Sam Elliott’s ‘Lifeguard’: Forgettable or Inspirational?

Sometimes, it’s hard to comprehend the rancid hate that some people on the East Coast have toward California, especially what they perceive as the California lifestyle. “Lifeguard” brought out what might have been the worst in a New York Times film critic when it came out in 1976, but for a future movie director it was inspirational.

The movie stars a 32-year-old Sam Elliott as the man of the title, Rick Carlson. Rick’s been to college, but fell into being a lifeguard. He had at one time been a competitive surfer. He’s unwisely too tanned and too comfortable in a white T-shirt and red shorts. This summer, a college student, pre-Hardy Boys pre-Baywatch Parker Stevenson as Chris Randall, is joining him to help with the throngs of summer beach goers. Rick tells Chris the rules. Always take your flotation device with you. When you leave the blue lifeguard observation deck, take the phone off the hook. Don’t fool around with underage beach bunnies.

Rick is still single, with an on-going relationship with a pretty blonde stewardess Tina (Sharon Weber). Tina doffs her clothes so quickly and later wrestles naked while Rick is still clothed (the kind of PG sexism of the 1970s), what young post-girls-have-cooties boy wouldn’t want to be a lifeguard. This is a movie that panders to the male psyche.

In an after sex epiphany, Tina comments while smoking, “I know your secret. You don’t care. Great technically, but you don’t feel anything.” She had tried to make him jealous, telling him that another man wanted to take her to an exotic locale. She confesses, “I really didn’t go to bed with him…the man who wants me to go to Marrakech.”

Rick isn’t particularly concerned with women and neither is this movie. A young horny boy, Machine Gun, targets women. He and his friends , the Underwater Demolition Team, harass women. A model in a lime green bikini is posing for a photographer when the threesome gang up on her and then steal her top, exposing her ample breasts. Chris asks Rick if the boys shouldn’t get arrested. Rick laughs the incident off.

Rick has recently received news of his 15-year high school reunion. Will he attend? He’s not sure. He’s already recently bumped into an old high school friend, the former class clown has now become a Porsche dealer and offers Rick a job. Visiting his parents, his father grumbles. His kid brother Chet aims to find a good job, a regular job with a real salary and an office.

Soon enough a beach bunny named Wendy (Kathleen Quinlan) is making eyes at Rick. Wendy complains, “I just moved here from San Diego. The girls are snotty and the boys are a bunch of creeps.” The soundtrack attempts to excuse what follows with lyrics that declare, “Like a child…I’m falling in love” and “can’t help the things I do.” In the end, Wendy supposedly feels “like a woman today.”

At his reunion, Rick is brutally honest and yet finds himself still attracted to his old flame. She’s now divorced, has a kid and a nice house. She also works in an upscale art gallery. Although

Elliott’s Rick does move through life, seldom acting and reaching. He reacts rather than acts. He is pursued by Wendy and later his former high school love, Cathy (Anne Archer). He warns Chris not to waste his life, but to study hard in Santa Barbara, a school notorious for partying and where even some of the professor surf between classes. Vincent Canby, the New York Times film critic might not have caught the reference to UCSB.

Canby wrote, ‘”Lifeguard’ is the quintessential California ‘problem’ picture. What, it asks, would you do if you were a fine, strong, healthy, handsome Santa Monica lifeguard who finds himself over the hill at the age of 32? Take a job selling Porsches? Stay on with the Parks Department? Shoot yourself?”

Torrance’s Burnout beach area is where “Lifeguard” was filmed. The waves are gentle. You don’t see the Santa Monica pier. These things are lost on Canby as he continued, “Only people bred in California could examine this problem in such solemn detail without cracking up, which may be one of the reasons why California fascinates us, and why we sit through a movie as witless as ‘Lifeguard’ experiencing both helpless laughter and undisguised envy. California weather really is great. The beaches are spectacular, the people apparently all beautiful, and sex is everywhere.”

The people aren’t actually all beautiful. The older women are portrayed as jealous (woman who’s male companion oggles a passing bikini-clad woman) and the overweight older women are portrayed as hysterical or at least unappealing.

Canby added, “The only problem is age, an issue that ‘Lifeguard’ faces unflinchingly. Aging lifeguards are suspect—to themselves as well as to other people—in the California youth culture. Should they be put to sleep? Should they be sent to rehabilitation camps in Nebraska to learn a new trade? Should they be allowed to stay on the job as long as they can perform their duties? Should they be treated with the same respect given 22-year-olds?” Age is certainly a problem with any job that depends upon physical ability.

Yet in 1990, the LA Times reported that Manhattan Beach lifeguard Richard Evans retired at 64 due to injury. He was not the older recorded active lifeguard. That person would be from the Midwest and not California, Louis Demers working in Quincy, Illinois who was 91 in 2014.  Things have changed for lifeguards, with places like Newport Beach attempting to save money by outsourcing.

“Lifeguard” was, however, chosen by director David Frankel (“The Devil Wears Prada” and “Marley & Me”)as his favorite summer movie. When he first saw it, he was 17, bored and oversexed. Although he confesses that Elliott’s character was a bit sleazy, he also felt, “But there was also something wildly sexy about Los Angeles, the city. Somehow I knew it held the key to my future, and “Lifeguard” was the sales pitch: sunsets and muscle cars and beach houses and lazy sex on unmade beds.” Six years later, he was in Los Angeles, “I was living out there in a roach-infested, sun-drenched apartment on Pico, driving a ’69 Plymouth Satellite to the beach on weekends, hoping to meet girls, dreaming of a Hollywood career. The only thing I didn’t have was the mustache.”

Admitting the Ron Koslow’s script was “full of clunkers” and director Petrie had an “unpolished quality,” Frankel explained, “Most important, ‘Lifeguard’ is about making choices. That’s what the best movies are always about, and that’s what I remember most: the horror of realizing at 30 that your best years may be behind you, and that only drudgery and self-hatred lie ahead.”

If you’ve been victimized by men who’ve stolen your bikini top or similarly been publicly embarrassed, pass on this film. If seeing jailbait have a one-nighter with a 30-something makes you nauseous, skip this film. The movie’s tagline: “Every girl’s summer dream” is more likely what too many young men hope is every girl’s summer dream: Getting laid by a handsome lifeguard who doesn’t love you.” Lifeguard” is available on ($3.99) and while I don’t recommend it except for extreme Sam Elliott fans, it might be  just the thing for people drifting through life like Frankel was.



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