not just for coming back to public attention to revisit her movies in a fantastic book available on Amazon, Diane Franklin: The Excellent Adventures of the Last American, French-Exchange Babe of the Eighties, but for her Cult Radio a Go Go program which talks openly to fellow female fixtures of the 1980s cinema scene who have been relegated to obscurity but who have proven endearing in their own special ways as Mrs. Franklin. I will touch upon as many films as I can, hopefully including her TV movie appearances, and cap it all off with a book review.


With that said, I must say that in taking it upon myself to plan and commit to this retrospective, I realized the inevitable possibility that I would be revisiting Franklin's big screen debut, 1982's The Last American Virgin. Every thought about this movie leading up until now would immediately be haunted by my mental jukebox queuing up Lloyd Cole's "Are You Ready to Be Heartbroken?" in a peculiarly psychological understanding.
Franklin was 19 years old when The Last American Virgin began pre-production, coincidentally the same age as I was when I first came upon the movie on the shelves of a Best Buy store on August 5, 2003. I had come to pick up a DVD copy of Rob Reiner's The Sure Thing, the first of two beloved John Cusack vehicles from 1985 alongside, serendipitously, Better Off Dead... MGM had just released a slew of 1980s teen movies digitally, including 1983's elusive Valley Girl and countless others that I had an awareness of, be they lousy (1986's Johnny Be Good, with Anthony Michael Hall playing a jock in my own first outcry of casting heresy) or mediocre (1988's Bright Lights, Big City). I immediately touched upon two titles released theatrically by Cannon Films, who in their schlock-o-block salad days rarely appealed to the young demographic as directly as they did with Breakin' and The Last American Virgin.

The latter's cult reputation was already well-established, and it had a bikini-clad eye-candy DVD cover (see also The Sure Thing) that was similar to what I later found was the cover for the UK Lemon Popsicle series box set. I turned it over immediately and found at least three name actors in the then-unknown cast with at least one unforgettable appearance in films watched during my youth. Not just Diane Franklin, but also Lawrence Monoson of Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter immortality (wherein he foreshadows through exposition a fatally libidinous Crispin Glover's post-coital doom with two harsh, computer-generated words) and Steve Antin from The Goonies. Finally, it was called "bittersweet, humorous and insightful" in a major magazine's pull quote (see also The Sure Thing).

Call it a Shabba-Don't if you must, but I cashed in the free DVD offer applied with purchasing both The Sure Thing and Valley Girl on The Last American Virgin.

My favorite coming-of-age movie made in the 1980s, one which I thank my older sister for hipping me towards, was the one set in the 1950s that was not associated with the teen sex craze of the contemporary times. I'm talking about Stand by Me, Reiner's finest hour-and-a-half as a director following This Is Spinal Tap and The Sure Thing. Corey "Mouth" Feldman left more of an impression in that film as Teddy Duchamp, another outlet for the teen idol's typical cocky bravado albeit one leavened by an existential destiny he hasn't the introspection and growth to subvert. Try and recall, if you can, the moment when he foolishly projects his own idealistic dénouement to Gordie Lachance's "Barf-o-rama" campfire story. Don't read any further until that scene is properly fixed in your memory.

This is the exact same reaction I had to the cherry-bombing conclusion of The Last American Virgin.

Imagine a teensploitation film like Porky's ending with the same leftfield violence as Monte Hellman's Two-Lane Blacktop or, to be more astute, an alternate Fast Times at Ridgemont High in which Mark Ratner's puppy love for Stacy Hamilton escalates into a monumental wreckage of deceitful instincts, lonesome desperation and, in then, in the end, sad-sack martyrdom.

Throughout The Last American Virgin, the most empathetic character amongst the hedonistic cast of sexually-active archetypes is taunted by an unattainable desire for consensual passion from the girl of his dreams. He sees her first in a transfixed state of instantaneous infatuation, is told that the best he can hope for is a rebound once she instead clings to his callous best friend, proves himself to be the most compatible choice once she gets disposed of in her time of greatest need, and then comes to the realization that not only will his love remain unrequited, but that he had just been used in the same manner as his paramour. Without a safety net to fall back on, the viewer has just witnessed a vicious cycle of casual cruelty and ambiguous despair in the wake of a typically broad sex farce that pushes the concept of schadenfreude to its brink only to give you a kiss and send you plunging into the poignant, painful abyss.

If Better Off Dead... helped to embolden whatever hopeless romantics responsible for it's word-of-mouth credibility, then The Last American Virgin has the polarity to drive the same quixotic contingent to actual suicide. Still, after a decade of abstinence, I'm finally prepared to answer the burning question I posed to myself in the wake of my inaugural viewing experience: "Was it bad for me?"


