“So enough of films. This was prompted by my excitement about ‘XYZ’ [that it] will be a ‘big one’ for E [Elizabeth Taylor]. By talk of distinction and by talk of Oscars. I know she is brilliant in the film and I know the film is good but I thought almost as highly of ‘Boom!’ and that went BOOM.” – Richard Burton, ‘The Richard Burton Diaries’”
This piece contains heavy spoilers – be warned. Boom!
Liz and Losey. The dreams the two must have had. At least in 1967, 1968. Not in the aspirational sense (though they, actress Elizabeth Taylor and director Joseph Losey, had those of course – aspirations) but in the sleeping-hallucinatory-fanciful sense. The living of one’s life half as fantasia, half in reality. Not insanity, not entirely on a cloud – but in dreams – and, yet, dreams that are… honest, sometimes even brutal. To them. Asleep in bed dreams, drugged out in the hospital dreams, wide-awake dreams, drunken dreams, dreams inspired by decadent décor, jewels, headdresses, caftans, elaborate abodes, hallucinatory dialogue, trays of food, hair, wigs, makeup, mirrors, witches (of Capri), wild-eyed child/women/Mia Farrow, samurai swords, the sea, the sounds of the sea. The sound of … Boom! Their dreams – I am just speculating and creating my own fantasy and we won’t ever really know. A Secret Ceremony, indeed.
With their two films released in 1968 – Boom! and Secret Ceremony – I, again, can’t help but wonder about Taylor and Losey’s dreams. Not, just, what were they thinking (as some might ask – for both films are often met with such bafflement or derision or, of course, mystified love – money was part of it, if you do ask, as was art, which both movies aspire to and succeed at – I don’t care how bad some think either are – I love these films) – but what were they dreaming while conjuring these movies?
These grand, decadent, perverse, and very lonely stories about lonely women living in big lonely homes facing loss and grief and trauma and inebriation and possible insanity and death. Losey had great success with Pinter, but in Boom! (based on the play The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore by Tennessee Williams) and Secret Ceremony (adapted from the story by the Argentine writer Marco Denevi, by screenwriter George Tabori), I thought, via esteemed film historian and author Foster Hirsch, of Pirandello, (Hirsch discussed Secret Ceremony as such, writing, “In its Pirandellian oppositions between appearance and reality, the story palpitates with fashionable modernist themes, but the parade of intellectual motifs has less substance than show…. Losey at his most pretentious.”). I wonder what Pirandello would think of these films? As Pirandello said:
“I think that life is a very sad piece of buffoonery; because we have in ourselves, without being able to know why, wherefore or whence, the need to deceive ourselves constantly by creating a reality (one for each and never the same for all), which from time to time is discovered to be vain and illusory . . . My art is full of bitter compassion for all those who deceive themselves, but this compassion cannot fail to be followed by the ferocious derision of destiny, which condemns man to deception.”
There is a “bitter compassion” to these films, a creating of a reality that may be illusory, by way of Losey and Taylor. Not an easy compassion, not a sweet understanding – a simultaneous delusion and honesty (it’s possible – and these two manage it – and it’s too odd to be merely pretentious, I think, or I don’t mind that either films could be considered pretentious – I’m still working this out). With that, there is a raw vulgarity within the pictures that is, indeed, brave – especially on the part of Elizabeth Taylor who is unafraid of appearing unlikable. Or unrelatable (oh, stars, they are just like us!). And, yet, she hollers, she moans, she even, in Secret Ceremony, belches. It’s a unique mixture of glamour and uncouthness that still feels refreshing (have I seen any other beautiful movie star act like this? And in such a natural, not trying-to-be-gross-or-funny way? To my mind, no).
Still a movie star in the late 1960s, always a hot news item (she and Richard Burton stalked by paparazzi, still, post-Cleopatra), but an actress allowing audiences to see something darker inside that decadence, sadder, meaner, hilarious too, and to some, fading (though she’s gorgeous – critics were sometimes cruelly remarking about her weight creeping up on her – she looks staggeringly beautiful in both films). She is glamorous times ten, and yet, profoundly human.
