Farber on film: ‘David and Lisa’ @ TCM Fest 2017


Many out-of-town patrons attend the TCM Festival to catch the big productions with the big stars in attendance: In the Heat of the Night, The China Syndrome, Saturday Night Fever. Or they line up for perennial audience pleasers like Casablanca, which celebrated its 75th anniversary in the large Chinese Theatre. But for some of us, the pleasures of the festival lie in the less heralded, nearly forgotten gems.

For example, it was great to see David and Lisa again on the big screen. This movie was a big deal in its day, because it was one of the very first independently financed features to score at the box office.

The tale of two mental patients who fall in love in a sanitarium was based on a case study written by a New York psychiatrist. Unlikely movie material, you might say, but the film connected with audiences and even earned two top Oscar nominations, for director Frank Perry and screenwriter Eleanor Perry.

Producer Paul Heller confessed that he raised the initial funding from his brother and his mother and eventually found more backers for the $137,000 production.  Although the film opened during the New York newspaper strike of 1962, it managed to find an enraptured audience. It played for 51 weeks at the Plaza Theatre in Manhattan.

The film also launched the careers of its two stars, Keir Dullea and Janet Margolin. Margolin sadly died of cancer more than two decades ago, but Dullea attended the screening and seemed as vibrant as ever. He had made one prior film, The Hoodlum Priest, but he said he owed the rest of his career (including his landmark role in 2001: A Space Odyssey) to David and Lisa. He almost didn’t get the part. He was actually 25 at the time the film was made, and it was meant to be the story of two high school students in a mental hospital. But when he met the Perrys, they agreed that he could bring off the role of the precocious but neurotically frightened David.

Despite a few of the simplifications that characterized Freudian-themed movies of the early 1960s (including the perennial source of all problems, the domineering mother), David and Lisa remains remarkably affecting. The two stars perform with dignity and sympathy, and Howard Da Silva, who gave his first major performance since being blacklisted, also shines as the caring psychiatrist. The core of the film lies in the relationship of David and Lisa. She is a schizophrenic who speaks only in rhymes, and he has a pathological fear of being touched. Yet his aloofness begins to melt over the course of the film, and at the end, when he reaches out to Lisa and says, “Take my hand,” the moment remained just as stirring to audiences today as it was in 1962.

More on TCM Fest 2017 from Steve Farber: The Landlord and Lady in the Dark.

Stephen Farber co-produces and hosts ‘Anniversary Classics’ at Laemmle Theatres. The recent president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association writes for The Hollywood Reporter, Los Angeles Times, and other publications.

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