The Last American Virgin was Tel Aviv-born co-writer/director Boaz Davidson's attempt to translate his 1978 blockbuster Eskimo Limon (Lemon Popsicle) for the Anglos (an alternate American title was Going All the Way, although no enterprising thought was ever given to "Israeli Graffiti"). The original film was Davidson's attempt to confront a cycle of adolescent turmoil that dogged him until he was 33.

The character of Benji, played by 18-year-old Yiftach Katzur in what would be his career-definer, was Davidson's fictional surrogate engaged in a solitary battle between the hormonal and the heartfelt, the center of a trio of promiscuous boys living in the 1950s ("but only if you measure in terms of years"). One of the other roles went to Zachi Noy, who came to the filmmakers' attention due to a role in 1977's The Garden (a film which imported an American actress named Melanie Griffith) and was reportedly hired without a screen test.

Eskimo Limon was released domestically in February 1978 to a very wide and lucrative audience, so much in fact it was deduced that nearly half of Israel's population came out to see it. When it played in Milan during the MIFED International Film Market festival, producer Yoram Globus remembered people getting up to leave a half-hour into the film, giving him the impression that they were walking out of the screening out of disdain, but in fact they were merely trying to secure distribution rights. The movie went on to be released and received with astounding success internationally, which was a huge boon for the Israeli film culture, was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film and no doubt went on to land Globus and cousin Menahem Golan their great prominence as the owners of Cannon Films starting in 1979.

The deluge of sequels all incorporating the original lead actors would last until 1988, although Davidson surrendered control of the franchise following the fourth film, Private Popsicle, after feeling there was no more authenticity and originality to be gleaned. Around the same time as Private Popsicle, Davidson and the Cannon Group pushed to create a proper, contemporary U.S. update of Lemon Popsicle seeing as how there were unprofitable stigmas to foreign films either dubbed or subtitled. There were fresh new faces behind the character types made famous by the original, the return of future renowned cinematographer Adam Greenberg (an irrefutable, expressionistic genius in my mind since the first VHS viewing of Kathryn Bigelow's Near Dark) to capture alluringly neon lighting and, in the spirit of the original film, a wall-to-wall soundtrack of era-defining songs, only this time the evocative boogie-woogie and balladry of Little Richard and Paul Anka gave way to the new/old wave represented by Devo and The Commodores.

None of the information I have just regurgitated (let's give due credit right now with a footnote link to the UK Lemon Popsicle franchise database) was provided to me when I first picked up the MGM DVD of The Last American Virgin because it was a one-bone affair in terms of special features. No context, no connections, nothing at all but a theatrical trailer which duly pimps the roster of artists (and using their proper promotional fonts!) just as much as the theatrical poster. I felt like there were K-Tel personnel inhabiting the Cannon Films marketing wing at the time.

Time would pass for The Last American Virgin to get some due recognition, beginning in particular with a 2007 screening at the New Beverly hosted by filmmaking fanboy Eli Roth and boasting a micro-reunion Q&A panel that included Lawrence Monoson, Louisa Moritz, Kimmy Robertson, and Brian Peck, but alas no Antin (now an openly gay scriptwriter and director, bless him for life, but I really hope he hits a stride greater than Burlesque) or Franklin (what's this I see, but…hey, a book!) or Joe Rubbo (now a network executive based in South Florida). Being a regular reader of the superlative criticism site Film Freak Central clued me into founder Bill Chambers' positive appraisal of the film in a review of The Monster Squad. And Diane Franklin, you magnificent mother of pearl…have you read her book?!

Once you have done so, then you'll be aware of just how much authenticity and critical insight Franklin bestows onto Karen (or Nikki, to conjure the original character), the luminous stranger who is unable to even buy her first rocky road ice cream cone without a longing look thrown her away. The gawker in question is Gary (Monoson as Benji, suitably giving off non-stop puppy dog vibes), a terminally awkward pizza delivery boy who comes to the local youth-frequented diner to meet up with easygoing buddies Rick (Antin, playing a more conventionally hunky version of Bobby rich with unctuous confidence) and David (Rubbo as Huey, still a portly smoothie with a black book for keeping tabs). So far, so Limon-y, although the updated scene where the trio zero in on a random collective of girls leads to a straight lift not from the first movie, but the 1981 second sequel known by us Yanks as Hot Bubblegum.

This means that the triple date converges at Gary's house, where Rick and David effortlessly charm their targets into putting out ("I'm not on the pill" "Neither am I") than the host, who gets stuck with the obese, bespectacled and completely apathetic third wheel of the bunch. Having bluffed their way so far with the promise of drugs, they rely on sugar substitute as a replacement for cocaine (in a very well-acted gag moment), and by the time Gary's parents come home, his nude guests arrive in time to shock Gary's mom into stress, thus resulting in the classic gag where the odd man out (David) sneaks unawares into a bed not with his intended, but a frightened older other woman who screams rape.

