Thursday, November 14, 2013


Back before the days of celebrity tweets, 'round-the-clock entertainment networks, and broadcast news programs that deem it essential we know what stage of rehab the celebrity-of-the-month is in before enlightening us on the state of the economy; film fans had to get their Hollywood fix from movie magazines. And of the many periodicals available in 1968: Modern Screen, Photoplay, Movie Mirror, and Silver Screen, to name a fewit was difficult to find one that didn't feature either Elizabeth Taylor or Mia Farrow on its cover. The personal and professional lives of both actresses were hot topics that year, reflecting, conversely, a career on the ascendance (Rosemary’s Baby made Hollywood flower-child, Mia Farrow, into a star at the exact moment her controversial and highly-visible marriage to Frank Sinatra imploded), and a career in decline (after eight films together, the Liz Taylor-Richard Burton magic had begun to pall in the wake of a string of boxoffice flops).
When production began on Secret Ceremony in March of 1968, Rosemary's Baby had yet to be released. With Farrow having only her Peyton Place TV fame and a forgettable role in A Dandy in Aspic (1968) to show for herself, Elizabeth Taylor was the main draw and attraction. Secret Ceremony would reunite Taylor with Joseph Losey, the director of her most recent film...the yet-to-be-released but much anticipated Taylor/Burton opus Boom!; a big-budget adaptation of the little-known Tennessee Williams play The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore
Jump ahead six months and the stardom tables had dramatically turned: Boom! proved to be the bomb its title augured, while Rosemary's Baby, director Roman Polanski’s American film debut, had become a blockbuster hit and launched Mia Farrow as a star of tomorrow.
Advance publicity for Secret Ceremony made extensive use of suggestive (and, in director Losey's opinion, misleading) images of Taylor & Farrow cavorting and bathing together, prompting superficial but boxoffice-baiting comparison to the forthcoming release of the lesbian-themed, The Killing of Sister George 

Overnight, the two queens of the Hollywood tabloid press had become two above-the-title movie stars appearing in the same film. Suddenly, Secret Ceremony, the eccentric, difficult-to-market arthouse vehicle adapted from an obscure short story by Argentinian author Marco Denevi, was a hot property with two very popular stars heading the cast. Posters for the film subsequently beefed up Mia Farrow’s participation, unsubtly alluding to her new-found success wherever it could (“More haunted than in Rosemary’s Baby!” read the ad copy).
I was just 11 years old when Secret Ceremony came out. And still flush with excitement from being caught up in the early throes of a lifetime fascination with Rosemary's Baby, a film I’d seen just a few months earlier. Naturally, I was fairly chomping at the bit at the prospect of seeing Mia Farrow in what looked to be another descent into horror, so, being secure in the belief that the film’s “Intended for Mature Audiences” rating accommodated know-it-all 11½-year-olds, I saw Secret Ceremony the week it opened.
Death & Rebirth
A graveside encounter where the sorrow and guilt of a childless mother (Taylor) conjoin with the forlorn loneliness of a motherless child (Farrow).

As it turns out, the combined marquee value of Taylor and Farrow proved no match for how taken aback '60s audiences were at seeing these two movie magazine divas in a sordid tale involving, as one critic cataloged, "...psychosis, incest, lesbianism, murder, suicide, obscenities...."  Secret Ceremony in spite of its cast, was lambasted by critics and flopped at the boxoffice.
I can't say that I was quite prepared for how "out there" Secret Ceremony was either, butas should come as no surprise to anyone with a preteen in the housethere are few things more precocious (read: pretentious) than an 11-year-old film buff. I saw Secret Ceremony several times in the fall of 1968, and, enjoying it a great deal, convinced myself (if, perhaps, no one else) that I both understood it and had a solid grasp what I was watching. Not so much.
"What do you know about drowning?"
"Ducks don't drown."
When, in later years I revisited the film as an adult, I was surprised to find myself confronted with a movie significantly altered with age. Somehow in the intervening years, Secret Ceremony, a movie I had once thought I'd only liked, had morphed into a film I loved!
An offbeat oddity of a movie that’s as likely to impress some viewers as absurdist camp as readily as others are apt to view it as a deeply disturbing psychological exercise in magic realism; Secret Ceremony is full of motifs and themes that strike me as unimaginably obscure and inaccessible without benefit of a few years’ worth of life experience. In other words, there is no way in hell that my 11-year-old self understood this movie.
Elizabeth Taylor as Leonora Grabowski (I kid you not)
Mia Farrow as Cenci (pronounced Chen-Chee) Englehard
Robert Mitchum as Alfred
While visiting the grave of her ten-year-old daughter who drowned five years prior due to some real or imagined “neglect” on her part, Leonora (Taylor), a London prostitute, finds herself being followed by a strange, child/woman (Farrow) who insists that Leonora is her mother. That the mostly silent girl, named Cenci, recalls to Leonora her own dark-haired, hungry-eyed daughter, she allows herself to be taken to the girl's homea huge, opulent mansion where Cenci resides in solitudeand learns that she herself bears an uncanny resemblance to Cenci’s mother, a woman whose illness and recent death the obviously unbalanced Cenci has failed to accept.
Family Resemblance
Cenci and her late mother, Margaret
Out of delusion, shared loss, mutual need, and subtle self-interest, an unspoken agreement is seized upon; each allows the other to use them as an instrument of atonement for unforgiven past familial transgressions. Leonora blames herself for her daughter's death, Cenci feels guilt for attempting to gain sexual superiority over her mother with Alfred, her stepfather. These feelings are agonizing demons of guilt and regret that can only be exorcized by engaging in cryptic, ritualized ceremonies of reenactment and transference.

