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Summer of ‘89: Shag

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Summer of ’89: Shag

Having grown up in Bloomington, Indiana and graduated from high school in 1959, George Lucas’s American Graffiti, a nostalgic view of teenagers living in a small town, naturally struck a chord with me when it came out in 1973. Eight years later, so did Bob Clark’s 1954-set Porky’s, a more accurate depiction of the horniness of the American teenage male. Then came 1989’s Shag, and what with its story looking back to 1963 and focusing on the experience of a group of teenage girls, it felt like a delightful corrective, not least of which because these characters were allowed to be horny too. At one point the girls talk about boners and one of them, Pudge (Annabeth Gish), says this of her friend Mary Pat: “This cousin of hers dated a Clemson Tiger who sprained his in a game, and she had to massage it every night when it got hard because he was in so much pain.” Another girl, Melaina (Bridget Fonda), replies, “Mary Pat told you that?” Clearly we were at the beginning of the long, curvy road to Sex and the City and beyond.

I wasn’t the only person to see the connection to Porky’s. Robin Swicord, who wrote the final drafts of the script, was working from an earlier draft by the team of Lanier Laney and Terry Sweeney. Their script was about a group of girls on vacation at Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and Swicord—in an interview for the 1995 edition of the Film Writers Guide—described it as “a little bit more like Porky’s (1981), it was about finding moonshine liquor. That was the plot; ’Can we get drunk?’” Swicord said her “version of it was like a summer weekend that I spent with my girlfriends in a town very much like Myrtle Beach.” She felt she “accomplished making Southern girls who were not ridiculous and simpering. We knew that they were comic characters, but we also knew that they were real.” The characters aren’t deep, but they’re very sharply drawn and imminently playable. I liked them when I first met them in 1989, and liked them still when I encountered them again in preparation for this piece.

It’s the summer of 1963, and four girls are sneaking away for the weekend. Carson (Phoebe Cates) is about to marry the well-to-do Harley (Tyrone Power Jr.), and her friends want to show her a good time before she settles down. Swicord says of Hawley in a character description from the September 1986 draft, “Hawley would be attractive in his button-down shirt and Bass Weejuns—-except for that poker he always has up his-know-what.” It’s a great line, and too good not to be used as dialogue. It should have been put in the potty mouth of Melaina, the wildest of the girls. There’s also Pudge, who got her nickname as a kid, and though she’s slimmed down since then, she still gets upset when one of the guys, Chip (Scott Coffey), asks her if she knows any elephant jokes. She says he’s making fun of her weight, to which he replies, “What weight?” (Yes, they do end up together.) And finally there’s Louanne (Page Hannah), the uptight daughter of a senator who tries to keep the others from going too wild. Fortunately for the film and us, she fails miserably.

By setting his American Graffiti in 1962, George Lucas allowed himself to explore the allure of ’50s nostalgia. Swicord, tellingly, sets Shag in 1963, the year that began what we think of as the ’60s, what with the March on Washington, the JFK assassination, and the growing awareness of the American presence in Vietnam. In the film, there are some radio news snippets about the civil rights movement, but they’re mixed in at such a low level you have to strain to hear them. At the end of the script, Chip tells Pudge he’s going to Annapolis and then to Camp Pendleton as a Marine officer, and then maybe to “the Far East.” Swicord doesn’t use the word Vietnam, and even “the Far East” was cut before the film was shot. There’s a sense in the screenplay’s transition to the screen—and I suspect it was the filmmakers rather than a studio who were cautious, since they were making the film independently—of a certain indecisiveness in how to emphasize the political atmosphere and flashpoints of the ’60s. As many filmmakers have discovered, this decade doesn’t lend itself to the easy nostalgia of the ’50s.

When I first saw Shag, its female characters seemed to give the sense that they were alive in the here and now, as opposed to living in the nostalgic past of American Graffiti. But as I discuss in my 2001 book, American Audiences on Movies and Moviegoing, our attitudes toward a given film can change over the years, and re-watching Shag was saddening. Back in 1989, the film’s actresses all seemed at the beginning of potentially bright careers. Except only one has lived up to her artistic potential: Gish, who’s made several films since Shag, but like many actresses she’s found more work and success on television—and last year she gave a stunning performance on the first season of The Bridge. As for Fonda, the camera certainly loves her (to quote a famous line by Howard Hawks), but an actor needs a part that will make her a star, and few films since Shag have seen fit to play to her strengths, specifically that perky blond American sass of hers that found perfect expression here. She quit acting completely in 2002, and her case is one of the most depressing examples of Hollywood’s tradition of not getting the most out of its great female talent. But we still have Fonda, Cates, Hanna, and Gish in their youthful freshness and vitality in Shag. And that certainly makes me nostalgic.

Tom Stempel wrote the “Understanding Screenwriting” column for The House Next door from 2008 to 2013. The column continues at