The same doubts that Davidson had about continuing to advance the official Lemon Popsicle films come back to render The Last American Virgin the entertainment equivalent of sloppy seconds. A lot of the humor in this takes its tenor from the farcical Hot Bubblegum, which opened with beach-bound shenanigans at fat Huey's expense (complete with a dog pissing in his face as he stood buried up to the neck in sand) and proceeded into a particularly icky subplot about a buxom cousin pitting Benji against his father in attempting to lay her. This extends into the trio's encounter with the oversexed and all alone Spanish bombshell (here Carmela, played by the legitimately Cuban C-queen Louisa Moritz as a Charo-caliber caricature of carnality), which is more silly than sexy. Davidson loses touch of the naturalism and raw terrain of the film that begat it at times and this revamp feels more like a bored compendium of a trilogy than a worthy update. It counts the beats rather than getting into the groove, as a true 1980s paragon of playful perkiness would soon advocate.

The episodic aversion to flow in the editing only exacerbates things. It's sitcom protocol, to get right down to it, and the broad comedy just comes in and out without any real lasting smiles. When David has his turn with Carmela to the tune of "That's the Way I Like It" by KC & The Sunshine Band, it throws into sharp relief what more earnest teen movie figureheads like John Hughes and Savage Steve Holland were able to achieve in terms of rhythm (two years later, Revenge of the Nerds would ironically cop The Gleaming Spires' "Are You Ready for the Sex Girls," which simply fades into the background here despite being the abrupt harbinger of a scene transition). But the surprisingly meticulous soundrack cues often have the power to literally pinpoint the romantic highs and unanticipated lows in Gary's pursuit of Karen, especially in the recurring appropriation of Quincy Jones & James Ingram's "Just Once."

Somehow in all the conventionality, which post-1982 begat the likes of the Porky's sequels, Spring Break, Hardbodies and Losin' It, the movie boldly deigns to put the lord of the woobies through the ultimate ringer. After tricking bike-toting Karen into accepting a ride to school, trying his damnedest to charm and appeal to her single disposition, the next time he sees her at a party, she is immediately Rick's new squeeze. A few self-sabotaging swigs of a whiskey bottle don't impress her and also reduces his confidential request to David to "tell Karen I love her" to crazy drunk talk. Gary further delays Rick's inevitable deflowering of Karen by introducing the trio to a hooker who finally and swiftly relieves Gary of his virginity (and his dinner), just so we can get the three of them reconvening at school with a rude venereal awakening that produces the movie's own photocopied but still hysterically awkward highlight when they go to the pharmacy coyly trying to ask for ointment.

And then it happens, the point at which Gary should realize his fruitless dream is only going to hurt him severely. He still can't let it go, as he has continually denied the willing advances of Karen's best friend Rose (the stunning Kimmy Robertson as the original’s Martha, with purple highlights in her hair and superfluous glasses) and refused to take David's word that Karen is not worth it. This doesn't stop him from driving to and searching about the football field where Rick has lured Karen, hiding out in the press box above, for the conception of the dagger that will later draw the final bit of innocent blood from Gary.

The final act of the film starts when sullen Gary sits alone in the diner waiting for Karen to return, and there she is with Rick, who screams the truth to a disbelieving Gary. It is at this point the movie stops trying to be funny and decides to get serious. The fallout stemming from Karen's pregnancy allows Gary the overdue opportunity to show Karen what he's willing to do to care for her, no matter what the cost. Since the rest of the group are convening on the slopes for Christmas break, the two of them have some quality time alone. The result plays out exactly the same as Lemon Popsicle with the exception of one chaste detail: Gary and Karen don't have the smoldering embrace which was immortalized on the poster for the original film. It's just a kiss, and Gary refuses to take advantage of Karen, going so far as to blanket her erogenous parts as she lays sleeping.

What hurts most about this development now as it did then is that in a movie that treats its female lead as a cipher and male a dewy-eyed loser, Lawrence Monoson and Diane Franklin, especially in regards to close-up shots, display natural graces denied to their characters throughout the prior two acts. The European sensibilities, which are wholly archetypical and deliberately streamlined for a purpose, just vanish for small moments. All you get are two all-American kids who can only see the dark forest for the shady trees. The programmatic paces can't stop both these actors, who were genuine teenagers at the time, from being wholly endearing, thus providing a tender set-up to the sucker punch that, like Stella, surely is a-coming.

