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An East End Affair: Glimpses of the Hamptons on Film

Wednesday, July 1, 2015
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These days, people tend to giggle about Gordon Gekko’s brick-sized cell phone in 1988’s Wall Street. There’s Douglas as the greenmail maestro and corporate raider, pacing back and forth along Southampton’s Fowler Beach at sunrise, and he’s got Charlie Sheen’s Bud Fox on the DynaTAC “line”—in every sense of that term. Gekko has just shaken $800,000 (those are Reagan dollars) out of the Nikkei and is calling to announce that he’s staking Bud to his first claim. The younger man has been passed out at his desk after the previous night’s go-fer round trip out to the boss’ Meadow Lane palace and back to the salt mines of Manhattan. The evening went down like a big, pastel-drenched, 1980s dream: Daryl Hannah was there. And Gekko was sparring with Terence Stamp. With Schnabelesque art hanging on the walls. The lunches at “21,” the cars, the planes, even the women, all merely leading up to Gekko’s sunrise speech: Beachfront at Southampton: The Ultimate Temptation. What won’t Bud now do for a piece of the dream?

This is Oliver Stone, so subtlety is not often in evidence. But Douglas pulls back. And just for an instant, even his Gekko appears to be just a little humbled and awed by the beauty of the place. He’s been acting as a wilier, more calculating Tom Buchanan, but there’s a note of Gatsby dreamer there, too. Douglas offers an intriguing hint that Gekko can still see that sea and that sky, Fitzgerald’s “fresh, green breast of the new world,” with “Dutch sailors’ eyes.”

That wonder dissolves into a crooked smile. Innocence and pure wonder are a long way behind Gekko, but maybe traces linger. And in a grand total of two scenes, Wall Street has managed to say a little something about the pleasure of Long Island and the prize of “The Hamptons.”

Through the long nights of Winter 2014–’15, a good deal of talk around Provisions in Sag Harbor, or Mary’s Marvelous in Amagansett, or Joni’s in Montauk—or wherever, really—a lot of talk around the East End’s big imaginary watercooler, centered around Showtime’s The Affair. Could you believe the mock-intelligent lunkheadedness of Noah? The vacancy

and self-absorption (yes, yes, hardly surprising in light of her son’s drowning) of Alison? There was the Lobster Roll
restaurant out on the Napeague stretch . . . and there was Deep Hollow Ranch further east. And that was . . . what?! Huh? Where were we now? Nassau County? Litchfield County?

The essayist Melanie Corowitz nailed the phenomenon. Confronted with a silly late-1980s Rob Lowe caper called Masquerade, she dubbed that film’s Long Island world “Splice Hampton.” Sag Harbor to Southampton to Amagansett. Bay to beach, Scuttlehole Road to Lily Pond Lane—in an instant, and in high season—all with a quick snip of the celluloid. And while The Affair did its own “Splice Hampton” and perhaps even more “Splice Brooklyn,” (Park Slope, Cobble Hill and Brooklyn Heights), it mattered, somehow. In its guilty, pulpy, sometimes pretentious, always heavily laden way, it seemed actually to have something to do with the social and physical worlds of its setting. And it was entertaining. Royal Pains? Revenge? Barely worthy of notice. “The Hamptons” only as the vaguest of “luxury” signifiers. Lacking the slightest social or cultural or even geographic awareness of the area. Concocted for—ahem, so sorry—concocted for flyover country consumption only. But The Affair stuck, somehow. As a new depiction of eastern Long Island, it was at least worth discussing.