Taylor, even if she didn’t write either movie, knew the jabs against her, and seemingly took them on – even on film. At one point in Secret Ceremony Robert Mitchum’s terrible Albert (Mitchum is a scary force – mightily creepy here), calls her something bovine: “You don’t look like my late wife at all,” he says, “She was well-bred and rather frail… you look more like a cow… Oh, no offense,” he continues, “I’m very fond of cows.” And then he moos. How awful. We shudder on behalf of her character, sitting on a picnic blanket in her brightly patterned dress enduring this (and much more when Mitchum’s character really let’s go with his repulsive talk), and we shudder on behalf of Taylor. And then we applaud her for taking that line in stride. And she often did. She would poke fun of herself in real life too – or at least comment on how people seem so stupidly obsessed with her weight. As Peter Travers wrote of Taylor, when she passed away in 2011:
“Nearly two decades ago, I enjoyed lunch with Taylor at a Manhattan restaurant where the stares of accompanying diners would have thrown a tower of lesser strength. ‘They just want to see how fat I’ve gotten,’ laughed Taylor, lifting one untoned bare arm for all to see. Taylor howled at their shocked reaction.”
My god, how can you not love her?
But it must have hurt at times. This meanness towards her figure, as if, “How dare this beautiful woman pack on a few pounds! How dare she!” It did concern her health-wise (later on in her life she discussed her loneliness and weight gain with Elizabeth Takes Off, though she was worried about more than just her weight: ”’I was almost 50 when for the first time in my life I lost my sense of self-worth,’ she writes of her ‘gluttonous rampage.’ She was lonely and bored; she felt that her husband, John W. Warner, a Republican Senator from Virginia, didn’t need her.”) But you still hear that kind of “How dare she!” Again, I love that she howled at people staring. How dare they!
But back to Mitchum and that mean moo – it’s nothing like Noël Coward’s Witch of Capri in Boom! who calls for Taylor’s Sissy Goforth with a friendly, though bizarre birdlike “Yoo-Hooo-hoo!” and she answers back the same. (In real life Coward adored Taylor, more on that later), but both movies like to hear men emit animal-like sounds – it’s off-putting and nasty in Mitchum’s character’s case and sweet and then obnoxious in Coward’s (when his character is plastered – you can see why Taylor’s character begins to grow tired of him) and… it’s quite … something.
Well, the movies are, for lack of better words … quite something.
Boom! is often referred to as terrible, or so terrible it’s wonderful, or as John Waters (who famously loves it and has shown it around the world) said to me in an interview for Sight & Sound: “It’s so great and then so awful. So that means it’s perfect, really.” It is perfect, really. Whenever I watch it, I think of it being made in a different way and I think… no. It has to be THIS. So, yes, perfect.
Secret Ceremony offers more weird, gloomy perplexity to viewers over the sumptuous spectacle of Boom! (which provides more joy, in spite of its heroine dying) but it was also often considered a misfire too (particularly in the States at the time – a double dose of bombs via Liz & Losey). Though many take Secret Ceremony much more seriously than Boom! and consider it either an excellent Losey film, or at least a very interesting one, worthy of study and discussion (Indicator came out with a Blu-ray giving the film the respect it deserves), it’s still a curio to viewers. At the time, however, some did value the picture. Renata Adler said positive things. She wrote in the New York Times:
‘[‘Secret Ceremony’ is] Joseph Losey’s best film in years—incomparably better than ‘Accident.’ The opulent, lacquered decadence works well this time, with Mia Farrow as a rich, mad orphan, whose mother Elizabeth Taylor pretends to be and, in effect, becomes. Robert Mitchum is good as Miss Farrow’s stepfather, in a relationship as violent and complicated as relationships in movies like ‘Accident’ and ‘Reflections in a Golden Eye’ tend to be. The lines are spoken so slowly, with such long pauses in between (it is as though a speech guidance drama class were reciting immortal iambic pentameters) that one thinks for a time that all this affectation is going to be unbearable. But there is something not at all arbitrary and far-out at the heart this time, with people – essentially confidence men – drawn into the frank needs of the insane, until their confidence roles become a personal truth about them.”