Somehow, someway, and in this supposed comedy about boys trying to nail, the biggest impact comes when you realize somebody is truly going to get screwed.


For the longest time, I've been on the fence about how unfair my initial criticism of The Last American Virgin was when I first published it on Epinions. I've come around to finally resigning that piece to the great recycle bin in the sky and allowing it the blessing of a proper erasure. Honestly, I was very false, not to mention crude and juvenile, and looking back on it has proven to be a huge embarrassment. I was philosophically not in direct opposition to an exploitation movie that paraded its artificiality only to really offer up one of the most blunt truths about the nature of love, and watching the original Lemon Popsicle made me appreciate The Last American Virgin more on principle alone. Yet I felt so much outrage at the time that I wasn't able to articulate the faults in execution to the best of my ability, but they're still there, mainly my initial hunch that the script doesn't have the sensitivity to carry the rough edges underlying the emotional turmoil and that the comedy is ultimately boring and very boys' club meeting in its overall scope. And, really, who wouldn't let Diane Franklin and Kimmy Robertson, two lasses with a good sense of humor and courage, climb up into their treehouse?

If this film was intended to launch an American equivalent of the Lemon Popsicle series, it wasn't going to happen, vicious audience receptions notwithstanding. This is disheartening considering it was creator Boaz Davidson who handled the job. Not much effort really went into updating the source script for the Eighties, as a lot of the same dialogue, scenarios and set-ups from the first film (and, as I mentioned in one case, the third) are merely just cloned. The humor is handled indifferently and with way less tact than before, and the drama sticks out in the worst way, because you just don't get any real personalities to decipher and the banal laffs undermind it instead of complementing it.

The performances are suitable if clearly mannered (the actors may have taken more of their cues from watching Lemon Popsicle), and in the cases of Monoson and Franklin, very winning in their unguarded displays of humanity. Yet you can only appreciate Robertson at arm's length (the unsung tragedy of this stalled series was that Rose's foreign prototype had a wrenching scene of her own in Davidson's second Eskimo Limon movie, Going Steady) and Return of the Living Dead franchise fixture Brian Peck (a dead ringer for Fred Armisen as much as Joe Rubbo provides the missing link between Malcolm Danare and Jonah Hill) is squandered as the stereotypical nerd with a curious understanding of manly competition.

Revisiting it for the first time in years, though, I was taken aback by the potency of the soundtrack in providing intermittent commentary both caustic (Oingo Boingo's "Better Luck Next Time" during the first party scene) and devotional (Journey's "Open Arms" for when Gary consoles Karen in the locker hall following her row with Rick). The song selection alone, despite hewing close to era-confined acts like The Waitresses and Tommy Tutone, complements the drama with the finesse and fluidity that the cutting and comedy both seem to defy. The DVD version, due to rights issues, had to drop The Human League's narcotic synth-pop gem "Love Action (I Believe in Love)," and of any potential song released around the time (I lamentably discount ABC's "Poison Arrow" from 1982) that could serve as an elegy for Gary, this easily was the best. The chorus alone gets right at the root of the problem when Gary first encounters Karen ("Lust's just a distraction/No talking, just looking"), but the verses give voice to the introspection necessary to allow Gary true faith in his later romantic travails.

It took long enough for me to reach a peaceful conclusion, but I can't deny now that The Last American Virgin feels as raw an experience as a one-timer of sex itself, a night of passion fueled by irresponsibility and the transfusion of sticky fluid and feelings that make up life. You'll come for the laughter, yet cry for the future. Once you get over it the morning after, chances are you may try to distance yourself from it to the best of your ability. Yet it lingers in the most sensual and aching of ways, and though you may not yearn to see it again, it does reward a repeat offense.

God, I’m horny.

Part III of this series doesn't exactly promise you a rose garden, either. Next up will be Amityville II: The Possession, which once again has the beatific Franklin, fresh off The Last American Virgin, as a girl victimized through a queasy sexual awakening, but only this time the tragedy, more explicit in both theme and character, is bestowed upon her. As I prematurely beg for the sweet release of Monique Junet, I'll once again leave you with a sweet distraction.

1 comment:

  1. Good review, and finely written. When watching this again recently for the first time since circa 1983, when it was playing on cable movie channels non-stop, I am a bit underwhelmed. I too had forgotten just how badly the comedic half of the film had aged. I have the sneaking suspicion that sans the famous ending scene, the movie's legacy would be lacking. As it stands, this serves as a poor man's Fast Times (in much the same way as The Stoned Age is seen in comparison to Dazed and Confused.) The soundtrack is great and the sentiment of the finale serves as a reminder that the Eighties were fund, but were not totally devoid of devastating teen angst spurred by unrequited love.