Cast: Elizabeth Taylor, Mia Farrow, and Robert Mitchum
Director: Joseph Losey
109 minutes (15) 1968
Powerhouse / Indicator
Blu-ray region B
[Released 25th November]
Review by J.C. Hartley
As a baby boomer, one must always remember that the cultural totems (I don’t like the i-word) of one’s own generation, are unlikely to be immediately familiar to the next, or even the generation after that (if you’re as old as I am). Liz Taylor, who’s she? But surely not? Surely someone like Taylor who, with her equally famous spouse Richard Burton, virtually invented the sort of celebrity that the Kardashians now enjoy, hasn’t faded from the blogosphere? Of course, celebrity was only part of Taylor’s life. Unlike the Kardashians, and various denizens of the weird and wonderful shallow puddle of ‘structured reality’ shows, Elizabeth Taylor had a proper job before she ever became a symbol of excess.
So fixed is Taylor in one’s mind’s eye, as a big Hollywood star, and mid-career as a global celebrity, that the actual work becomes obscured. One imagines that, following her stint as a child star, the only films she appeared in as an adult were blockbusters such as the ill-fated Cleopatra (1963), which nearly bankrupted Fox studios and kicked off the whole Burton-Taylor jamboree. Cleopatra was actually a box-office success but took years to recoup its budget. It’s also a terrible film, too long, and rather boring. Far better is Carry On Cleo (1964), which used some of the bigger film’s left-over sets, has a sexier Cleopatra in Amanda Barrie, and far better dialogue. Forget ‘Infamy, infamy, etc.’ and relish, ‘This is my cousin, he’s Agrippa’, ‘Oh yeah? Well I know a few holds myself, mate!’
Taylor did make big budget movies, epics such as Giant (1956), with Rock Hudson and Montgomery Clift, after which she is reputed to have said it was the first time in a film her male co-stars were more interested in each other than they were in her. But she appeared in films with smaller budgets, and roles which stretched her as an actress, which were not always obvious choices for a big star who could presumably pick and choose - a fading career and the vagaries of the studio contract system notwithstanding.
Films concerning complex personal relationships seemed to be a particular touchstone throughout Taylor’s career. There are obvious stand-out moments like Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? (1966), where she and co-star Burton chew the scenery, winning Taylor an Oscar in the process. Others, like John Huston’s Reflections In A Golden Eye (1967) are somewhat less accessible. I remember seeing this latter on TV in the 70s, and while I picked up on the various sub-texts such as Marlon Brando’s character’s repressed homosexuality, I realise now it must have been edited to ribbons for broadcast.
X, Y, And Zee (1972), based on a novel by Edna O’Brien, sees jilted wife Zee attempt to win back husband Michael Caine by seducing his younger girlfriend. Boom! (1968), in which Taylor plays a wealthy terminally-ill socialite visited by the ‘angel of death’ (Burton again), was a box-office bomb, which only film director John Waters and I seem to have enjoyed. The film was based on a play by Tennessee Williams and directed by Joseph Losey. I liked this film because I love Richard Burton, and he gets to say ‘The shock of each moment of still being alive. Boom!’, in that wonderful voice. And Noel Coward, who turns up as ‘The Witch Of Capri’, is as wonderfully camp as only he could be. Taylor made two films with Losey: Boom! and this one, Secret Ceremony. So far, I’ve concentrated on Elizabeth Taylor, but what about her co-stars? Mia Farrow made Secret Ceremony on the back of her breakout role in Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968), and around the time of her break-up with husband Frank Sinatra, 29 years her senior. Farrow’s subsequent marital trials and tribulations make some of the themes of Secret Ceremony uncomfortably prescient. The other lead in this film is the always-watchable Robert Mitchum, who never seems to have any qualms about depicting repulsive characters, having played the rapist Max Cady in the original Cape Fear (1962).
