Notable Festivals: Cannes (in Competition)
It’s an inarguable fact that director Francis Ford Coppola benefited greatly from the nascent days of the film school institution. Making a film wasn’t as commonplace as it was now– back in the 60’s, your film was remarkable for the fact that you even made it. Coppola was a different force altogether– before he had finished his master’s degree at UCLA, he already had the successfully-released features DEMENTIA 13 (1963) and BATTLE BEYOND THE SUN (1962) under his belt.
In order to graduate, Coppola needed to complete his master’s thesis film. Naturally, he crafted the most ambitious student film ever, a feat unmatched even by today’s standards. This effort was 1966’s YOU’RE A BIG BOY NOW, a feature adaptation of the David Benedictus novel. Shot for the obscene sum of $800,000, Coppola’s little “student film” eventually premiered in competition at Cannes, secured distribution with Warner Brothers, and netted an Academy Award nomination for supporting actress Geraldine Page. If this were to happen to a student filmmaker today, he’d be hailed as the second coming of Christ– but for Coppola, this was only a taste of things to come.
YOU’RE A BIG BOY NOW tells the story of Bernard Chanticleer (Peter Kastner), a bookish, virginal young man who works in his father’s library in New York. HIs mother Margery (Geraldine Page), sets him up with an apartment in the city but aggressively warns him about the dangers and evils of women. Now living on his own for the first time, the sheltered young man’s eyes are opened to a whole world of sexuality and danger. He begins dating the sweet Amy Partlett (Karen Black), but he quickly finds he can’t help himself when a beautiful, glamorous go-go dancer (Elizabeth Hartman) shows interest in him as well. Caught between Mrs. Right and Mrs. Right Now (I hate that I just wrote that), Bernard learns that there’s a lot more to love than sex.
The performances are appropriately outsized to match the comedic, absurd plot developments, but they also traffic heavily in a rebelliousness that lends the film a countercultural quality. The dynamics between the excitable Kastner and the seductive Hartman are well-drawn, if not a little cliche. Kastner does an admirable job as the lead, delivering a performance reminiscent of Dustin Hoffman in THE GRADUATE (1967)– despite the fact that he had never seen it himself (THE GRADUATE was still a year away from release). Hartman’s character of Barbara Darling is distant and cold, completely unaware of the psychological damage she inflicts on her suitors. She fully embodies the weaponized sexuality that was an unintended product of the free love era.
Page’s Oscar-nominated performance is quite funny, if not entirely memorable. Her conviction that girls are the devil is a well-worn character trait, but she performs the role with a fresh urgency. Torn and Black would go on to have bigger careers after this film, so it’s incredibly interesting to see them as young upstarts here. Torn is so young and fresh-faced that he’s nearly unrecognizable as Bernard’s stern, reserved father. Black does an admirable job embodying the kind of girl that a budding lothario knows he should pursue, even if that comes at the cost of a milquetoast characterization. While she’s innocent and sweet, she doesn’t judge Bernard for his transgressions, which is refreshing for her character’s archetype.
Bucking the trend of student films shooting on 16mm film, Coppola uses his considerable budget to film on 35mm. Andrew Laszlo, serving as Director of Photography, gives the film a fresh, energetic look that suits Coppola’s countercultural aesthetic. The cold grays of New York City are contrasted with bright pops of color seen in the young characters’ attire and props. Indeed, all the adults are depicted in boring, neutral tones so as to make the teenagers’ vibrancy stand out. One great instance of this is the film’s opening shot, which starts wide on a dull, quiet library scene. Suddenly, the camera rushes in towards the door, and Hartman’s character storms into the room. Clad in screaming orange and accompanied by the blasts of rock and roll music, her entrance signifies nothing less than the arrival of a new generation intent on upending the traditional order.
Editor Aram Avakian complements this attitude by employing fast-paced, experimental editing influenced by the then-burgeoning French New Wave. Other stylistic flourishes, like on-screen titles animated to resemble typewriting, further push the experimental tone that Coppola is after. As a result, the film must have felt very fresh and bleeding-edge in its techniques upon its release.
Robert Prince contributes a jaunty, energetic score, but the musical soul of the film belongs to rock band Loving Spoonful, which firmly roots the film in the teenage counterculture of the 60’s. It’s unpolished guitar riffs chafe against the edges of the frame, encroaching ever closer and eventually consuming its characters entirely.
YOU’RE A BIG BOY NOW finds Coppola combining his experience with his early softcore comedies with the hard-edged vitality of the emergent youth culture. The film’s tone is breezy and playful, with the kind of boundless optimism and curiosity reserved only for the young. There’s even a sense of burgeoning filmography to Coppola’s craft, manifested by the use of footage from DEMENTIA 13 as an art installation in a nightclub sequence.
By this point in his career, Coppola had yet to establish a consistent visual aesthetic, but his taste for experimentation and boundary-pushing is quite evident. With the release of YOU’RE A BIG BOY NOW, Coppola established himself at the forefront of his generation’s ascent into the industry. Not bad for a student film.
YOU’RE A BIG BOY NOW is available in its entirety via the Youtube embed above.
Cast: Elizabeth Hartman, Geraldine Page, Rip Torn, Peter Kastner, Karen Black
Produced by Phil Feldman
Written by: Francis Ford Coppola, David Benedictus
Director of Photography: Andrew Laszlo
Edited by: Aram Avakian
Production Designer: Vassilis Photopoulos