What makes Secret Ceremony a film that feels richer and more textured with each viewing is the fact that, in this tenuous psychological merging of damaged souls (which, for all its artifice and deceit, comes from a deeply sincere desire for intimacy), it is not made readily apparent which parties are consciously engaging in delusional role-playing and which are merely incapable of determining reality from fantasy. That “reality” here is presented as a flexible, circular extension of perception (What roles do we all play? Is there a difference between identity and self-perception? What responsibility does one person have to another?), is what makes Secret Ceremony a not very well-regarded film by critics and audiences alikeone of my absolute favorites.
Observing the portrait of Cenci and her mother, Leonora reacts to the dual likeness to herself and her deceased daughter. 

Secret Ceremony is a rarity amongst my list of favorite films inasmuch as it’s a movie I enjoy and admire a great deal, yet I don’t know of a single soul to whom I could recommend it in good conscience. The film is just that weird.
For me, it has Elizabeth Taylor and Mia Farrow giving fascinating, sharper-than-appearances-belie performances to recommend it (they stay true to their dysfunctional characters even at the risk of losing the audience), and the always-intriguing Joseph Losey, whose marvelous films, The Servant, Accident, and The Go-Between reveal the artist’s deft hand at dramatizing offbeat psychological complexities. 
But chiefly, Secret Ceremony appeals to me because it addresses themes I find myself drawn to in film after film. Themes for which I so obviously harbor some kind of aesthetic predisposition, their mere inclusion in a movie’s narrative being enough to blind me to that film’s flaws. 
Secret Ceremonies
As a prelude to their ritualized games of incestuous role-playing, Albert, Cenci's lecherous stepfather, in a mock ceremonial gesture, places a wedding ring on her finger. All of the characters in Secret Ceremony engage in formalized patterns of behavior designed to avoid self-confrontation and purge guilt.

From even a cursory glance at the list of films I've written about on this blog, it’s obvious that I harbor a particular fondness for movies about psychological dysfunction and personality displacement (I don’t even want to think what that means). 3 Women, Images, Dead Ringers, The Maids, That Cold Day in the Park, Vertigo, and Black Swan, are all favorites having something to do with the shifting nature of identity and personality. Each is a melodrama or psychological thriller in which an individual or individuals (usually women) are at the center of a story which uses metaphor and allegory to explore themes of duality, role-playing, identity-theft, loss, longing, insanity, guilt, redemption, and, most significantly for me, the basic human need to connect.

When I saw Secret Ceremony as a preteen, its title struck me as nonsensical. Viewing it now, I discover that one of the things I most appreciate is how  Losey establishes from the outset a recurring motif of ceremony and religious ritual (frequently in solitude or secret, like a confession) that serves to both underscore and emphasize the film’s primary theme: the pain of loss and the passing of evil.
Leonora’s act of immediately removing her identity-concealing blond wig and washing her face after a john leaves her apartment is like a baptism ceremony designed to cleanse and wash away the “sin” of her actions.
As if enacting a passion play, Cenci engages in elaborate, incestuous, rape fantasies that cast her as a victim and absolve her of having to face her own sexual precocity or her repressed feelings of hostility and competitiveness toward her late mother.
Religious imagery and iconography abound. Prayers recited to protect the fearful from harm; lullabies sung to quiet restless souls; and throughout, scenes take place in and around churches and cemeteries, heightened by the death/rebirth symbolism of funerals and baptisms.