Wisconsin-born Losey, who directed, among other excellent pictures, The Boy with Green Hair, The Prowler, The Big Night, M, The Criminal, Accident, The Go-Between, Eva, These Are the Damned, The Servant, and more, was blacklisted during the very year his incredible, powerful remake of Fritz Lang’s M was released. HUAC target Losey would leave the country instead of naming names for that ghastly, career-destroying committee. He moved to Europe and become one of the more interesting, daring, and unique filmmakers of the 1960s (there are a lot of informative, deep-dive studies on Losey – essays, books – Tom Milne’s Losey on Losey is a great, earlier one – published in 1967 – as is James Palmer and Michael Riley’s The Films of Joseph Losey, published in 1993, to name a few). The great Losey is a fascinating director to dig into – and I include Boom! and Secret Ceremony – most certainly as something to really dig into – and both, like all of his work, even his flawed work, exceptionally interesting.
In fact, Boom! and Secret Ceremony are, to me – I can’t use the word bad. And I won’t – because I don’t think either are bad. Many would likely agree with me regarding Secret Ceremony but would draw the line with Boom! – even if they love it – but in the case of Boom! I feel like it’s too otherworldly, too its own unique creature to be bad or terrible or the worst. And often well-written. Good seems too simple a word but… it’s not just good, it’s grand.
Both pictures are unforgettable. Eminently watchable. Weirdly wonderful.
And in many cases, touching and thoughtful. By the end of both movies, I find myself moved. For Taylor’s character and her pain and injections and rejection of death (even chucking that X-ray machine off the cliff – did I get that right? An X-ray machine? Whatever it is, she doesn’t want to see that – I get that), for poor, traumatized Mia Farrow’s character and those rows of pills she will swallow only to call out to her mama (who isn’t Taylor but has finally become, here, her sole protector, her real mother), for Richard Burton’s Angel of Death dropping of the ring in the glass and thrusting it into the ocean (it’s a beautiful moment). And then I extend being moved to the real-life characters behind the camera – to Tennessee Williams and to Joseph Losey for making these movies in the first place.
As I read in David Caute’s Joseph Losey: A Revenge on Life, Losey, feeling defensive and hurt, wrote to Tennessee Williams of Boom!: “I’m appalled for all of us, but particularly for you, by the scurrilous, ignorant and personalized reviews which I’ve seen … I am struck by the fact that the ‘critics’ seem determined to destroy successes and idols that they have built up – namely the Burtons, you and me.”
Those who find Boom! dreadful likely see this as Losey not taking responsibility and just lashing out at critics – they don’t get it! – that kind of response. And I can see that point because it’s a hard movie to get. Williams liked the movie and considered it the best adaptation of his work (hey, are we going to argue with Tennessee Williams on this?) Of this, John Waters said: “And Tennessee Williams did say … that it was the best movie ever made from his work, and I think maybe I, and Tennessee are the only people who agree with it…”
And yet, watching Boom!, to basically live in its odd tone and intent, to drink in the scenery and costumes, and to watch and listen to Taylor and Burton, I do wonder how they (the filmmakers) would consider the cult-embracing of the picture now (Williams died in 1983, Losey in 1984, Burton in 1984). There are plenty of people who maybe don’t get it (and many who probably do – or in their own way) but they love it regardless. Taylor, for one, heard about the love.
Film critic and author Alonso Duralde, an earlier champion of Boom! (we must thank our champions who are instrumental in spreading the word and finding these movies, helping them to get properly released, so Boom! fans, thank Mr. Duralde) tracked down a print and showed it at the USA Film Festival in 1995 in Dallas, Texas (Duralde was artistic director for five years there). He had John Waters introduce the picture (what a night that must have been). Duralde said in his fascinating featurette on the Boom! Blu-ray release (from Shout Select – which also features commentary by Waters) that Elizabeth Taylor was actually in town that night – at a department store promoting her perfume (!). They tried to get her to come but, to no avail. However, according to Duralde, she was asked about the showing, and said something like: “I hope they had a good laugh.” Oh, Ms. Taylor.
In an interview with Vice, John Waters said that he met Elizabeth Taylor once and told her how much he loved Boom! Waters continued:
“…And she got real mad and shouted, ‘That’s a terrible movie!’ And I said ‘It isn’t! I love that movie! I tour with it at festivals!’ Then she realized I was serious. Because it is a great movie. I feel like if you don’t agree with that I hate you. If you don’t like ‘Boom!’ I could never be your friend. Right now, I live by the water and every time I see a wave hit a rock, I shout, ‘Boom!’ like Richard Burton.”
