1985 was one of low points in Saturday Night Live history. It was the year Lorne Michaels returned to the show after being away for several seasons. For some reason, instead of bringing in a bunch of young comedians, most of the cast was filled with established film actors, both young and old. This is why folks like Robert Downey Jr, Joan Cusack, Randy Quaid, and Anthony Michael Hall can be called SNL alums. Also among the players that year was the show’s first openly gay cast member, Terry Sweeney. Many thought he would be the breakout star of the show, but that didn’t happen. After that disastrous SNL season, he didn’t show up in front of the camera much, but instead turned his attention to writing for many TV shows. Then in 1989, came this film he penned with his partner, Lanier Laney. Get ready for Shag.
The film follows four girls, fresh out of high school who decide to spend a weekend in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, circa 1963. We have Luanne (Page Hannah) who is a senator’s daughter, Melania (Bridget Fonda) who aspires to be a Hollywood bombshell, and Pudge (Annabeth Gish) the slightly awkward formerly chubby girl. They plan the weekend as a last hurrah for their friend Carson (Phoebe Cates) who is soon to marry her drip of a fiance. Upon arriving at the Beach, Carson catches the eye of a local guy named Buzz (Robert Rusler) who is not at all deterred by the fact that she’s engaged. Meanwhile, his sidekick, Chip (Scott Coffey), starts hanging around with Pudge.
Of course, the girls get into a variety of hijinks. After a run-in with some mean local girls, Melania decides to show them up by entering a beauty contest and trying to romance the popstar judge, Jimmy Valentine (Jeff Yagher). There’s also a wild party that breaks out, complete with a surprise appearance by Carson’s fiancee just as she starts to get cozy with Buzz. The big climax involves a “shag” dance contest that Pudge sets out to win with Chip, despite his lack of prior dancing experience.
Shag reminded me in some ways of Where The Boys Are, which I just reviewed a few weeks back. Both have have four girls heading down to the beach to party and snag some guys. However, I think Shag probably owes a bit more to Dirty Dancing, released just two years earlier. Both are set in 1963 and both culminate in a musical climax. I gotta say, though, I think this film does a bit better job of capturing that early 60’s atmosphere than Dirty Dancing does. That film may take place in 63, but it’s 80’s through and through. Shag has more of that early 60’s flavor, and I dug that.
A big plus for the film is that all four lead actresses turn in nice performances. Phoebe Cates brings that irresistible sweetness which is pretty much her stock-in-trade, and Annabeth Gish is just plain adorable. It is a bit of a leap, though, to believe that Annabeth Gish is supposed to be a girl that guys don’t really go for. Bridget Fonda effectively sizzles as the snarky sexpot of the group and Page Hannah is fun as the uptight Luanne.
Of course, with four major characters to follow, the film does jump around between their various stories. The story focusing on Phoebe Cates’ character seems to be the A story, and it’s certainly sweet enough…though, maybe a bit too standard. The B story though, involving the budding friendship and romance between Pudge and Chip is actually the better story. Both characters are meant to be somewhat awkward. In both of their social circles, Pudge and Chip are essentially sidekicks to their attractive friends who usually get more attention from the opposite sex. Their relationship blooms in a very genuine way. There’s such a sweet playfulness to how Annabeth Gish and Scott Coffey approach their scenes together. You can’t help but root them. They’ve got some nice dance moves, too! Though I certainly enjoyed the storylines of the other three ladies, I found myself a little bit disappointed whenever the story shifted away from Pudge and Chip.
I admit, going into this film I feared it would be inevitable that I would approach it with a bit of built in bias. After all, we’re talking about a film that features Phoebe Cates AND Annabeth Gish, both of whom were inducted into my own personal 80’s Dream Girl Hall of Fame years ago. Teenage crushes aside, this film succeeds on it’s own merits. With it’s great atmosphere, fun characters, and strong performances, Shag ended up being a real treat.
Note: Shag was recently released on DVD and BluRay by Olive Films. Thanks to them for letting us take a look at the film.