Much has been written over the years about the three main actors in Star Wars who helped define an entire generation of science fiction fans.
Carrie Fisher, the young daughter of extremely famous parents with an extremely famous scandal, was the most well known of the trio (at least among the industry.) She had already worked with Warren Beatty in Shampoo before taking on the iconic Princess Leia.
Harrison Ford was arguably on the downswing of a mediocre acting career that brought him small, flashy, and ultimately unsuccessful roles in film and TV prior to taking on Han Solo. Ford all but gave up acting for carpentry when the opportunity to read for Star Wars presented itself.
Like Ford, Mark Hamill worked regularly in series television in the early 1970’s and even turned in a great performance as Linda Blair’s boyfriend in a better than you think TV movie about teenage alcoholism. Hamill also had a good career doing voice-over even before Star Wars, something he’s widely considered a master of today.
Although unthinkable now, none of the three were the obvious choices at the time. But once they were cast Star Wars changed their lives forever. It’s always been fascinating to see the moves made by unknown stars after they’ve hit the big-time. In today’s industry it’s a carefully constructed science. Place your star in a proven franchise or hit TV show as a guest star (remember future Obi-Wan Ewan McGregor’s ER episode after Trainspotting made him an international star?) or have them do safe movies with ensemble casts that the success or failure of which cannot be directly linked to them.
But back in 1977 the industry hadn’t ever seen a juggernaut as big as what would become the Star Wars franchise. Not even Spielberg’s Jaws, which only two years earlier had set box office records, could compare. So what came next was virgin territory, and like most virgin territory, it can be messy and ultimately unsatisfying for all involved, which brings us to Corvette Summer.
Corvette Summer was an unusual choice for Hamill to make in the wake of the most successful film of all time. Hamill’s troubles immediately following Star Wars have been well documented. First came the car crash which broke his nose and left him with facial scars, then later the lawsuit resulting from bailing out of the TV series Eight is Enough to take the role of Luke Skywalker (a case which he would go on to lose,) and add to it the sudden meteoric fame stripping him of his anonymity forever,
Hamill was left beaten down to say the least. Taking on the role of a poor high school kid was a strange move for the accidental movie star. First of all it’s the story of a boy, not a man. At the end of Star Wars, Luke Skywalker had journeyed into manhood (at least figuratively) when he shot his torpedo into the Death Star’s exhaust port causing an explosion intense enough for Lucas to continue adding special effects to it decades later.
It was curious to see him choose a role that didn’t explore a more mature and experienced person. Instead, the character of Kenny Dantley, the barley passing California high school student, followed nearly the same path Luke did in Star Wars. Kenny, like Luke, longed to get out of his mundane existence with bad home life and bleak prospects.
Kenny’s only solace comes from the high school auto club led by his kindly Kenobi-esque mentor, Mr. McGrath, played by the wonderful character actor Eugene Roche. Kenny is clearly the star of the auto club evidenced by making the greatest car of all time. Kenny’s Corvette Stingray even looks a lot like a spaceship once complete. The early scenes in the movie; saving the body from the junkyard, building the car with his fellow students, showing off the finished product by cruising the strip in a clear homage to American Graffiti, are all quite charming.
Once the Corvette is inevitably stolen the movie really gets started. Kenny, heartbroken the love of his life is gone, begins a desperate campaign akin to that of a kidnapped child by plastering pictures of his car all over town.
When a traveling salesman tells him he’s seen the car in Vegas, Kenny doesn’t hesitate to hitchhike his way to find it. Along the way he’s picked up by some Mexican lowriders in an unusual scene that must have been considered racist even in the 1970’s. After ditching them for driving too slow he ends up getting a ride from Vanessa, played by Annie Potts making her movie debut. Potts, who would later soar to geek fandom with the Ghostbusters franchise, plays Vanessa, a self described “prostitute in training” driving a mobile sex van which she plans on taking to Vegas to become a high end call girl. Potts plays the entire role like a 1930’s gangster’s moll in what you’re never certain is a character for her budding prostitution business or simply the world’s most annoying human being.
Potts and Hamill have little chemistry but it’s never really established if we are supposed to be rooting for them to get together or not. Do we want the D student grease monkey to end up with the girl who clearly never heard of Gloria Steinem? Will he ever love her as much as his car? Once they reach Vegas the typical “fresh fish” scenarios play out. Kenny’s wallet is lifted by a con man played by Stanley Kamel who would later go on to play Tony Shalhoub’s therapist to great effect on the TV series Monk. He meets an entertaining gambler on a lucky streak played by sci-fi stalwart Dick Miller, and has a vicious run in with a car thief played by future deadly Blade Runner replicant Brion James.