Indicative of Secret Ceremony’s all-encompassing strangeness is the fact that, even as I write (in all seriousness) about what a provocative and arresting film I consider it to be, I’m also fully aware and understand why for some it has become something of a camp classic of bad cinema (the scene where Taylor wolfs down an enormous English breakfast and shows her appreciation with a huge, unladylike belch is an example).
But for me, Secret Ceremony is an example of the kind of risky, baroque style of filmmaking that largely died out in the '70s (Ken Russell was a master). A kind that takes so many chances and goes so far out on a limb that it risks courting giggles. Daring to look foolish can sometimes be a film's most appealing quality.
In this scene, Elizabeth Taylor's fine performance is undermined by unflattering costuming that is either character-based (Leonora is coarse and unsophisticated) or just plain ugly '60s fashion. 

Elizabeth Taylor long ago proved to be a natural for the brand of purple, overstated acting a film like this calls for, and Mia Farrow once again shows that there’s not an actress alive better suited to hitting all the right notes in a role requiring woman-child/sane-unstable ambiguity.
Peggy Ashcroft and Pamela Brown are outstanding as the light-fingered, meddlesome aunts

As Alfred, personal fave Robert Mitchum rallies around his patented brand of complaisant sexual menace (if not a very sure accent. What is it supposed to be British? Scottish?) to ratchet up the psychodramatic stakes by going head to head (and psychosis to psychosis) with Taylor in a combustible test of wills.
Leonora, really getting into the whole playacting thing

Even as a kid I was blown away by the gorgeous mansion occupied in solitary madness by Mia Farrow's character. With its ornate furnishings; eclectic, Moroccan and art nouveau design; and those mesmerizing blue and green ceramic tiles that line the walls and hallways like some Dali-esque mental institution of the mind...this house is as much a participant in Secret Ceremony's drama as The Dakota was in Rosemary's Baby.
The mansion used in the film is Debenham House, located in the Holland Park district of London. Built around 1896, architect Halsey Ricardo is one of perhaps several who worked on its design. Secret Ceremony production designer Richard MacDonald is credited with refurbishing the house and designing studio sets (the main bedroom, for instance) to blend with the original style.
Ken Russell made use of the mansion in his 1974 film Mahler

There’s no getting past the fact that Secret Ceremony is a strange film not suited to everyone’s taste. But another word for strange is interesting, and on that score, I cast my vote for directors who take chances over those who play it safe.
On the commentary track for the 1970 British cult film Goodbye Gemini (a remarkably bizarre film that could go toe-to-toe with Secret Ceremony for weirdness), producer Peter Snell speaks of a time when movies were made because someone found a story to be interesting, paying only marginal heed to things like what market the film should target and how well it would play outside of big cities. While this was probably a terrible way to run the “business” side of the movie business, quite a lot of worthwhile films were made. Not necessarily good ones, but at least they were films that sparked debate, discussion, and thought.
It's time to speak of unspoken things...
Secret Ceremony has Elizabeth Taylor and Robert Mitchum giving two of their better late-career performances (Taylor, in particular, is quite moving), and early-career Mia Farrow giving what amounts to her last cogent performance before her Woody Allen years (although I’m partial to 1977’s The Haunting of Julia), so, therefore, I think it's worth at least a look if you’re unfamiliar with it.
But remember, I’m not exactly recommending it. I’m just sort of dropping a hint.
Dear God, by whose mercy
I am shielded for a few hours
Let no one snatch me from this heaven

Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2013


  1. _I don’t know of a single soul to whom I could recommend it in good conscience. The film is just that weird._

    Okay NOW you're talking. I stopped reading the review at that point because I'm going to see this and don't want to be spoiled!

    1. Also, I found it on DVD on Amazon, and on YouTube in pieces.

    2. Ha! OK, Allen, but you've been warned!
      I didn't know about the YouTube installment version, but beware of the Amazon DVD, its a PAL format disc and might not play in US machines. However, if you're interested, you can find US copies on iOffer or Ebay sometimes.

  2. We must be about the same age, Ken. I remember that the adults in my life at the time thought that the whole thing was kinda "sick" - so that intrigued me. And I loved that name, "Secret Ceremony." Thanks for filling me in (all these years later) on what it was all about. You're a terrific writing - keep 'em coming! Best, Michael

    1. Thanks, Michael
      Although I'm not so sure I explained what this unusual film is all about so much as revealed how my own twisted mind works.
      I kind of forgot that "sick" was indeed a word applied to this film at the time, and how older moviegoers took it as a sign of what trouble the "new permissiveness" in movies had wrought.
      When you're young, anything enigmatic seems irresistible, so I too was drawn by the title, "Secret Ceremony."
      If we are indeed about the same age, it pleases me to know someone else out there was drawn to age-inappropriate films too. Thank you for the kind words!

