Inventing the Abbotts

Liv Tyler and Joaquin Phoenix fell in love during the making of this period piece, set in Illinois during the 1950s. But don't let the photo below of the smiling couple fool you. Though Ron Howard is one of the producers of Abbotts, the film shares none of the romanticized innocence of Happy Days. Sex and betrayal are at the core of director Pat O'Connor's bittersweet teen romance, as they were in O'Connor's Circle of Friends, set in 1950s Ireland.

Tyler plays Pamela, the youngest of three Abbott girls whose wealth and beauty drive the boys crazy. The poor Holt boys, Doug (Phoenix) and his older brother, Jacey (Billy Crudup), are especially susceptible. They live with their widowed mother, Helen (Kathy Baker), a teacher, and resent the hell out of Lloyd Abbott (Will Patton) for making a fortune on a patent for file drawers that their father had invented.

Lloyd wants his girls to avoid that Holt trash, but shy Doug's friendship with Pamela gains him access to the Abbott mansion. Jacey finds it more satisfying to fuck his way in, first with slutty Eleanor (Jennifer Connelly), then with married Alice (Joanna Going) and, finally, with Pamela in a one-nighter that devastates Doug.

The script that Ken Hixon has adapted from a Sue Miller short story is a soap opera that never reaches the lyric heights of such classics of teen sexuality as The Last Picture Show and Splendor in the Grass.

What distinguishes Abbotts — besides O'Connor's keen eye for the nuances of class in small-town America — is the exemplary acting. Crudup, as he proved onstage in Arcadia, is a star in the making. Connelly slyly blends eroticism and humor. Going, with the least to do, does it most winningly. And Tyler finds the defiant grace of a girl crashing into womanhood. Still, the film belongs to Phoenix (To Die For), who is terrific. He has the gift, shared with his late brother, River, of conveying emotions without pushing them at you. The delicacy of his scenes with Tyler lets you enjoy the film for what it truly is: a heartbreaker.

From The Archives Issue 758: April 17, 1997
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