Once Kenny finally tracks his beloved Corvette to a serious car theft ring he wisely goes to the cops only to find his old teacher Mr. McGrath who pleads with him not to file the report. McGrath confesses to being the middle-man in helping provide high end cars to the ring. McGrath explains how little he makes as a teacher in as speech that could have been written yesterday. Feeling betrayed Kenny does the first smart thing he’s done the whole movie, sells out. He goes to work for the very car thieves that stole his precious car and even demands a higher salary that’s offered him. It’s at this point Kenny takes what must be his first shower. Up until now Hamill’s Kenny was so completely filthy you could smell his character through the screen. Having been chased, beaten, and even hiding in a full barrel of motor oil in pursuit of his Corvette, Kenny was, to say the least, RIPE.
He strides into a casino a new man and throws money in Vanessa’s face. If this sounds demeaning, oh it is. Vanessa rebuffs his $ 70 sending him on his way. Kenny, conflicted, steals back his beloved car and later violently steals back Vanessa (who is in the last ring of her downward spiral making a porno film with creepy old men in a hotel bathtub) as well. Kenny literally drags her out of the casino kicking and screaming while patrons seem not to care. The ensuing car chase that follows finally shows off what Kenny’s car can really do. It leads them all the way back to his high school.
After pulling the fire alarm the students pour out to find Kenny’s corvette, with hooker included, sitting on the schools lawn. Mr. McGrath being rightly concerned Kenny will blow his cover and send him to jail for his illegal activities is relieved to discover his secret is safe. Kenny’s only goal was to get his car back and he does. What can stop Mr. McGrath from giving it back to the car theft ring? Nothing. Will Kenny ultimately have a normal non-customer even consensual relationship with the kidnapped Vanessa? We don’t know. At the end of Corvette Summer Kenny and Vanessa walk off in the sunset being pestered by Kenny’s best high school friend (played by Partridge Family alum Danny Bonaduce) nagging about hanging out later. It’s depressing.
Corvette Summer is a strange film. It’s a teen-sex-comedy wrapped inside a bleak 1970’s anti-hero action tale. It follows the same formula of many go up against the man and fail stories, like Rocky, Cuckoo’s Nest, Three Days of the Condor, Serpico, Parallax View, etc. It’s about a kid who tries to buck the system and ends up right back where he started, broke, dirty, and without a car. It’s also notable the violence in the film is fairly serious stuff. When Kenny first attempts to steal his car back he’s beaten with chains and tied up, presumably to be killed later. During the climactic car chase the head bad guy shoots to kill. Not exactly light fare for a comedy.
Sophmore efforts for actors can always be tricky. Everyone wants to know if lightning will strike twice or was the first time just a fluke. Although Harrison Ford went on to superstardom his next few efforts after Star Wars were not notable successes for him either. It’s important to note Corvette Summer was a qualified hit for MGM. It made 36 million worldwide and helped solidify the successful partnership of the writing team of Hal Barwood and the movies director Matthew Robbins. Barwood and Robbins, who attended USC alongside George Lucas, were responsible for many cult and bona fide hits of the 1970’s and 80’s including; Dragonslayer, Warning Sign, and an uncredited draft of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Ultimately movies like Corvette Summer don’t age well on their face but become vital examples of Star Wars lure inside the cannon of the time. In retrospect Corvette Summer is a dark film that has elements of something interesting to explore behind the motivation of its main character. Kenny, despite many attempts to dodge the experience, manages to lose his virginity to Vanessa during the course of the film. What’s makes this odd is the experience never changes his motivation. While he clearly loved having sex, it didn’t distract him from his true love and purpose, the Corvette.
This mirrored Luke Skywalker’s motivation as well. Did Luke Skywalker ever have sex? We know he kissed his sister. If he did, it never distracted him from becoming a Jedi. After all how do you keep em down on Uncle Owen’s farm once they’ve known the Force? Is the Force better than sex? We may never know.
Corvette Summer is PG and doesn’t play on TV very much. It occasionally runs on TCM and is worth a second look.
Fred Shahadi is a writer/producer living in Los Angeles and is the author of the upcoming Sci-Fi/JFK conspiracy novel, Shoot the Moon.