  3. Argyle, here. I knew there was someone, somewhere living the life that I wanted to be living when I was around 11, and it was you! (I can’t believe you got to see this in a theater at the time of release.) Your films of choice from the late 60's/early 70's invariably toll a distant gong in the labyrinthine corridors of my psyche. I think I eventually got to see this on a network movie night, probably ABC – they seemed to show the less family-friendly movies. I had gotten wind of it, as you say, from furtive perusal of movie magazines probably at the barber shop or somewhere less controlled than my home where I was lucky to see an occasional “Look” or “Time.” (The parents across the street from us censored all their magazines, tearing out questionable pages.) My parents never would have taken it that far – they just disdained (and avoided) most media. Welcome to suburban South Carolina! Needless to say, I scoured anything I could get my hands on for ambiguity, mystery and glamour. Still do. I just remember being mesmerized by the silky, sort of humid atmosphere of this movie. I’m sure I understood none of it, was probably bored by some of it, and eventually got it confused in my mind with “Ash Wednesday” from 1973. That’s a pretty good set of brackets for me - 1968 and 1973. Eventually, I saw “The Boy with Green Hair” also by Joseph Losey, and he became a significant name for me. That shot of Mia under the table is incredible. Something like that registers with you as a kid and years later you discover Balthus. When I saw the screen cap of the room with the blue-green tiles, it immediately made me think of Whistler’s Peacock Room and settings for the film “The Wings of the Dove.” A little web research, and there it is - also filmed at Debenham House (and other locations.) Anyway, wish I had more concrete recollections of the movie. Or could go see it tonight! Maybe my point is you see something, maybe just a glimpse, maybe you sleep through half of it, maybe you’re not supposed to see it but you do and it slips in and animates something else you see years later and you’ve got a history. Your blog is amazing, Ken!

  4. Hi Argyle
    Very funny what you say about my seeing movies like this at such a young age. it helps to remember that in 1968 there wasn't even a movie rating code yet, and that "for mature audiences' was just a suggestion. Theaters let ANYBODY in.
    As to why my parents didn't step in and stop me has more to do with my being one of five kids and I honestly think they didn't care where we went on Saturdays, just so long as we got out of the house and stayed out. My film geek self will always be grateful for tired parents.
    Your upbringing, on the other hand, sounds like the mirror opposite.Ergo, you must be sane.

    If you saw this on TV I wonder if you saw that weird redited version that had this framing device of a therapist Taylor's character had visited after the events of the film, and he actually gives voiceover, explaining what's going on! I don't remember too much about it except that rather than have her be a prostitute, the therapist said she was a "Wig Model"!!
    I'd love to get my hands on that cut. It was like a completely different film.

    two brilliant things in your comment: 1) the reference to the works of Balthus. That's an amazingly apt visual correlative to that image of Farrow under the table, and indeed of the feel of "Secret Ceremony" altogether. I just love that and envy your perception there. 2) finding that amazing mansion in "the Wings of the Dove", a film I've seen but obviously didn't pay too close attention to. That house was SUPER creepy to me as a kid. I love that it made an impression on you as well. (I had to look up the image of Whistler's Peacock Room. - another gorgeous, perfect reference for the look of this film.

    Lastly, what you say about the images in films is so true. Anyone who thinks that film images don't infiltrate our dreams, memories, and psyches is in serious denial (the advertising industry is built upon it). Subtle, fleeting things can be so powerful, things you barely thought you noticed can stay with you a lifetime.
    You often apologize for not having concrete recollections of a film, then you go and blow me away with these great, almost subliminal patterns they've made on you imagination.
    I should be thanking you, Argyle, but I appreciate that you find my blog amazing. It isn't, but i'm thrilled you think so.

  5. The kneejerk reaction of biographers of Taylor routinely dismiss much of her latter day work as "bombs," but frankly I think Secret Ceremony and Reflections in a Golden Eye are two of ET's best, and X, Y, and Zee is mod romp version of Virginia Woolf. Even Boom, bizarre as it is, has its virtues. Much of Elizabeth's '60s and early '70s choices were influenced by what Richard was doing, especially art house choices like Doctor Faustus and Under Milkwood.

    Sidenote: A couple of the couture outfits pictured here were in Taylor's big Christie's auction...

    I love reading your take these films...thank you!