Of course, filmed uses of the East End have long been intertwined with the quite understandable wish of actors and filmmakers to call the area home. The debacle of George Costanza’s Hamptons “shrinkage” (“I was in the pool! I was in the pool!”) helped Jerry Seinfeld make it to Further Lane. Southampton’s tripartite clubland atmosphere has tended to keep the western end of things oriented toward business and finance, but from Bridgehampton eastward, movie folk have done more than their fair share to make the East End into “The Hamptons.” The phenomenon is now hitting the century mark. Hulda from Holland (1916) used Bridgehampton (flat, and with a windmill) as a backdrop. The film’s leading lady, Mary Pickford, wound up spending considerable time with her husband, Douglas Fairbanks, and fellow actress Ethel Barrymore in the section of North Haven that came to be known as the “Actors Colony.” It’s a designation that has remained current. Michael Caine fell for the colony and then gave significant space in his memoirs to his loving memories of Sag Harbor Bay and the view out to Shelter Island. (He’d been in Sag Harbor, adding that patented distance ’n’ detachment of his to Alan Alda’s inept Sweet Liberty.) The enduring tranquility has drawn Richard Gere, Julie Andrews and nonthespian Jimmy Buffett. The civilized remove from Sag Harbor and East Hampton comes at a price: Gere’s Strongheart Manor is listed at $47.5 million at the time of this writing.

Summer 2014 touched a pleasantly surreal high point when Annie Hall herself turned up on Main Street in East Hampton early last July. Diane Keaton was at BookHampton, signing copies of her memoir Let’s Just Say It Wasn’t Pretty. It was an event—a celebrity event, a literary event, a Baby Boomer event. A women’s event. Part of the overall in-season this-is-the-center-of-the-world conceit of “The Hamptons” would have to be that even quintessential Californian Diane Keaton is forever considered “from here” based on Annie Hall and, especially now, on Something’s Gotta Give. The energy and goodwill certainly seemed to have lots more to do with the latter than it did with, say, Reds or Looking for Mr. Goodbar. A (cinematic) hometown-girl-made-good was back. The day was a pleasure, and for a moment all the big money and star power of the area was somehow deeply touching. A world-famous-and-gilded-to-the-hilt small town—but a small town, nonetheless.

It felt like (sigh) yesterday that Keaton and King Rascal Jack Nicholson had been around the corner shooting Something’s at Ina
Garten’s late, lamented Barefoot Contessa shop on Newtown. In fact, more than a decade had slipped away, but Nancy Meyers’ big-budget sitcom had settled nicely in the consciousness of a certain aging and prosperous demographic that is well represented in and around Book Hampton on summer weekends. The film had done its job by giving two Towering Boomer Icons a space in which they could just be Diane and Jack sparring, then falling in love, by the sea. Keaton and Nicholson the legends towered over their ostensible parts and over the plot’s proceedings. Was there really ever a doubt that plucky Diane would rope aging lothario Nicholson in?

Along with Keaton and Nicholson, “The Hamptons” as a brand had played the next biggest role in the film. The beach, the famously diffused light (somehow even inside! in Keaton’s magnificent kitchen!), and a broad sense of the area as simply a prize for successful New Yorkers—Meyers’ “Hamptons” was a sexy backdrop without the least little bit of texture or depth. But with excellent linens and appliances: lifestyle porn to go with the sweetly encouraging romantic comedy. (The Barefoot Contessa reference proved significant: Meyers hung some of the Ina Garten story on the Meryl Streep “character” in her next film, It’s Complicated. This time, Santa Barbara was cast in the old “Hamptons” role, and real-life Amagansett/East Hampton fixture Alec Baldwin came along for the ride.)

Something’s Gotta Give serves nicely as a token of in-season luxe Haute Showbiz East Hampton. Not the East Hampton of Dina Merrill–
Cliff Robertson or Candace Bergen–Louis Malle, but the more exuberant East Hampton of (the late Time Warner architect) Steve Ross and his protégé Steven Spielberg. It’s a Los Angeles love affair with the place that comes laced with massive money and a dream of the classic Eastern seaside resort. Spielberg had had his own brushes with the area when bringing Jaws to the screen in 1975. Peter Benchley’s novel had been set in a fictional town between Bridgehampton and East Hampton, but the production was forced for various logistical reasons to shift to the then comparatively gritty and out-of-the-way Martha’s Vineyard. Only the film’s premiere—in Southampton—retained the book’s original setting. Years later, and with Ross’ guidance, Spielberg wound up with a Charles Gwathmey estate on Georgica Pond. A happier—certainly a more wholesome—version of Gekko and Bud Fox.

