Cinema is essentially a storytelling medium, so when we talk about movies and their relative merits, we often tend to focus on how well they tell their stories, or whether their stories really need to be told. Viewed through this or almost any other lens, 1976’s Lifeguard is a movie that should not exist, but its tremendous deficiencies as a work of audiovisual narrative fiction are somewhat — but by no means nearly — offset by its value as a fascinating, albeit shockingly absurd, time capsule of its era. Also, it stars Sam Elliott, who is rad.
Elliott plays the perfectly named Rick Carlson, a — you guessed it — lifeguard who finds himself at a crossroads when, upon attending his 15-year high school reunion, he is forced to confront the fact that he is employed as a lifeguard, as opposed to any of the fancier and/or better-paying gigs his classmates have picked up. Rick has been lifeguarding for a very long time, and by all indications, he seems to be doing pretty well for himself — he lives alone in a nice apartment, he drives a beautiful sports car, and with the exception of the nights he heads out to his local bar in order to pick up on random women, he never wears shoes. Still, after meeting up with his old classmates and having a few brief, awkward conversations about how he’s a lifeguard, Rick starts to think he might need to find himself a more respectable vocation.
Rick’s thoughts are further nudged in this direction after he reconnects with his high school flame Cathy (Anne Archer), who’s recently divorced and a single mom. Although Cathy seems perfectly willing to tolerate Rick’s lifeguarding life for the moment, he can sense a moment of reckoning for their relationship — and as luck would have it, his old pal Larry comes along at just the right moment to offer Rick a job selling Porsches with him at the local dealership.
On one hand, Rick stands to double his income, start a stable relationship with the woman he’s been pining for since high school, and also get his dad to stop yelling at him about being a bum. On the other hand, he’ll probably have to start wearing shoes every day. What’s a lifeguard to do?
This hilariously dumb central conflict would be enough to make Lifeguard a pungently cheesy artifact all by itself, but the movie isn’t finished. You see, before he and Cathy hooked up again, Rick indulged the attentions of a flirty underage girl named Wendy (Kathleen Quinlan), eventually leading her up into the lifeguard tower for some very illegal sex. Rick is very clear about knowing this is against the law — it’s also in high violation of the beef-brained lifeguard code he’s handed down to his teen assistant (Parker Stevenson) — but overall, he, and the movie in general, seems fairly unperturbed about it. It’s only after Wendy shows up at the beach to cheer him on during the big lifeguard Olympics or something, and follows him to his apartment, that he musters up enough concern to tell her he’s met someone else.
Fortunately, Rick happens to be on duty when Wendy attempts to drown herself in the ocean.
In a different kind of film, this would be the moment when the story pivots, sending its carefree protagonist in a more serious direction and forcing him to confront the consequences of his behavior. Maybe Rick would be confronted by Wendy’s parents, or arrested. Maybe he’d lose his job. Maybe Cathy would find out and break up with him. Maybe all of the above! As the credits rolled, we would see Rick a changed person — poorer and lonelier, perhaps, but wiser nonetheless. But Lifeguard is not that type of film. Here, look at the poster for proof:
The tagline: “Every girl’s summer dream.”
Lifeguard isn’t the sex romp that artwork promises — the movie’s sole sex scene is filmed using extreme close-up shots that make it difficult to tell whether you’re looking at a breast or an elbow — but it certainly isn’t the harrowing drama its plot points ought to add up to. Instead, Wendy’s attempted suicide is treated as a serious but ultimately minor annoyance — particularly by Cathy, who just sort of shrugs it off when her 32-year-old boyfriend tells her that he recently committed statutory rape. After she’s saved and yelled at, she recedes into the background, leaving Rick to ponder the crucial question of whether he should sell cars or sit on the beach.
I need to point out that while Lifeguard is a dumb movie and a troubling reflection of American sexual mores in the mid-’70s, the actors all do the best they can with the material. Elliott, who actually lobbied hard to land this role, almost gets close to conveying something resembling depth in his portrayal of Rick, which should have been a strong early signal to casting directors that he had enough talent to work miracles with subpar material. As written, the character is a handsome and colossally lucky moron, a man whose closest brush with a third dimension comes during a scene in which he confesses that he loves lifeguarding during the winter because the empty beach leaves him free to just sit and stare at the ocean for hours. But Elliott plays Rick with a sort of Zen certitude and animal grace that makes you want to believe there’s something going on behind his character’s eyes. Archer, meanwhile, makes a decent entree out of the small handful of ingredients the script hands her, and Quinlan — later nominated for an Oscar for her work in Apollo 13 — gives her character a soulful quality that I’m certain wasn’t anywhere on the page. Almost everything that comes out of her mouth is naïve or petulant or both, but she isn’t played like a stock teen.
The problem is that these talented actors are consistently and powerfully outmatched by a film that has little to no interest in telling an interesting story about sensible characters doing sensible things. I can accept that in 1976, a significant segment of the audience was willing to accept the idea of a sexual relationship between a 32-year-old and a teenager without any meaningful consequences for the 32-year-old — times change, and as I pointed out going into all this, movies are often great reminders of just how rapidly this can happen. But it’s much harder to fathom the mindset that brings a screenwriter, director, cast, crew, and studio together to tell the allegedly serious story of a man who equates lifeguarding with personal freedom, and sees selling cars as selling out.
Lifeguard is watchable enough, in its empty-headed way, chiefly thanks to the heroic but doomed efforts of its cast, and if you’re in the mood to pass a little bit of time in slack-jawed astonishment, there are more harmful ways to do it. For our purposes here, the movie comes with an added layer of sadness, however — Sam Elliott is a terrific actor who, in a different world, might have spent much of the ’70s and ’80s making Some Guy Cinema movies, many of which would doubtless have been better than this. Alas. I give this one and a half out of five Scheiders.