The full quote of Burton from the picture is: “Boom. The shock of each moment of still being alive.” Well, it’s not a bad line, I don’t think. He says “Boom” again – and Taylor says it back to him at one point (of course, this seems so underscored since it became the title of the picture). In her character’s case, there is a shock, perhaps, of still being alive, and, I suppose, a strange celebration of still being alive, so why not make something of this whenever you can? Why not say “Boom?”
While making Boom! Richard Burton wrote in his diaries:
“E [Elizabeth Taylor] and N. [Noël] Coward are madly in love with each other, particularly he with her. He thinks her most beautiful which she is, and a magnificent actress which she also is. We all saw rushes [of ‘Boom!’] and some assemblage last night. It looks perverse and interesting. I think we are due for another success particularly E. I was worried about her being too young but it doesn’t seem to matter at all.”
Boom! was, at first, not a movie to star Elizabeth Taylor or Richard Burton. Taylor’s character, Flora “Sissy” Goforth, the millionaire multiple widower ruling over her elaborate, gorgeous, guarded compound on an isolated island in Italy was much older, and dying – around 75-years-old in fact. Taylor was 35-years-old, and though she’s still playing a dying woman, she looked healthy. But what does that mean? Looking healthy? She is so convincing in the movie that she doesn’t sound healthy, so no matter of how she looks. And, Taylor, in real life, had been near death a few times before this. She nearly died of pneumonia during Cleopatra. I also recall a photo of her with Burton – around 1973 – being wheeled in a fur coat (I am not making light of this – the woman was often ill – and likely needed a nice wrap).
Anyway, as Burton said, her age doesn’t matter at all since the movie works on a symbolic/surrealist/artistic level, and this is how one looks (or rather, how Elizabeth Taylor looks) and dresses when one is sick. I sure would if I could – in gowns designed by Tiziani of Rome – with help by Karl Lagerfeld. It is not a surprise then, that the picture is also a fascination for those in the fashion world. As Amy Spindler wrote (in 2001) of Boom! for the New York Times Magazine:
“The film was all André Leon Talley, the Vogue editor, wanted for Christmas. Anna Sui and Marc Jacobs had told him about it while dining at Mr. Chow’s. Cathy Horyn, the New York Times fashion critic, tracked him down a copy. Anne Fahey, the public relations director of Chanel, also helped join in the search… Let’s call it free-associative filmmaking. It’s all Mediterranean-Gehry architecture accented with key pieces of the era, like the Arco lamp by Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni. And there are hints of Calder and Chagall and even Easter Island sculptures — although ‘Boom!’ was filmed in Sardinia. And while the Roman couture Taylor wears certainly looks like her own by Valentino (the huge rock on her finger and the Shih Tzu running around look like her own, as well), it is credited to an atelier called Tiziani of Rome. Talley called a few days ago to say that while he was expounding on the virtues of ‘Boom!’ to Karl Lagerfeld, the designer said he had a hand in the costume designs. He was working for Tiziani at the time. Alexandre of Paris did Taylor’s hair. Bulgari supplied her jewels.”
There are many reasons to admire Boom! but the very idea of an inspired André Leon Talley talking to Karl Lagerfeld to discuss the picture and then Lagerfeld just dropping an, “Oh, yes, I helped design the costumes” (I imagine this dropped very casually – I have no idea – I just like thinking it this way)… and after seeing those fantastic costumes… how can you dismiss such a movie? I mean, on design alone, it’s worth watching.
So, Taylor – fine. Great. She’s perfect. Cast correctly – never mind her age. Who else could wear that Kabuki-inspired costume and elaborate headdress with such ease? She even removes it – likely annoyed by its weight – and even that seems like, “Sure, place that thing anywhere. Tiziani and Lagerfeld can make another one.” She didn’t say that, but that just occurs to me…many things do when I watch Boom!
