Classics never die, but they seldom get replaced. Cinema is populated with enduring, venerated works of art that deservedly adorn list after list, but those lists are rarely updated, and less often expanded to include new, equally worthy entries. Organizations that give out annual awards are constrained not only by the limitations of formatting, but perspective - they can’t anticipate which film will survive the buzz of its initial acclaim or success and become part of the cultural firmament. And then there are just certain films or even genres that too infrequently receive the critical attention they deserve, are too obscure to break through to bigger audiences, or just aren’t taken seriously enough to merit consideration alongside the ones we “all” already know we love or respect. A Case For Greatness, this new series, tries to argue for, and to champion, forgotten or underappreciated films in a variety of genres that may be worthy of being called “classics.”
The Last American Virgin
It seemed appropriate to start off this column with a title no one in their right mind would consider a Great Movie. Boaz Davidson’s 1982 remake of his own Israeli film, the Golden Globe-nominated Lemon Popsicle, met with underwhelming commercial and critical acclaim upon its release, and has largely languished in obscurity since then. That said, the film has attracted a growing following on the repertory circuit owing to its wall-to-wall soundtrack of 1980s pop hits and an absolute gut punch of an ending, certainly the biggest (intentional) downer of any teen movie from that decade. But even if its exploration of high school life isn’t as effervescent as in John Hughes’ filmography, or even as even-handed as in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (which amazingly was released just two weeks later), The Last American Virgin features some goofy, broad, and yes, occasionally problematic narrative twists and turns that juxtapose sex-crazed, adolescent hijinks and a tangible sense of consequence in a devastating dose of grown-up reality.
It starts with three horny guys - Rick (Steve Antin, who went on to direct Burlesque), David (Joe Rubbo) and Gary (Lawrence Monoson, Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter). Rick, a hunky blonde, is their natural leader, while Gary, the least “experienced” of the three, is predictably uncomfortable in his own skin - and despite his performative machismo to his pals, remains absolutely terrified of having actual sex. Unsurprisingly, he falls head over heels for Karen (the luminous Diane Franklin, of Better Off Dead), a new girl at his school, but almost as unsurprisingly, Rick spots her first and makes his move. Gary, of course, idealizes her but never really gets to know her, and the movie doesn’t offer much in the way of substance to make her deserving of his adulation - especially since he continues to seek sexual gratification elsewhere, to increasingly disastrous results.
One of the things the movie gets especially right is the way in which teenagers are so desperate for grown-up experiences, but their emotions are too volatile to process them. During an opening rendezvous with three young women at Gary’s house, the guys entice them with the promise of cocaine and other drugs, but can only offer Sweet-N-Low, which their dates gingerly snort, insisting it’s some of the best blow they’ve ever had. Later, two of the women peel off to have sex with Rick and David, and David’s girl agrees to have sex - that is, if she can undress in private. Their tryst is soon interrupted by the arrival of Gary’s parents, but even what aims to be the punchline to a goofy set piece offers some subtle details that feel right and remind these characters, essentially, that they are not ready for adulthood.
Gary, Rick and David learn this lesson in more stark relief to their sexual aspirations later on after finally succumbing to the realization that it’s probably easiest just to hire a hooker. Suitably seasoned and impatient, the prostitute brings the guys to what looks like a derelict prop factory and then proceeds to heckle Gary through the sex atop a couch that, uh, really doesn’t look very sanitary. His relief from having deterred Rick from taking Karen’s virginity quickly dissipates, as his own “deflowering” occurs with a depressing, routine-like lack of romance. Worse, all three soon discover that the prostitute gave them crabs, and they’re forced to confess their transgression to a pharmacist in exchange for medicine after trying to resolve their ailment themselves by soaking in a community pool.
The adult world further encroaches upon their free-wheeling adolescence after Rick finally accomplishes his goal with Karen, not only having sex with her but getting her pregnant. Gary is upset as much because he wasn’t the one to do it as the fact that Rick was, but he’s even more offended that his onetime buddy could so callously disregard the woman he loves, after Rick tells Karen to scram, effectively suggesting that she’s slept with other guys. What happens subsequently is sort of astonishing because it’s a perfect encapsulation of a teenage mindset: Gary runs to Karen’s side, and offers to solve her problems (namely, go with her to get an abortion.) Their classmates depart for a ski trip, leaving the two of them alone, and Gary scrounges up enough cash to pay for the abortion, and makes a temporary, superficial home for the two of them at his grandmother’s house where they won’t be disturbed.
Although it’s intercut with footage of Gary selling housewares and pilfering his parents’ money, the abortion is documented with a clinical sort of detachment that makes it a difficult sequence to watch. (Mind you, it also ends with a shot of a pizza pie being sliced, and Karen giggling at Gary as she awakens from what was obviously an otherwise scary experience.) Gary’s delusion is powerful, and tragic: he shows up at the hospital with a mini Christmas tree and a bag of oranges he obviously bought on the side of the road, and then immerses himself in homemaking that seems sweet - he is taking care of her as she convalesces, but they still don’t know each other any better than before. Her eventual gratitude is met with a confession of love from Gary, and the two kiss, but there’s no real evidence that she shares his feelings, or even understands them. Of course, he doesn’t even understand his feelings, so how can she?
Then comes the final payoff, a conclusion that’s bleak and unforgiving but vitally important to this coming-of-age story. Gary shows up at Karen’s birthday party expecting that she’s now his girlfriend, only to discover her and Rick, reunited and happily necking in her kitchen. Antin’s performance here is kind of perfect; Rick and Gary’s friendship is over, but as he glances over his shoulder to find Gary crumpling before his eyes, he’s neither oblivious nor gloating, somehow recognizing his pal’s feelings without succumbing to sympathy. Wordlessly, he leaves, and the credits roll as he drives away into the night, heartbroken.
The first time you see this, it’s shocking, almost laughable. But subsequent viewings of the movie expose just how calculated and methodical its escalation is over the course of its running time, watching these kids playing at being adults, then having to deal with the real consequences of their actions, and finally, being confronted by the emotional realities of a world that can and will betray their best intentions and deepest desires. Where Sixteen Candles offers wish fulfillment, and Fast Times braces honesty with a reassuring coda for it characters, The Last American Virgin earns its title both literally and metaphorically, showing Gary how cruel and uncaring the world can be - by stealing his innocence, permanently and irreversibly.