    1. Hi Rico
      You're so right. Someone who dropped by this blog a while back brought up a similar point about Elizabeth Taylor's latter-day work, and I am really inclined to agree. She is very good in a number of films that were dismissed for one reason or another. (I like her in X,Y, and Zee as well).
      And that's very interesting about the Taylor auction items! I'm glad you noticed that! Thanks very much Rico, and I'm glad you like reading these posts!

  6. Again, Ken, you've written a beautiful article that makes me want to take a new look at a film that I had previously written off. Now I want to see Secret Ceremony through your eyes. I LOVE Taylor and Farrow, but could not make head nor tail of this strange when I first saw it on TV as a kid. (This was the infamous chopped up version with Taylor as a "wig model"--could somebody actually make a living doing that, ever??) Then saw it again in its original form on TCM but frankly did not enjoy it much more. Very depressing and lugubrious. But moody, atmospheric and dreamlike, too.

    Farrow is appropriately creepy in this mute role...I just bought a copy of the Altman film A Wedding (10 years after Ceremony) and she plays the same sort of role, with a comic Altman twist. Mia is fearless as an actor and always goes for it.

    Taylor's role is less well defined. I prefer her more histrionic role as Sissy Goforth in Boom to the character of Leonore here. (I don't much like Boom either though, even though it was visually stunning on the big screen. )

    So, not a fan of either of director Losey's 1968 films with Liz. His 1963 film of The Servant with Dirk Bogarde is brilliant, though. But I've read that Losey had trouble focusing on his work because he was dazzled and exhausted by the jet-set lifestyle of the Burtons, which included boozy yachting weekends and multiple-martini lunches on the set. I think both these Losey films need surgical editing and script doctoring, because there's so much talent and promise up there on the screen.

    But you and Rico are right--Elizabeth Taylor is a great actress, not just a great beauty or great star, and this is another example of Taylor's underrated range and versatility.

    1. Thank you for such a flattering comment, Chris. Although perhaps your feelings about this movie are better left as they are.
      I truly think my response to "Secret Ceremony" has a great to deal with my personal psychological wiring and because I've lived long enough to really understand a certain kind of pain that comes with loss. When i was young the finality of death hadn't touched me at all, but when I see this film now, i really get how much anguish can come from regret connected with a death. The way you are left with all the unsaid and unattond for things that can never be made up.
      It appeals to me that the characters of Farrow and Taylor are drawn into this agreed upon dementia in which each gets a "do over" with the person they lost. Mostly for their own sake,
      That the film built around this very compelling emotional drama is so weird feels very much organic to the illness of the people involved, but I think it also serves to alienate audiences.
      If indeed you should take another stab at it (sounds like you really gave it a good shot) i'd love to hear what you think of it in a "three strikes you're out" manner.
      By the way, I laughed at the the idea of a"wig model" too. It's preposterous.
      And I'm glad you mentioned how Farrow plays another sort of mute character in "A Wedding". I don't always make that connection but they are indeed similar!
      The stuff you say about Losey and the Burton's is fully understandable. They sound like their lifestyle could turn anyone's head.
      Ultimately, I 'm glad to hear you find Taylor to be a somewhat underrated actress and that some of her dismissed films succeed in displaying a certain versatility on her part.
      So appreciate the thoughtful comments, Chris. Your film blog is one of my favorites!

  7. Always a pleasure, Ken, this is my #1 favorite spot on the Web to interact with fellow film lovers! Because of Le Cinema Dreams, I never again have to wonder "what shall I watch;" I come away with new films to look forward to, from you and your amazing group of followers. And I love to watch the movies you write about, "through your eyes" as it were!

    1. I have to concur with you on your point about learning so much about films from the folks who take the time to comment. You and so so many who write here are such many amazingly knowledgeable film enthusiasts! I'm always adding to my list of films I need to see.

  8. Hello Ken. This is a very strange and bizarre film made even more fascinating with the big stars playing such odd characters in such a luxurious setting. All of this easily makes it camp, as you say. Like many of the responses to your review about the film, I can't make heads or tails of it. Maybe a lot is explained in the book?

    I love that the big film studios put huge sums of money into making art house movies in the 60s and 70s. Very brave of all of the people involved. They must have thought they were making *art*! Losey and Taylors "Boom" is equally nutty. Every scene in those movies could be analyzed and quoted. I have seen "Secret Ceremony" a few times but now I want to watch again after your excellent review. It was so long ago since I saw it that all I remember is the marvelous and cavernous house and that it was beautifully shot.