And then there’s Burton’s character – poet Chris Flanders/The Angel of Death who was younger in the play than Burton (Burton was 42 at this point – not old, but older than Taylor – obviously this had to just work differently). Burton’s voice is brought up in the movie – his voice as a seductive force. And it is. Watching him saunter around Sissy’s property in the samurai robe and carrying a samurai sword (the outfit belonged to one of Sissy’s dead husbands – and is sent down to his quarters after dogs nearly rip him to shreds) should feel ridiculous, and it is, I think, a bit on purpose. But it becomes as natural as her extravagant attire. Also he appears to like wearing that outfit – for, presumably, the way it compliments his strides, the way it looks cool in the air, the way he looks rather handsome in it, and for the sword, surely an easy indicator of Freudian phallic armament, or an instrument of divine justice, like an arch-angel. Perhaps some viewers wish he were the younger stud, but I find his handsome, world-weariness befitting in this dreamscape. He’s seductive, he’s compelling, he certainly never appears bored. And he and Taylor – they do have chemistry – even when she’s yelling at him. Especially when she’s yelling at him.
Tennessee Williams, who had put on the play twice – first in 1963 with Hermione Baddeley and Paul Roebling, then in 1964 with Tallulah Bankhead and Tab Hunter (both times the play didn’t fare well, receiving mostly bad reviews), was thinking, for film, more of Simone Signoret and Sean Connery. Losey, later, wanted Ingrid Bergman and James Fox. According to Sam Kashner’s and Nancy Schoenberger Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and the Marriage of the Century: “Bergman had turned down the role as too vulgar (‘I can’t say the word ‘bugger’ without blushing,” she’d told the director).” Another who famously turned down a part was Katharine Hepburn for “The Witch of Capri” (the part was originally written for and played by a woman) – Hepburn was reportedly insulted by the offer. In a bolder choice of casting, Noël Coward was offered the part and agreed (according to Caute’s Losey biography, Dirk Bogarde was asked first and said, “No, thank you!”), and the gender of the character changed.
And so, went the shoot, which is a story in itself… and then the story. How to describe? Flora “Sissy” Goforth (Taylor) is, as stated, a dying multiple widow/millionaire recluse, who has, rather symbolically, taken refuge on an island of her own. She’s living there, like a mythic, capricious creature with a coterie of servants tending to her, both visible and almost invisible. Her head of security is Rudi, a little person with a gun (played by Michael Dunn), and she recites her memoirs to her secretary, Miss Black (Joanna Shimkus), or “Blackie,” as Sissy calls her. It is upon this island that a dark stranger/poet arrives, or rather, trespasses, invades – both seductive and aloof (and hungry – it takes quite some time for Sissy to order him some food – she instead, drinks a lot. And takes pills. And yells for injections). This man that might be death itself, as indicated by his nickname “The Angel of Death” (Coward’s Witch of Capri fills Sissy in on the grim details of the women this Chris Flanders has visited before her).
What follows is a game of seduction and finality, a stylized game of wit, caprice and carnality as Burton talks much, and in his way, coaxes Taylor into accepting the possibility of death. She has been pushing it away -who wants to think of that – and would like death on her own terms (who wouldn’t) – and is generally in a foul mood as she recollects her past. Well, she’s not feeling well. She hollers at her doctor, her servants and Blackie – she hollers at the sky. One of the most incredible moments comes when Sissy orders her morning needs:
“Now tell them to bring the table over here, so I can put my chair in the shadow when I want it in the shadow. My skin’s too delicate to be in the sun for more than half-hour intervals. Now tell them what I want put on the table: a cold bottle of mineral water, suntan lotion, cigarettes, codeine tab, a bucket of ice, a glass, a bottle of brandy, my newspapers. The Paris Trib, The Rome Daily American, The Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Daily Express.”
This provokes laughter for being so … demanding of course, and then for being delivered with such unhinged anger and brashness on Sissy’s part. It continues when she notices the mobile Burton’s poet has made (Sissy has yet to meet him – he’s down in the guest quarters) and asks Blackie, “What’s that goddamned thing?” When Blackie informs her it’s a mobile to give to Sissy, she says to her, “Does he seem like some kind of a nut case to you?” (I think that’s a very good question, frankly.) It continues on with Sissy: “Help me up, will you? The sun’s making me dizzy. Oh… God damn, you… broke the skin with my ring!”
I mean, everything, everything is wrong and annoying to Sissy. But people do act like this – I guess seeing it on screen and with such poetry – it’s wonderfully discombobulating.
Sissy is walking back into the house/compound and demands, “Bring a telex report out to me.” She then bumps into a servant with a tray and furious, yells the movie’s most famous insult: “Shit on your mother!”
(Try not yelling that after seeing this movie. Try. You won’t be able to resist.)
Sissy continues damning the world with: “God damn it, I’ll sign myself into a criminal institution!”
