Joan Darling’s ‘First Love’ is a not-so-sweet dive into campus romance

Joan Darling directed First Love—one of the first big studio films that was offered to a woman. William Katt and Susan Dey star in this campus love story where a hopeful young man falls in love with a beautiful woman, whose heart is with an older man. (KIZJ: 3/5)

In the opening scene, “Elgin” (William Katt) is engaging in his usual football practice out on the fields by himself. After a fair amount of exercise and likely an improvement in his techniques, he brushes his blond locks of hair and hurries back to his dormitory room. He has a test tomorrow and is attempting to study, but his male neighbor has a female guest, “Shelly” (Beverly D’Angelo), over for a sexual encounter. Focusing is hard enough with the sounds from next door traveling right through the paper-thin walls, but it’s made all the more difficult when that lady guest appears in Elgin’s window. “David’s” (John Heard) girlfriend came for a surprise visit, and Shelly only just managed to escape getting found. Standing there in a flimsy towel, Shelly is quick to make herself comfortable and lets Elgin know that she won’t be there long. The situation next door progresses into another physical encounter with noises, so Elgin and his unwelcome visitor are stuck together for the time being.

To thank Elgin, David sets him up with Shelly for a double date. This is not something Elgin wanted—to say the least— but he obliges anyway. During this dinner date, Elgin first lays eyes on “Caroline” (Susan Dey)—a beautiful woman who has come to the restaurant with an older man. When the date comes to an end, Elgin and Shelly return to his dormitory, and to Elgin’s surprise, Shelly starts to take her clothes off. Elgin explains that he has a set idea of love, and physical intimacy is saved only for those he falls in love with. On the next day, while working at the cafeteria, he sees Caroline again. Forgetting his orders and other obligations, he starts to chat with her. Elgin is absolutely smitten; this is the beginning of him falling in love with Caroline. Little does he know, their relationship will be much more complicated than just two college students in love, and his idea of romance is about to be challenged.

Director Joan Darling broke new ground in 1976 when she was offered a Hollywood studio film to direct. With the title being First Love, I expected it to be a warm and nostalgic film. Romance stories set in colleges usually have a sweet and cozy tone to them. Joan Darling’s approach to the subject is much colder. A large portion of the first half of the film is condescending in its portrayal of college relationships. They appear void of hope, and the students seem incapable of understanding true love.

The script by Jane Stanton Hitchcock and David Freeman has misogynistic undertones—not a single female character is likable—the women are either too clingy, or too promiscuous, or ungrateful. The central character’s values give him the air of self-importance—my takeaway after the film is that he’s “too good” for both Shelly and Caroline. Neither female character has been given enough attention in developing who they are and why they have grown into such young adults. Shelly is always begging for sexual attention, and Caroline flits between a married man and Elgin. Although the film does elevate women’s pleasure in the bedroom, the scenes’ setups feel awkward. Along with Elgin’s superior attitude towards love and relationships, we also get to see David’s disturbing disrespect for women. The only standout is the light that Darling can bring out in William Katt’s performance throughout, despite having little to draw from around him. Even with the unfortunate writing, I appreciate that the lead character is written in a way that attempts to respect women and even portray men as less animalistic.

The director started her career in the entertainment industry as an actress, and she then leaped to directing in 1974. With some work in television, Darling was chosen to direct First Love as her debut feature. I only wish I could understand why so many scenes with naked women were necessary? Darling’s film is loosely based on a short from the 1950s called Sentimental Education, but the feature is much more focused on the concept of real love and if it exists at all. More importantly, Darling’s film asks if we, as humans, are able to be happy in love.

© Katusha Jin (10/10/2020) FF2 Media

Photos: Susan Dey and William Katt in First Love (1977)

Photo Credits: Paramount Pictures (1977) (USA)

Q: Does First Love pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test? 

To be completely honest I cannot remember a scene with women talking to each other…which is quite surprising.

Tags: FF2 Media, First Love, Joan Darling, TCM, Turner Classic Movies, Women Make Film, WomenMakeFilm

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Katusha Jin
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As part of the FF2 Media team, Katusha Jin interviews filmmakers, write features and reviews, and coaches other associates. She grew up in the UK and studied briefly in Russia and China before moving to New York for college. Graduating magna cum laude from New York University, Katusha majored in Film and Television at Tisch School of the Arts with minors in Business and Philosophy. She has worked as a producer, director, writer, and composer for various award-winning projects including short films, branded content, independent features, and music videos.
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