    1. Hi Wille
      Yes, this is a strange one. in some ways it reminds me of one of those episodes of "Night Gallery" that used to annoy me because it seemed to go out of its way not to make any sense (a good example is an episode titled "The House" with Joanna Pettet).
      I understand that the book is rather different (there is no Robert Mitchum character at all) but it's hard to find an Engish translation copy (although I saw a copy of a promotional paperback written from the screenplay on Ebay once).
      That such a weird movie could draw name stars and get big studio backing is a big reason why I love films of the 60s and 70s so much. Hollywood was as eager to chase a buck then as it is now, but because of the youth market and trying to keep in step with all those foreign films college kids were turning into hits, Hollywood almost had a policy of "The weirder the better!"
      Not all eccentric films appeal to me, but this and "Boom!" are interesting to me. it sounds like you've already given "Secret Ceremony" a fair shake...but if you're like me and haven't seen the film in several years, perhaps you'll discover, as I did, that my being older significantly changes how the film hits you.
      As I stated, I don't know of anyone to whom I could recommend this film straight out, but if you've ever lost someone and didn't know what to do with all the feelings for them that are left behind, all the things you didn't get to say to them, and all the regrets you'll never get to apologize to them for...well, I'd be surprised if "Secret Ceremony" doesn't touch you a little bit by being a somewhat poetic take on how desperate people can become carrying those burdens around. On that level, I think "Secret Ceremony" is beautiful. But WEIRD!
      Thanks, Wille!

    2. Hello Ken, your review of "Secret Ceremony" inspired me to watch the film again. I enjoyed it even more this time. The first time I saw it I thought it was wonderful but I couldn't make heads or tails of Liz's character. I thought she was too gorgeous and regal looking to be a prostitute. She also changed accents half way through. I did find Mia Farrow and that mansion fascinating, though.

      This time round I felt that both actresses gave really strong performances that were also sensitive. The whole situation between the women seemed more sad this time, as if it became clear that the relationship would never work. The film becomes tragic when they go off to the seaside. It became evident that Cenci was mentally ill. When they still were in London they semed to have quite a cosy life together.

      You are so right about how missing a loved one so much it aches in the heart. Cenci lost her mind when she lost her mother. Or was she aware that it was all an act (at least in the beginning of the film)?

      I agree that the big studios then wanted to make money by making films that seemed deep and european while filling them with some of their american biggest stars. That's why this film and "Boom!" are so fascinating. They want to considered arty and glamorous at the same time!

    3. Hello Ken, your review of "Secret Ceremony" inspired me to watch the film again. I enjoyed it even more this time. The first time I saw it I thought it was wonderful but I couldn't make heads or tails of Liz's character. I thought she was too gorgeous and regal looking to be a prostitute. She also changed accents half way through. I did find Mia Farrow and that mansion fascinating, though.

      This time round I felt that both actresses gave really strong performances that were also sensitive. The whole situation between the women seemed more sad this time, as if it became clear that the relationship would never work. The film becomes tragic when they go off to the seaside. It became evident that Cenci was mentally ill. When they still were in London they semed to have quite a cosy life together.

      You are so right about how missing a loved one so much it aches in the heart. Cenci lost her mind when she lost her mother. Or was she aware that it was all an act (at least in the beginning of the film)?

      I agree that the big studios then wanted to make money by making films that seemed deep and european while filling them with some of their american biggest stars. That's why this film and "Boom!" are so fascinating. They want to considered arty and glamorous at the same time!

    4. Hi Wille
      So glad you seem to be giving this film a chance to "work" on its own levels. "Secret Ceremony" suffers a bit from its stylistic strangeness. So much so that (as you so rightly noted) the sensitivity of the performances and the poignant sadness of the relationships is fairly lost for those with no patience for trying to wade through the unexplained bizarrenss.
      Based on what we learn about Liz's character in the final scenes, I've always interpreted her being a hooker as something she fell into out of grief for her lost daughter. A way of debasing and punishing herself for her inattention.
      This adds a layer of desperation to her need to get it "right" with her new daughter, Cenci. Her floating accent is (once again , just my interpretation) an indication of her failed attempt at being a lady (note her preposterous babbling after Cenci catches her using a common vulgarism her real mother -already established as being prissy - would never use in a million years).
      Your tapping into the tragedy of that seaside visit leads me to believe that this movie is really starting to make sense to you and that the extra effort is paying off. Not many many movies require or even invite the level of scrutiny that "Secret Ceremony " does, but I hope you feel the time has been worth it. It's a very intriguing kind of psychological thriller.
      Lastly, I think you nailed Hollywood's problem during the European influence years of the late 60s/early 70s: they tried to apply Hollywood studio system aesthetics (the star system, for one) to what were essentially art films. American audiences didn't know what hit them!
      Thanks for you extremely thoughtful re-examination of the film. Love that you felt the film warranted another look!