In Secret Ceremony, Taylor plays Leonora, a prostitute. On her way to church after turning her latest trick, she is followed by a young woman Cenci (Farrow), who confronts her at the grave of her dead daughter who drowned aged ten years. Seeing some resemblance to her dead child, Leonora allows Cenci to take her to the ornate house where the girl lives alone. Cenci treats the older woman as if she is her long-lost mother and Leonora plays along, not always convincingly. Soon installed in the luxurious house, Leonora observes the girl play-act a remembered scene of some sort of sexual encounter, which presumably led to her mother expelling her father from the house. Leonora also observes a visit by Cenci’s aunts, who steal items from the house when the girl isn’t looking. Leonora, masquerading as Cenci’s mother’s cousin, visits the aunts’ antique shop, stocked with artefacts stolen from the house. The aunts, Hilda (Pamela Brown), and Hannah (Peggy Ashcroft), explain that their brother Gustav, Cenci’s real father, died suddenly when Cenci was a child and Margaret her mother remarried with unseemly haste to Albert (Mitchum), a college professor. Margaret expelled Albert when she caught him fondling Cenci’s breasts in the kitchen, then shut herself up in the house where she died of a mystery illness. The suggestion that Cenci may have been responsible for both parents’ deaths is never pursued as a plot point. Leonora calls out the aunts for their thefts, and in a struggle over an antique china doll which the women have purloined the doll is broken.
While Leonora is out, Albert, who has been stalking around the house, calls upon step-daughter Cenci who lets him in. He is sporting a rather dreadful beatnik beard which he tells the girl lulls the suspicions of his female students, who think him a harmless old man, allowing him to seduce them. Albert allows Cenci to cut the beard off after which they share a passionate kiss. When Albert has left, Cenci in a euphoric state disorders the rooms, and hearing Leonora return tears her own clothes intimating that Albert has attacked her.
Leonora and Cenci go on holiday, and Cenci with a doll under her dress pretends she is pregnant while Leonora plays along with the sham. Albert has followed them and confronting Leonora insists that while he always had designs on Cenci it was the girl who took the lead. He explicitly describes her visits to him in his bedroom, and the massages she gave him. While this story has all the trappings of a male fantasy, Leonora chooses to believe it. Albert suggests that by playing along with Cenci’s fantasy world Leonora is colluding in the girl’s arrested development. Later that night Leonora rows with Cenci, forcibly pulls the doll from under the girl’s dress and in the struggle, it is torn to pieces. Afterwards, Cenci has a rendezvous with Albert on the beach where they presumably have intercourse. When Leonora attempts to make up with the girl, Cenci accuses her of wearing her mother’s clothes and orders her to leave.
Back in London, Leonora pays a visit on Cenci in an attempt at reconciliation. The house is denuded of furniture and fittings and the girl has already taken the overdose that will kill her. Leonora talks about her own suicide attempt after the death of her child. As Leonora leaves, Cenci attempts to call her back but it is too late. Leonora visits the house again to see Cenci laid out in her coffin, when Albert arrives Leonora stabs him in the heart and kills him. The final scene shows Leonora back in her tiny flat telling herself the story of the two mice who fell in a bucket of milk: one called for help and drowned, while the other paddled around until the morning found it standing on a bucket full of butter.
So, a strange film, unpleasant at times, disjointed, but with its themes of consent, victim-blaming, and sexual grooming, rather in tune with current times. Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, the film-critic providing one of the commentaries on this disc, notes that a review of the time described it as Losey’s ‘sick ritual’. The film is based on Ceremonia Secreta (1960), a novella by Argentine writer Marco Denevi, a work which apparently reflects that writer’s admiration for Wilkie Collins, author of the ‘sensation novel’ The Woman In White (1859). I’m not familiar with Denevi’s original story, but what no commentator seems to have picked up on, and forgive me if I’ve overlooked someone referencing it, is another source for some of the film’s themes. Farrow’s character’s name Cenci, surely points toward Percy Bysshe Shelley’s play about incest and murder The Cenci (1891). In Shelley’s play, Count Francesco Cenci, a tyrannical patriarch, is implicated in a homicide, sends his sons to their certain deaths, and commits incestuous rape against his daughter Beatrice, leading the remaining family members to conspire in his murder. Is Cenci in the film intended to be both Beatrice and Francesco, abused daughter and potential murderer? Or is the film just top-heavy with too many themes and symbols?
