Last week for this blog, I reviewed the excellent made-for-television version of “All Quiet On The Western Front” directed by Delbert Mann of “Marty” fame. During that review I reveled in the daring of the television films and mini-series of the 1970s, mostly concentrating on the choice of young directors who were tabbed at the time to make films for TV, such as Wes Craven, John Carpenter, and Toby Hooper. What I neglected to mention was the daring selection of topics that the networks chose during that time period, everything from drug abuse, to prostitution and yes, even the boy in the plastic bubble. Sadly, most of these topics were given the slightly heavier than ABC Afterschool Special treatment but every now and then one was handled properly, and that was the case with 1972’s “That Certain Summer” directed by Lamont Johnson.
Based on the novel by Burton Wohl, who also wrote the controversial, “A Cold Wind in August,” and “The China Syndrome,” “That Certain Summer” is the first American television movie to address homosexuality in a sympathetic way. The subject had received the big screen treatment in Hollywood to varying degrees of success in films like 1961’s “The Children’s Hour,” and 1967’s “The Fox” but it wasn’t until William Friedkin’s 1970 film, “The Boys In The Band,” that an American film showed homosexuals behaving in a less than psychotic way with no violent aftermath. Unfortunately “Boys In the Band” was not commercially successful, but due to its notoriety, it did bring the subject forward and allowed homosexuality to have a treatment for a more mainstream audience just two years later.
“That Certain Summer” is the story of Doug Salter, a divorced man who lives with his partner Gary in San Francisco. Doug’s son Nick, who resides in LA with his mother, is unaware of his father’s sexual preference, so when Nick plans to spend the summer with his dad, Doug asks Gary to move out so that their life together can stay a secret. Despite their best efforts, Nick finds out about Doug and Gary’s relationship, becomes upset and runs away, and eventually returns to his father who tries to help his son understand his sexuality, which isn’t all together successful. The handling of these moments for its era is done surprisingly well, and much of that success can be attributed to its choice of stars.
Playing Doug would be Hal Holbrook, who would soon become one of the busiest actors of the 1970s with roles in “Julia” and “All The President’s Men.” In 1972, Holbrook had only been in films for a few years and the general sentiment in Hollywood at the time was that any part playing a homosexual was career suicide. He initially turned down the role but eventually accepted the part because he felt a kinship to the main character of Doug, primarily due to the fact that he had recently separated from his wife but was unable to tell his young children about the split.
The actor selected to play his partner, Gary, was Martin Sheen, who like Holbrook had only been in films for a few years, so when presented with the possible negative reaction to playing a gay character he responded, “I’d robbed banks and kidnapped children and raped women and murdered people, you know, in any number of shows. Now I was going to play a gay guy and that was like considered a career ender. Oh, for Christ’s sake! What kind of culture do we live in?”
The film did not harm either of their careers as soon after “That Certain Summer,” Sheen would portray Kit Carruthers, the charismatic sociopath in Terrence Mallick’s masterpiece, “Badlands,” and just two years later he would work again with “That Certain Summer” director Lamont Johnson on another superb and controversial television movie, “The Execution of Private Slovik” about the only American solider to be executed for desertion in World War Two. In 2007, Holbrook, after a long, varied career, would receive an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for “Into The Wild,” making him the oldest actor (at age 82) to get an Oscar nomination for a supporting role.
As for “That Certain Summer,” after re-watching it after all these years, I will attest that it is a fairly tame handling of the material, but again it is always done tactfully and with great attention to small emotional moments by the film’s excellent leads. Sadly, it should also be noted that despite films like “That Certain Summer,” and “The Boys In The Band,” LGBT issues were not automatically given the respect that you would hope for in Hollywood, and unfortunately, for the rest of the decade, gay-themed but exploitative films like “A Different Story” were produced and released. Regardless, it is extraordinary that a film like “That Certain Summer” was greenlit for television in the early 1970s, and we should consider ourselves lucky to have seen such two distinguished actors take a chance by working on a film with such a volatile subject matter for its time.