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Secret Ceremony

Dullsville

Secret Ceremony (1968)

     I almost wanted to give this movie a “What the F—?” rating because I think I might be traumatized for life after this one. I’ve categorized Secret Ceremony as both drama and horror because frankly I could not figure out if this was supposed to be frightening or just a creepy drama. At first I regretted reading the Dish Network synopsis that described the movie as “a London hooker looks like a girl’s late mother and the girl looks like the hookers late daughter.” I wondered if I would have been able to disseminate what was happening without that hint, but truly, I would not have known Elizabeth Taylor was meant to portray a prostitute without it. The movie is also less about Mia Farrow‘s resemblance to Taylor’s daughter who drowned at age six than Taylor being a dead ringer for Farrow’s mother.

     After Farrow’s Cenci lures Taylor’s Leonora back to her shuttered mansion where she lives all alone, Farrow quickly becomes convinced that Taylor is her mother. Finding herself in luxury, Taylor too quickly decides to go along with the ruse, feigning an English accent and talking as though she had been there all along.

A loony Mia Farrow considers what she would look like with the face of her dead mother, who happens to be a doppelgänger to Elizabeth Taylor's character.

     Farrow is unrelentingly creepy with her pale skin and black wig making for many chilling shots. She behaves as a child despite (as we later learn) being 22. She reenacts portions of her former and possibly sane life in private, including a disturbing conversation with an empty chair dating back to when her step-father groped her at age 16. That step-father, played by Robert Mitchum, reappears in incestuous pursuit of Cenci and convinces her to give up her virginity. She then plays pregnant leading Leonora to instantly go along with the ruse. The girl does eventually snap free of her lunacy after a second role in the sand with her step-father and rejects Leonora. The film ends in “tragedy” but the characters are so unrelatable that I could not have cared less. The conclusion is not necessarily predictable but not original either.

     Taylor does give a fantastic performance but the character is such a far cry from normalcy it does not really shake me. Secret Ceremony (the title for which totally escapes me) came in the middle of her career after a couple Oscar wins and the star’s establishment as an international glamor icon. Farrow, who was 23 but similar to her character easily played a adolescent, was in only her third role, with Cenci coming before the also creepy Rosemary and Sarah in the previously reviewed See No Evil.

     I did some searching online to try to find an explanation for this dreadful nightmare of a movie, but did not come up with much besides the reviews being mixed, with positive remarks referencing Taylor’s performance. If anyone can shed some light on this and perhaps settle the angst I have suffered, please do.

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Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Wowza!

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

     I am generally drawn to movies based on dramatic plays (provided the films are considered good) and am a big fan of adaptations of Tennessee Williams’ works. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is an Edward Albee piece that certainly rocks the decency boat, Elizabeth Taylor‘s image and the viewer right out of his seat. It won five Academy Awards including Best Actress for Taylor and Best Supporting Actress for Sandy Dennis.

     Taylor was in her early thirties when she took on the role of 50-something Martha whose course tongue and violent alcoholism produce an image more resembling the crazy Taylor we expect today than the sex symbol she was in 1966. Taylor took quite the leap of faith in pursuing the role that filmmakers saw as more suited to the likes of Bette Davis. The risk paid off, however, as Taylor showed the world she was capable of more than just good looks and a charming personality.

     The plot follows a married couple comprised of Richard Burton‘s academic George and his wife, Martha, daughter of the college president. Taylor’s character invites a young couple new at the school to a 2 a.m. meet-and-drink at their home in the midst of what the viewer is left to assume is commonplace verbal battle between the primary couple. The language is harsh by 1966 standards but goes to lengths to stay true to the play. Terms such as “god damn you” and “monkey nipples” abound and add to the tense circumstances.

     The first 45 minutes of the movie are non-stop shouting between Taylor and Burton, much of which occurs once the guests have arrived. Drinks continue to be poured and Taylor puts on a show for the young pair, paying little attention to their interest in conversation but having the time of her life expounding on the shortcoming of her husband. As far as the guests are concerned, I cannot foresee why they did not escape the situation early on. Insistence that they stay and alcohol might be to blame, but if I had been in the same position I would have left 10 minutes in. The chaos does eventually subside when Dennis’ character becomes ill. From there forward the caustic terms continue but in lower tones as Martha proceeds to seduce the young man (George Segal).

     The story also contains some mystery as to the shame linked to Martha and George’s teenage son, the revelation of which brings the end of the dark night, the young couple’s visit and the film. The closing shot is a tender one between Taylor and Burton, but the viewer is left in limbo as far as what lies ahead for the couple.

     I do not think if the entire picture had paralleled the first heated portion I would have liked Virginia Woolf? so well. No one enjoys being party to an intimate quarrel, so to witness the flagrant disrespect among spouses herein is uncomfortable. The reason to watch this film, however, is not so much the story as the performances and dialogue. I have often noted that a movie can be identified as an adaptation of a stage play by the dialogue. Movies like this and Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night are heavy on conversation that is artistically written. I suppose that set up is not for everyone, but I revel in it. To see Taylor at her best, you must watch Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? which is why it receives my first, full-length Wowza! review.

Life with Father

Ring a Ding Ding

Life with Father (1947)

     I never thought I would see the day when I could dislike William Powell. The star of such great comedies as My Man Godfrey and the Thin Man movies could never be an outright asshole, or so I thought. In Life with Father Powell’s persona as the head of family is revealed in full before we ever see the man. The start of the film is seen from the perspective of a new maid in the 1880s homestead whose nerves at pleasing the specter of father, Clar(ence) Day, lead to a variety of comical bumblings and her quick departure from employment.

     I had a difficult start with Life with Father because Powell’s character is so off-putting as a man who has to have everything his way and be in control of all circumstances within the home and without. Add to that the dreadful red hair and mustache and you have just about lost me. That is until I realize what is going on has less to do with father and more to do with Irene Dunne‘s mother figure. It might take the viewer a time to discover whether Vinnie Day is a ditz who cannot seem to keep track of the money she spends or a clever woman who knows just how to manipulate her husband to keep him from destroying their happy family.

     A particularly enjoyable moment comes when Dunne explains to her husband that because their son returned a $15 pug statuette to the store and brought home a $15 suit, that none of his money was actually spent. While Powell insists that he either paid for the pug or the suit, Dunne assures him he could not have paid for the pug because they do not have it, and he could not have paid for the suit because it was gained by exchange of the pug. The conversation is nonsense, but Dunne plays it off with an almost air-headed reasoning that somehow soothes her husband to quiet.

     Also in the picture is an adolescent Elizabeth Taylor, who plays a love interest for the eldest son, Clarence Jr. Because he shares a name with his father, a comedic thread works its way through the plot wherein Powell continually accepts the boy’s mail as his own. He is bewildered by a letter from a female he does not know who purports to have sat on his lap. Powell’s blood pressure rises at the accusations while the son prods him to continue reading, playing dumb to the letter being his.

     I was drawn to Life with Father because of the pairing of Powell and Dunne, both great comedic actors. Although I was not convinced of it at first, I was surely rewarded for my faith in their talents.

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