A complex film, this doesn’t quite work, but it’s better to fail from over-ambition than just go through the motions. The fact that it suggests other stories or treatments, while stimulating, in the end is counter-productive. The play-acting between Leonora and Cenci at the beginning of the film, recalls some of Harold Pinter’s work, not necessarily his collaborations with Losey, The Servant (1963), and Accident (1967), but the game-playing in theatrical productions like The Collection (1961), and The Lover (1962). I’ve scored the film quite high because Farrow is outstanding, and the camera will always love Taylor. The highpoint for me though is the playing of Pamela Brown and Peggy Ashcroft as the larcenous aunts. Apropos of nothing at all, check out Pamela Brown as the wonderful Catriona in Powell and Pressburger’s classic I Know Where I’m Going (1945).
There is a mixed bag of extras on the disc. Audio commentary is by Australian critics Dean Brandum and Alexandra Heller-Nicholas; Heller-Nicholas being rather disconcertingly enthusiastic in her greetings from the outset, perhaps because she knows she is about to have her work cut out for her. The opening credits play against various green backgrounds, which Brandum describes as a mixture of oil and water, creating the sort of colourful patterns you see on the road. Presumably he thinks this is the sort of insight one brings to audio commentary. The green backgrounds are obviously architectural tiles, of the kind you see framing mosaics, you can even see the crackle in the glaze as Brandum claims they are something else; whereupon Heller-Nicholas jumps in and notes that they might also refer to the tiles decorating the house where most of the action is about to take place. Things go from bad to worse when Brandum starts to describe the TV version of the film in which two new characters were added, a psychologist and a barrister, he seems about to name them and then tails off as the audio is filled with the sound of him desperately shuffling his notes. Heller-Nicholas comes to his rescue once again. I’m sure audio commentary isn’t as easy as it sounds, Heller-Nicholas certainly soared in my estimation, but that was enough for me.
There is a subtitled interview with Joseph Losey from the French broadcast Cinema Critique. On this the critic suggests that Losey as auteur was preoccupied with the impact of society on the individual, which you could say about any filmmaker I guess; but anticipating some combination of the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau with Marxist theory I swiftly moved on. Losey’s son Gavrik in ‘The Beholder’s Share’ gives some biographical details about his father’s career, and talks about his difficult relationships with women, which obviously would impact upon his ability to direct them. He also gives some detail about the screen and scriptwriter George Tabori. Gavrik notes how Losey’s direction warps time to make the audience think, and how he makes use of the set as a character in itself. Debenham House, the Arts and Crafts creation of the architect Halsey Ricardo used in this film is certainly that. Gavrik suggests that the complexity of Secret Ceremony probably leaves it feeling incomplete, which is a valid point.
The disc includes the TV version of the film for NBC which, while cut down from the cinema release, includes extra scenes shot by Universal with a different director, as a prologue and epilogue wherein a psychologist ‘explains’ it. I skipped this. There’s the theatrical trailer, and an image gallery, and another feature which is a new one for me. In something billed as a trailer with commentary, young Larry Karaszewski presents ‘Trailers from Hell’, in which he comments over what looks like a trailer for the TV version, while giving some more detail about the vandalised TV cut of the film. He describes Taylor’s films post-Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as an almost gloomy sub-genre of their own, and repeats the aspersion, suggested by John Waters of Taylor’s performance in Boom! that she was often drunk while making them. Commenting on her wayward accent in Secret Ceremony, Karaszewski ignores the fact that the character of Leonora is play-acting for much of the time, and often slips between her put-on upper-class English and her natural American.
There’s no great malice in Karaszewski’s mockery, it’s one way in which youth expresses the need to become independent of the older generation, which is at least one sub-text in the complicated scenario of Secret Ceremony.