  9. Ken-I LOVE that Night Gallery episode with Joanna Pettet!
    I saw it several times as a grade schooler and I always remembered her driving to "The House" in slo-mo...running up to the door in slo-mo, knocking, knocking at the door!
    Imagine my pleasant surprise to find it you can watch it on Hulu! I watched it with a straight male friend of mine, who agreed with me that Joanna Pettet was a total fox!
    I love your frame of references ; )

    Perhaps someday you will review ET's "The Driver's Seat/Identikit"! It's a crazy but fascinating movie!

    1. Rico
      So funny that you even remember that episode! I had quite an obsession with Ms. Pettet as a teen, and remember vividly all of her "Night Gallery" episodes. "The House" being one of the more frustrating. I never tired of looking at her though.
      Based on your comment I went to Hulu to revisit it, and it makes no more sense to me now than it did way back when. Maybe you can explain it to me!
      And I haven't seen "The Driver's Seat" in about 15 years now. I look forward to seeing if it hold up to how fondly I remember it.

  10. I haven't see this film but per your description it sounds like a MUST-SEE. And I'm wondering about that re-edited version -how do you turn a hooker into a wig model when she seems to have 'clients' visiting her (or maybe that bit was cut out entirely?).

    I've found Losey's 60s films such as The Servant to be elliptical and very much 'hinting' in their style and telling -- they never come out and tell you directly what's going on, so audiences are left free to draw their own conclusions (the Pinter script certainly helped). My guess is that Secret Ceremony came across in that elusive, 'European' style, which is why American audiences, used to having things S-P-E-L-L-E-D out (think of the film Psycho and how Hitchcock worried that his film would fail without the final scene of the psychiatrist 'explaining' Norman Bates), would have found it confusing or 'sick.' I wonder if many 60s-early 70s films were also trying to reproduce alternate states of consciousness, influenced by drugs and therapies like TM and such - all very alien experiences to most Americans at that time.

    I recently read a bio of Robert Mitchum, and he apparently didn't take this film too seriously when he was making it, but he was always a pro in his work and directors did like him. If you're interested in what Taylor's lifestyle was like at the time she was making these films, I can recommend the Richard Burton diaries, which make fascinating, compulsive reading. The man was not only a great actor but a terrific writer, and he really goes into descriptions of binges, parties, film-making, etc, all part of the Taylor-Burton high life then.

  11. You made me laugh with your wondering how one goes about transforming a hooker into a wig model (they delete the shot of the john departing and merely show her placing her blond wig on a wig stand. Her profession is never alluded to again).

    I think your familiarity with Losey's films makes you a very good candidate for this movie, for it sounds as if you are well acquainted with his style. I think you nailed exactly the source and substance of this kind of filmmaking, and your "Psycho" reference is perfect.
    My visits to IMDB (where the average ratio for a difference of opinion is about two posts before things get nasty) confirm to me that Americans still don't like movies that ask that you draw your own conclusions.
    I ddn't read the Mitchum bio, but I read one on Joseph Losey and he apparently had the worst time with Mitchum in this film. And as for the Burton diaries, on the strength of your recommendation I have put that book on my Amazon wish list in hopes that my honey will get it for me for Christmas. It sounds right up my alley.
    If you ever do get around to seeing and surviving this film, I'd be so interested to find out your thoughts on it. Thanks, GOM!!

  12. Great, Ken, and great comments here...

    Say what you want about Camille Paglia, the public intellectual whose incendiary thinking has provided tinder for any number of flash-in-the-pan controversies over the years. But as a connoisseur of decadence, her taste is impeccable. Paglia LOVES Secret Ceremony, and here is how she once described it:

    "At one point in the film, during a slate-grey London afternoon, Elizabeth Taylor, dressed in a violet suit and turban, appears abruptly, passing by a wall of sea-green tiles. I screamed out at once in the middle of the theater, my hand literally clutching my heart. I could have fainted. It only lasted a single moment, but that single moment remains one of the high points of my entire life. It was an aesthetic epiphany, almost a conversion experience, in which pain and joy were equally mixed. Rapturous, euphoric, like the ecstasies of St. Teresa of Avila".


    1. Ha! That quote makes me laugh aloud! Wonderful! They should include it on the back of all future DVD releases of this film! Thanks, Rick

  13. Hi Ken!
    I've snuck back into an older post here to let you know--just in case you haven't heard--that a UK import blu ray came out this week from Powerhouse Indicator. GORGEOUS new transfer, a 40-page booklet and, in addition to other special features, it includes the first and last-reel bookended footage that was shot for the NBC television premiere back in '71. I'm just in heaven.

