Strawberry Statement, The (DVD Review)30 Apr, 2012 By: Mike Clark
Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
Stars Bruce Davison, Kim Darby, Bud Cort.
Of all the student protest movies that somehow began opening within mere weeks after the Kent State shootings, I’m pretty sure that this same-name adaptation of James Simon Kunen’s book is the only one to examine the aphrodisiacal effects of taking over a university president’s office.
This isn’t meant as a flippant knock; not a few have acknowledged that at least a partial reason some got into political activism had to do with uncommitted sex that became a payoff side issue amongst the otherwise committed (or semi-committed) political. The movie is upfront about this — and so was, if I can remember correctly after 40-some years, Kunen’s book, which was a personal favorite at the time. In fact, Kunen, who’s briefly seen on screen here, was accessible and down-to-earth as well. He was a member of his school’s rowing team – which the movie portrays in a locale switch from Columbia University to a fictional college in San Francisco. And he was also a Red Sox fan, which wouldn’t make much sense to shoehorn into a California-set script.
Skirting ever so slightly over something as disruptive as, well, political issues, the movie version is a moderately watchable hodgepodge that never quite establishes a tone — perhaps in part because the studio was likely putting the screws to director Stuart Hagmann (another ’70s filmmaker in love with the zoom lens) to exploit the soundtrack’s musical selections. In fact, I never even thought The Strawberry Statement would make it to the home market due to music rights clearances. Come to think, though: even if Buffy Saint-Marie and Thunderclap Newman do get their moments in the vocal sun here, the (MGM) lion’s share of the music is from Crosby, Stills & Nash (and Neil Young solo), so perhaps the clearance lawyers were able to one-stop shop.
Called Simon in the movie, the Kunen stand-in is played by Bruce Davison — an actor then coming off the provocative indie hit Last Summer, which had gotten an Oscar nomination for Catherine Burns and made a lot of guys worship at the throne of Barbara Hershey. As portrayed, the character is initially apolitical, though he does have to endure his share of snapped-towel ass-slapping in the locker room for being to the left, at least, of his crewmates. Simon’s curiosity over a nearby student protest (the school and the ROTC are about to co-shaft a children’s park) motivates him to join other activists in taking over the president’s office. Here, he re-meets someone a little more committed than he is. Kim Darby has the role, and she’s far more suited plunked into this milieu than she’d been as a miscast Mattie Ross in the previous year’s John Wayne version of True Grit.
Though there’s not enough of it, some disarming left-field humor helps the rough patches, as in the bit where one of the organizers (Bob Balaban, who always seems to be working a lot) inexplicably breaks into a tap dance on a group ride in the paddy wagon. In a way, the consistently benign tone sets up the finale’s brutality, where police clubs and tear gas are employed in what is almost a production number. Whatever the movie’s shortcomings, it’s an obvious reality that major-studio summer releases (Statement opened in June) had about a billion times more to do with life as lived at least in the headlines as they have in the past 30 or 35 years. This gives it a couple brownie points it didn’t have at the time.
Warner Archive has gone a few extra miles by making this on-demand release a two-disc set, the second containing a “European cut” that runs about six minutes longer. The latter print is washed out, and the aspect ratio isn’t as wide as the American version’s 1.85:1. But this more randy version does include a scene where an Amazon-ian blonde performs a rather specific act of love on Simon — a scene that would have been noteworthy in a year that (despite quickly changing times) could find a way to award best picture Oscar nominations to Airport and Love Story via the academy’s hardened-arteries contingent.