When she finally meets up with Burton’s Chris – the power play between the earthly and the eternal, the perishable and the sublime, is enacted by all characters in hyperbolic and, occasionally, moving ways. Burton’s Angel of Death (whom we are constantly befuddled by – is he evil? He’s not good, necessarily. What the hell is he?) takes from Goforth what one might presume to be her earthly vanity and power – he removes/steals her jewels. He speaks a beautiful, succinct parable – perhaps one of the best monologues in the film – and tosses her diamond-studded gems to the everlasting tide and the crashing waves below: Boom!
There’s so much to discuss and discover with Boom! (the wonderful music is one – by John Barry), the gorgeous cinematography by Douglas Slocombe, the costumes (as stated earlier), and the dialogue – both overwrought and weirdly beautiful- but also, funny. There’s an exchange between Chris and Sissy that I just think had to be funny. As Chris, with that gorgeous Burton theatrical lilt, recites Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan, a stately pleasure-dome decree. Where Alph, the sacred river, ran through caverns measureless to man down to a sunless sea.” Taylor’s Sissy simply exclaims, befuddled or perhaps making fun of him, her voice rising:
I think many understand that question. But to some of us – in a glorious way – we want to figure out, at least some, not entirely, some of that … “WhaaAAAT?” Which brings us over and over again to Boom!
Thinking they had something interesting on their hands (they did!) and a possible hit (alas, not a hit – at all), Elizabeth Taylor thought it would be good to work with Losey again. From Caute’s Losey biography:
“Late in 1967, while in Rome dubbing ‘Boom!’, Losey was with the Burtons in the Grand Hotel when Elizabeth Taylor remarked (it is said), ‘Why don’t we do something again?’ No more inclined than Winnie the Pooh to remove his head from the honey pot, Losey remembered a script by George Tabori originally written for, and turned down by, Ingrid Bergman. For Losey and his flamboyant designer Richard Macdonald, ‘Secret Ceremony’ was to be the second décor-riot of the ‘time of the Burtons.’ [Producer] John Heyman’s role was to raise the money and assemble the cast: ‘I was the shoehorn,’ he says. Universal put up the cash – several months before ‘Boom!’ hit the rocks.”
That Taylor was intrigued by such challenging, strange material – and that she used her star power to, essentially, help Losey get these odd movies made is to her credit – so the Boom! / Secret Ceremony double dose of 1968 makes that year in movies most intriguing to me. It should be appreciated.
The great award-winning screenwriter, director, producer and ultimate cineaste Larry Karaszewski (he of the classic Ed Wood, Man on the Moon, The People vs. Larry Flynt, Big Eyes and one of this year’s best movies – Dolemite is My Name) has discussed his appreciation for Secret Ceremony on Trailers from Hell. I love how he describes this period of Taylor, who was, at one point, the most famous woman on the planet – both as a movie star and as a tabloid queen, thanks to her infamous marriage to Eddie Fisher (who was before married to Debbie Reynolds), winning an Oscar for Butterfield 8 and then dumping Fisher for her highly publicized affair with Burton on the set of the grandly expensive Cleopatra (a whole other story – and one I wrote about, in part, in regards to Walter Wanger’s (with Joe Hyams) My Life with Cleopatra: The Making of a Hollywood Classic for the Los Angeles Review of Books), and their marriage. And then, acting opposite Burton, she won her second Oscar (for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in which she is indeed brilliant) – she’s a movie star, a serious actress and a source of never-ending public fascination. But as Karaszewski says:
“… And, bam! Something changed, and she never quite made another good movie again. She became some sort of alcoholic celebrity monster, so famous that she couldn’t really play normal, and the pictures she chose to appear in are some of the oddest movies ever made. They’re almost their own genre – weird and depressing …”
He cites Secret Ceremony, the trailer and movie he digs into, as one of them.
And he’s right – it’s a depressing movie. Much sadder, and in many ways, much darker than Boom! If Boom! has sunlight and sea and Richard Burton’s lulling voice to carry you to death, Secret Ceremony has grey skies, construction sites and sad public buses (terrific cinematography by Gerry Fisher), a sick-o, somewhat terrifying Robert Mitchum (who is fantastic here), and sad Mia Farrow hollering, in death, alone in a house for any kind of mother she will ever have. Though Sissy must face death in Boom!, she’s at least able to breathe in the air, gaze at the ocean, be mindful of a cliff without balustrade: “I’m frankly scared of a cliff without a balustrade…” (after Boom! that has become a forever favorite word for me – balustrade). In Secret Ceremony, Taylor’s character is left on a sad little bed by the end, reciting a fable.
