Judge Brett Cullum takes a look at the horrors of high school reunions when you're thirty and still single working on the beach.
Every girl's summer dream.
The movies have a long tradition of exploiting beautiful women, and Lifeguard proves the tables are turned now and then. It completely and effectively objectified Sam Elliott, who was a hotter-than-hot male sex symbol when Lifeguard was released in 1976. Burt Reynolds be damned—Sam was featured in a Playgirl interview and was pinned up on many women's walls and locker doors. Paramount has released a bare bones edition of the movie, and I'm hoping it will still tread water after all these years.
Facts of the Case
Rick Carlson (Elliott) is a Los Angeles beach lifeguard in his early thirties. He's been at his post for over eight years, faithfully watching over swimmers and enjoying the adoration of teenagers. His father thinks he's wasting his life, and after a high school reunion Rick may agree with him. He's having an identity crisis, wondering if this is all life has to offer. Rick is a natural chick magnet, and has a complicated love life. He casually hooks up with many women, but two relationships challenge him in this story. The first is with a seventeen-year-old high schooler who has a crush on our hunky hero, and the second is his own recently divorced high school sweetheart, with whom he reconnects at the reunion. One represents the kind of innocent adulation that he should have outgrown by now, and the other asks him to grow up and become what a man in his thirties should be. Should Rick give up his post on the beach and accept his friend's offer to come sell Porsches? How long can he sit in the sun and watch waves?
Sam Elliott got his first break (and met his wife) on the set of 1969's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. He was a bit part card player, but he obviously warmed the heart of the movie's female lead, Katharine Ross. Elliott and Ross became a very attractive Hollywood couple, and both were considered iconic sex symbols of the '70s. Even though they had excellent acting chops, they seemed destined be an eye-popping couple typecast in Westerns. Lifeguard was the movie that made Hollywood take note of Sam Elliott. Elliott is hunky and hairy with a great voice and a studly mustache. He definitely wasn't a blonde Adonis, but he was the perfect male sex symbol for an era when women were beginning to develop a taste for their own pin-up worthy idols. The camera loves him, and his laconic dry delivery suits the beach bum persona of the lead in Lifeguard. It didn't hurt that he looked really good in a swimsuit, either.
The movie is a simple, effective character study tracing the life of Rick Carlson over one poignant summer. The supporting cast includes future stars Parker Stevenson (The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries) as a trainee lifeguard, Kathleen Quinlan (Apollo 13) as the young high school temptress, and Anne Archer (Fatal Attraction) as Rick's old flame. It's the kind of movie that could only be made in the '70s, when simple character studies were enough to draw audiences in to the theatres. It rests on the attractiveness of its cast and of watching a male peacock strut his stuff and contemplate his fate. Saturday Night Fever would ultimately become the apex of this genre, but Lifeguard certainly has its charms. It plays like a kinder, gentler version of Baywatch with some decidedly mundane rescue missions and plenty of skin. It's not about flash, but rather about people. The movie feels like a lazy day on the shore, and it recreates Southern California's beach culture perfectly without much gloss or exaggeration. It's a quiet, likable flick with characters who are imperfect but completely lovable. Lifeguard has a surprising amount of nudity for a PG-rated film, which only illustrates how conservative the MPAA has become over the last thirty years.
The most poignant aspect of Lifeguard is how well it captures a dilemma most men face when they suddenly find their twenties behind them. I remember growing up and having all these wild fantasies of how successful I would be by the time I hit the big three zero, and I fell into a funk once the event finally happened. I felt like I wasn't where I was supposed to be. Lifeguard captures that angst through its main character. Rick is dealing with the hard fact that society expects men to fit certain standards, and there is a shift in people's perceptions if you're still single and doing things your own way after thirty. He's got a fun job that pays little, and he's still not married. The rest of the world is asking him when he's going to abandon his youth and move on. He needs to think about family and finances. He's stuck, and he doesn't know if he has the drive or means to escape. Part of you wants to reach into the screen and shake him out of it; another part longs for him to hold on as long as he can. He gets sun and waves all day long, and a more professional career would mean giving up his freedom. Is it pathetic that a man can stay still and find happiness? Is inertia seductive?
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Paramount offers an edition of Lifeguard without many frills. The best thing about the release is the chance to see the movie in an anamorphic widescreen format, and with a fully restored soundtrack. The soundtrack now includes Paul Williams's "Time and Tide," which had been excised from TV airings and VHS copies of the film. The transfer is nothing spectacular, but it's better than the movie has looked in quite a while. It suffers from grain, dirt, and an overall softness that so many '70s films seem to have. Yet skin tones seem natural, and the colors are solid even if they are slightly faded. The soundtrack is delivered through a two-channel monaural mix that does justice to the dialogue and hardly anything else. It seems a pity to have the soundtrack fully restored with the original music only to hear it in one dimension, but at least it's clear. There are no extras, not even a trailer.
There's not a whole lot to Lifeguard. The drama is never over the top, and even the cinematography seems low-key. The Los Angeles beach shots make it look like it could be on any coast. Other than some sexy leads, there is little glamour in the mundane world the movie creates. The extras look like normal people you'd find on a weekend getaway. If you're not a fan of plodding '70s drama, definitely give this one a pass. It doesn't thrill in many departments other than allowing a hard look at its main character and his life crisis.
If you're in the mood for a light beach drama about a lovable loser then Lifeguard fits the bill. The DVD won't set you back much, but it has nothing but the movie. I would have loved to even see a trailer for it, but, alas, this is probably as much attention this small, quiet movie will ever get. There's not too much other than the chance to see a very attractive cast, and an hour and a half of gazing upon a scantily-clad Sam Elliott. I found it charming enough to make a perfect rainy day rental when you wished you were at the beach. Elliott fans can add it right next to their copies of The Legacy. If you find him sexy, then it's a welcome addition to the collection.
Lifeguard is not guilty of anything other than looking good on a beach and delivering a quiet, slow moving '70s drama. Paramount has done better with other films, but at least the soundtrack here is intact.
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