When director Richard Lester, who first made an international name for himself helming the Beatles’ cinematic classics A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965), turned up in San Francisco in 1966 to begin pre-production work for Petulia, little did he (or we) know that he was going to be filming this quirky romantic drama in the heart of a cultural revolution that would become forever known as the Summer of Love.
Unlike decades of future Hollywood revisionist recreations of that time and places around the iconic Haight-Ashbury district, Petulia takes the viewer there when it was actually happening. Lester (and noted cinematographer and future director Nicolas Roeg) even captured performances from then-unknown, future legends Janis Joplin (with Big Brother and the Holding Company) and the Grateful Dead (who also can be seen in a cameo). Lester's previous work with the Fab Four using a rapid-slice trademark that influenced a generation of filmmakers (not to mention the world of music videos on MTV in the ‘80s), was taken to another extreme with Petulia. Most notable is how Lester consciously bucked the idea of a linear storyline as the film bounces in and out of time in its often harsh examination of the relationship between a reserved and recently divorced doctor (future Oscar winner George C. Scott), a quirky young party girl (Julie Christie, two years removed from her Oscar win in Darling!) and their other halves (future Golden Globe winners Shirley Knight and Richard Chamberlain).
At the time of its release in 1968, Petulia was a modest success earning Warner Bros. a decent profit, but since that time the movie has grown to become a Top 10 mainstay by many critics ranking films of the 1960s. Audiences agree as well as the film also holds an 81% audience rating on RottenTomatoes, to go with a 91% from critics. To celebrate the Warner Archive Collection’s newly released DVD of Petulia on June 28 (it's also available digitally), we’ve culled together some memories from the director and cast in order to spotlight this groundbreaking, yet largely forgotten, treasure of a film.
RICHARD LESTER: "We went [to San Francisco] in 1966, [screenwriter] Charles Wood and I, although Charles didn't end up writing the screenplay. We went and did a whole elaborate series of notes about San Francisco. And yes, it was absolutely extraordinary, but what was more extraordinary was the change when we went back to shoot a year later—of how the hardness had really settled in, and the drug scene had become much more dominant and heavy and threatening, and the change in the society's response to the Vietnam War between '66 and '67. What I remember so clearly was the change of a place in a year. But again, to have the chance of working with Janis Joplin, who was an absolutely phenomenal lady, and The Grateful Dead and all, was just a real treat." [A.V. Club interview, 2007]
RICHARD CHAMBERLAIN: "Richard Lester didn’t tell us anything [about how the movie was going to be put together]. He was totally secretive about it. He’d say, ‘I want you to do this scene and I want you to be totally secretive about it.' And I didn’t know why. He would put me at the top of the enormous structures at the top of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, looking down in a white suit. And I didn’t know what it was all about. [laughs] He always had three or four cameras going: long shot, close up, medium shot. And he would keep them rolling between scenes, just to catch moments. And it drove Julie Christie crazy because she was a very big star and wanted to know what was going on. When I finally saw it, I thought it was wonderful. Very ahead of its time. [hollywoodchicago.com, 2010]
SHIRLEY KNIGHT: "Oh, I love [Petulia], it was so far ahead of its time. I love Richard Lester. It was a very interesting script, and it was during 1967’s ‘Summer of Love,’ Haight Asbury and all that in San Francisco. I had a boyfriend who was a rock star, so it all seemed to fit. It was a weird time, because it was an unusual film and the way it was done was unusual. I was friends with Joan Baez at the time. She said one night let’s go to this basement and hear this band, because this girl in it is supposed to be unbelievable. I also asked Richard Lester to come, and that band was Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company. So we go, and it was just amazing. It was so amazing that Richard Lester said that he was going to put them in the film. That’s how they got in the movie." [hollywoodchicago.com, 2010]
RICHARD LESTER: "I'm very, very uncomfortable with sentimentality. I can't say that I'm totally anti-romantic, but I suspect you'll have to ask my wife—and I'll make sure our time's up before she comes to the phone. Suffice it to say, I don't mind romanticism. I think there are elements of romanticism in Petulia, but I'm not a sentimental person. I think that's fair to say." [A.V. Club, 2007]
RICHARD LESTER: "I was very concerned with those three [How I Won the War, Petulia and The Bed-Sitting Room] that they didn’t reach an audience. I was proud of those three, as you well know; and films, I think, are successful or are failures based mainly on the number of people who see them. I’m certainly pleased that I made those three films, and maybe in my own deluded way I never imagined that Petulia would appeal to that small an audience. When approaching a film, I find myself so wrapped up in the subject, so dedicated to it, and so convinced of the purpose of making it that I approach every film with the feeling that 'Yes, this is going to be a work a lot of people are going to be interested in and it’s going to serve a useful purpose.'" [Movietone News, 1976]
Fortunately, since its release in 1968 and those last remarks from Lester a decade later, Petulia has indeed found a much larger audience as we approach its 50th birthday. And with Tuesday's release of the DVD and its availability on digital in this new world order, even more movie fans (and cinematic time-capsule fanatics) will have the chance to see this groundbreaking film in all its colorful and dramatic glory.