But there is glamour here, on the part of Taylor, as her costumes are splendid, and seem to grow more beautiful and intriguing as the movie goes on. The controversial Camille Paglia discussed Secret Ceremony in Penthouse, in 1992, and she highlights just how powerful a screen presence Taylor was:
“One of the most spectacular moments of my movie-going career occurred in college as I watched Joseph Losey’s bizarre ‘Secret Ceremony’ (1968). Halfway through the film, inexplicably and without warning, Elizabeth Taylor in a violet velvet suit and turban suddenly walks across the screen in front of a wall of sea-green tiles. It is an overcast London day; the steel-grey light makes the violet and green iridescent. This is Elizabeth Taylor at her most vibrant, mysterious and alluring at the peak of her mature fleshy glamour. I happened to be sitting with a male friend, one of the gay aesthetes who had such a profound impact on my imagination. We both cried out at the same time, alarming other theatregoers. This vivid silent tableau is, for me, one of the classic scenes in the history of cinema.”
And there are parallels between the two movies. In keeping with Losey’s idea of edifices acting as surrogates for the human mind, in Secret Ceremony, two women are thrown together by fate into a striking, decadent mansion in London (another house as character as in Boom! – another stranger entering the house and undergoing power plays). One, Leonora (Elizabeth Taylor), first clad in black, is a religious lady, but a lady of the night who has lost a daughter and seems to be repulsed by the brutality of men – probably for good reason. Watching her remove a long blonde wig at the beginning of the picture and vigorously washing her face in the mirror seems to speak of an alternate reality – or a role playing – she’s furiously scrubbing away – at that moment. The other one, Cenci (a wild-eyed Mia Farrow – cast right before Rosemary’s Baby was released and a huge hit – according to Caute’s biography, Losey, as yet, had only seen her on Peyton Place) is a daughter who has lost a mother and roams aimlessly, at the mercy of scavengers. She, with her long black hair (the long dark hair to Leonora’s long blonde wig from the beginning) spies Leonora on the city bus, Leonora’s dark hair wrapped up in a black scarf and … she just thinks … that’s her mother. Her dead mother. Both women wear black – and watching Farrow’s Cenci follow Taylor’s Leonora is haunting – as if the two are going to merge at one point – there’s already mirroring going on here and the movie holds our interest, right away.
Cenci is a stunted child – her age defined in her twenties but enacted as if she was prepubescent. Farrow is quite good enacting trauma here – sexual trauma – and her scenes that are deemed possibly seductive with Taylor could be read in myriad ways – lovingly needing a mother, needing maternal touch, acting out her own abuse, or childlike, confused – or all of it. She is certainly not well; she is certainly traumatized – her problems are deep. At one point she feigns pregnancy with a stuffed thing under her dresses.
Both Cenci and her mother’s fortune seem entirely unguarded and vulnerable, which really underscores the power of this movie – just how vulnerable both Cenci and Leonora are – in their grief, in their station in life, and in their dealing with predators. And the automatons Cenci plays with – seen so often in the picture – are characters themselves – sometimes tinkling with music box tunes, sometimes simulating movement, but not truly alive. As if these have been the only friends Cenci has ever had. The only things she can trust.
And, so, a psychodrama starts to develop between Cenci and Leonora who is a facsimile of her dead mother – and, in many ways, Cenci herself. What’s so moving, is, after Leonora enters the grand home (and of course helps herself to Cenci’s deceased mother’s fabulous clothes and a gorgeous white fur coat), bit by bit she grows protective of this woman/child and projects so much upon the young, odd woman, as if by saving her, she can save herself, and regain the grace lost with the death of her daughter. The vulgar, dirty world, which encircles the mansion (in real life Debenham House, a fabulous convolution of architectural styles in West Kensington), invades the power play between the women – an ambiguous role-playing ceremony that tries imposture as a way to reach real healing. You play my mother; I play your daughter… maybe we can save each other?