Steps away from the Spielberg place is a monument to another strain of Hamptons filmmaking and another thread of the area’s story. Grey Gardens, the former home of “Big Edie” Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale and her daughter, “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale, became (in) famous when the Maysles brothers made a 1975 documentary revealing the squalor of the pair’s lives in the house. The women’s relationships to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (aunt and cousin, respectively) made the story a nationally visible parable of WASP eccentricity and decline. Grey Gardens, cult classic that it is, stands at the head of a class of art house films that includes Henry Jaglom’s Last Summer in the Hamptons, Tod Williams’ eerie The Door in the Floor, or even Norman Mailer’s chaotic Maidstone. They’re the movies that, in one way or another, get at what happens when the season ends and the crowds go home.

But in mythic terms, probably nothing competes with the story, setting, and the consequence of 2000’s Pollock. Ed Harris and Marcia Gay Harden as Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner did noble work in getting the story of East Hampton’s role in the rise of Abstract Expressionism to the screen. And beyond the history and the lore of the people (Willem de Kooning, Peggy Guggenheim, Clement Greenberg) and the place of remote, early 1950s Springs, the film carries a still resonant sense of the challenges of living through the all four seasons in a place that can seem designed only for one. Watching the film, it’s also natural to remember Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller and their marriage, which began in the summer of 1957. The two shared a simple farmhouse in Amagansett, not far at all from where Pollock had died in an automobile accident the previous August. The union was, of course, ill-fated, but looking at Sam Shaw’s golden photos of the two at the beach, it’s hard not to wish for 

that time and place. There was certainly nothing about last summer’s Kardashian residency likely to shake that feeling.

Who could possibly top Monroe and Miller for a love that was brilliant and fragile and unlikely? And fleeting? It would certainly be too much to ask of Showtime and The Affair. But still: The idea of a worlds-apart liaison that was nurtured and then blessed (very much in passing) by the sands and waters of the East End made for an
beguiling point of departure. Upscale Brookynite Noah, struggling with the disorienting messiness of parenting as well as his status as a kept man, wanders into the fraught Montauk of a woman awash in her own crises. Alison is connected by her own decaying marriage to the town’s last surviving ranch and, through that, to a knot of political and business intrigues. The show succeeded well in catching the luxe vacation dimension of “The Hamptons” and its preoccupations with class and status cues, with familial and social webs of envy and obligation. The obsessions of money, career, and real estate hang all over every single move both Alison and Noah make. But the sex—perhaps especially for Noah—seems almost Edenic. It’s a blessed relief from all the demands of the metropolis. Even as that metropolis is always reaching outward, further and deeper into the endangered East End of the Lockhart Ranch.

There was a murder investigation, too. Which confined the two principals in a Rashomon frame and forced the presentation of the lead characters’ story from the two drastically different viewpoints. As structured, the narrative had its intriguing and unsettling moments—who hasn’t sometimes felt that a lover who had once seemed so close experienced something so different as to be unrecognizable? The story of these desperate-for-one-another-types dissolved out into two distinct tales. And if it was all a bit cartoonish, there was still an intriguing attempt to get at the symbiosis and the strangeness of the encounter between New Yorkers and the locals of the East End. He: the callous urban exploiter; she: the mermaid seductress. The interplay between them and their swirling fears and fantasies of each other. The physical proximity via Jitney or LIRR between Montauk and brownstone Brooklyn. And also the vast psychic distance. All very ripe, certainly. But often pretty evocative, too. The Affair added a little bit of (tarted-up) “town” to go with Michael Douglas’ or Diane Keaton’s versions of “gown.” And let the two dance a bit. It was a guilty pleasure, but perhaps a useful addition to filmed notions of the area simply as a shining prize for the Gekkos of the world. And after the flood tide of fabulousness has receded a bit, the beach chairs have been packed away, and Hamptons High Season 2015 has passed into fall, we’ll have The Affair to cushion the comedown.
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