But even more darkness descends with Albert (Cenci’s stepfather, played by Mitchum), who insinuates himself, perversely with his flowers – and then in an abusive, invading manner – becoming the catalyst for tragedy. There’s also Cenci’s two vermin-like antiquarian aunts who scavenge routinely the diminishing splendor of the desolate mansion—it’s touching when Leonora sticks up for Cenci to these women – women who seem to laugh off the perversions of Albert, as if Cenci should know better. Leonora says, aghast: “But Cenci’s still a child!” One aunt says, “Cenci a child?” And the other states that Cenci is 22-years-old. Old enough they are saying. Never mind this is her stepfather taking advantage of a damaged young woman. Leonora says, “Well, she’ll always be a baby to me.” And then one aunt says, rather ominously, “Crazy people never look their age.”
Cenci has gone crazy – from grief and abuse by the hands of Albert, who has been violating Cenci for – we don’t even know how long – and from who knows what else. Leonora yells at Albert: “You dirty bastard! You raped her!” He then laughs, “I couldn’t rape a randy elephant. I’m much too tentative. I need encouragement. And I loved her. I always loved her…I make her feel like a woman. What do you make her feel like? A retarded zombie?” Defiant, she says “I tried to protect her from…” Albert cuts her off, calling her a “mysterious bitch,” and, again, a “cow” and tells her to leave Cenci … with him. Leonora wants to continue protecting her (quite understandably). Later that night, however, Leonora forcefully pulls the fake baby out of Cenci’s clothes – and Cenci, upset, will order her out. “Why are you wearing my mother’s clothes?” Cenci asks. ‘Get out.”
The world and its dark desires prove too much for Cenci’s fragile mind, and she – in a complex scene (lining up pills, treating a visiting Leonora like a servant until she, in dying breath is calling for her again, as a mother – only it’s too late) – commits suicide.
And then… in a startling moment – Leonora – grieving another daughter – will kill Albert in a bizarre, but beautifully offhand manner. You don’t expect it. But the revenge is not so sweet – you get the feeling Leonora will never be the same (well, what is the same to her?), that she’ll never be “healed,” and yet, she may endure. In the final scene, she recites out loud a fable (about the two little mice who fell into a bucket of milk) – and, I suppose, she’s holding on to the merits of resilience and will. But she almost seems to be talking in her sleep.
The ending works wonderfully because, truly, watching this movie feels like a dream one had. A nightmare. And even describing it – I had to search – am I right? Am I remembering this correctly? I could very well not be.
Again, it’s a sad movie, and it’s worth noting that making the movie was hard on Taylor – she was in physical pain. As discussed in Kashner and Schoenberger’s Furious Love:
“Halfway through filming [‘Secret Ceremony’], Elizabeth could no longer work through her constant visceral pain. After a series of tests, Elizabeth was admitted to a London hospital for a hysterectomy. ‘Elizabeth had her uterus removed on Sunday morning. The operation began at 9:30 and ended at 1:00,’ Burton wrote in his diary, marking some of the most awful days of his life… ‘There was nothing before,’ he wrote when she was finally out of danger and recovering at home, ‘no shame inflicted or received, no injustice done to me, no disappointment professional or private that I could not think away…But this is the first time where I’ve seen a loved one in screaming agony for two days, hallucinated by drugs, sometimes knowing who I was and sometimes not, a virago one minute, an angel the next, and felt completely helpless.”
Secret Ceremony was released to mostly bad reviews (as stated, Renata Adler was kind, as was The Guardian) – still, Taylor, again, to her credit, continued to take on challenging roles, bizarre roles, and do so glamorously, even if critics began taking her apart – her acting, her looks – she was still her own creature, and, as Karaszewski astutely said, making movies that were something like their own genre.
As Walter Wanger wrote of Taylor in My Life with Cleopatra, “It is not a far stretch of the imagination to compare Elizabeth with Cleopatra. She has the intelligence and temperament of the Egyptian Queen — and she has the honesty and directness that characterize all big people.”
As I wrote of her in regard to Wanger’s observation – in Boom! and, I will add now, in Secret Ceremony, Taylor showed us the dark side of excess, the desperation of love, and the disillusionment of lust and she is … fantastic. It is real, it is a dream. Liz & Losey – we don’t know their dreams but with these two pictures, here is the “the honesty and directness that characterize all big people.”