    1. !!!!! No, I hadn't heard! Thanks so much for telling me...just in time to start dropping heavy hints for Christmas! What you describe sounds marvelous. I never thought I'd see the day this film would get this kind of release! Much appreciated!

  14. everyone has been so articulate and keenly analytical in their discussion of this film, i feel like a kindergartner accidentally entering a graduate class on shakespeare.

    still, i am a huge aficionado of films that fall defiantly or unconsciously or even accidentally out of the mainstream. mainstream films are never a safe haven for me. many of the films i watch are european or latin films with subtitles so i have to pay more attention to the actors than the words to really get a gist of what's going on.

    i'm pretty sure i will love this film because of its fruitiness and i apply fruitiness with the utmost exaltation. elizabeth showed me with cat on a tin roof that she could be effortlessly mesmerizing and a feast for the eyes; however, it was the fruitiness of suddenly, last summer that revealed an elizabeth to me who could induce vertigo in a viewer with the ascendancy of her character's trauma. i know virtually no one who likes the movies i like so in you i may have found a kindred spirit.

    my only problem with this movie is that i am going to have no choice but to get the kino lorber version which features the commentary by film historian timothy lucas. the only reason why this is a drawback is because according to dvdbeaver, there is an indicator blu-ray version which features a fabulous commentary from dean brandum and alexandra heller-nicholas that regards secret ceremony as "excellent" and distinguishes it from merely "over-the-top pretentious camp."

    still, you have whetted my appetite and i think i'll take this movie in any pristine form i can get it. my love for mia farrow unlike my lifelong idolatry of elizabeth taylor begins and ends with rosemary's baby. mia's fragile, vulenerable performance exposes john cassavetes's guy for the unscrupulous creep that cassavetes had previously honed in episodes of hitchcock, specifically one where he assaults a deaf girl played by marisa pavan whose character is almost more delicate than rosemary. if i may digress on a tangent, i am always amazed at how well cassavetes excels at loathsome characters because i absolutely love him in 1957's edge of the city where in the film's climax he cradles and kisses a mortally wounded sidney poitier. it is a mirror opposite of the scene in kramer's the defiant ones where poiter cradles curtis so sublimely that curtis remarks "you're going to make someone a great ole lady someday." i find that comment pregnant with all sorts of allusions since in the defiant ones curtis and poitier are both escaped convicts and it's no secret that prison is a hothouse of homoerotic tension and not so secret ceremony sexual roleplaying.

    but back to secret ceremony and mia farrow. as i was pointing out before my digression, it's almost impossible not to empathize with farrow as she plays rosemary because of the ever widening conspiracy of evil surrounding her. it will be fascinating to watch farrow in this film where she is victim and possible victimizer.

    thank you very much for this review.

  15. Hello Peter
    Your comments express a sincere appreciation of film that would see you advancing from kindergarten to graduate studies in no time.
    I fully understand the word “fruity” as it applies to Elizabeth Taylor (I think it’s equivalent to the word “purple” that I use when speaking of Taylor’s sometimes florid style and ability to take things to the heights of melodrama.
    From what I can tell, I think you will enjoy “Secret Ceremony” a great deal.
    As a fan of “Rosemary’s Baby” I enjoyed reading your thoughts on Cassavetes (excellent point concerning his appealing persona in “Edge of the City” [the likes of which I never saw in him again]), and your susceptibility to Farrow’s vulnerability in Polanski’s film, but…as yet…not in any other role.

    Whether you wind up enjoying the film or not, I am certain you will find “Secret Ceremony” interesting. I hope you come back and share your thoughts about it when you watch it. Thank you for such a well-considered and pleasing-to-read comment here.

  16. hello, ken:

    thank you for posting my comment. i didn't think it would be coherent enough to make the cut.

    i have never met anyone else who has even heard of edge of the city. i like to play with films for my own amusement and pleasure. by that, i mean i like to rerecord them in a way that suits me. when poitier and cassavetes are in that club together getting to know each other, i recorded the scene exactly as it is because one day in my life i want someone to really look at me and listen to me the way poitier looks at and listens to cassavetes when his character axel speaks about his love for and the tragic death of his brother. then i pause and rerecord the scene with a song that i insert. for the scene in the club between poitier and cassavetes, i inserted roberta flack and donny hathaway's the closer i get to you.

    i did the same thing with the ending of the oscar. because the oscar so reminds me of valley of the dolls, i actually inserted dionne warwick's valley of the dolls over the final scene at the oscars where stephen boyd implodes. and because i like to do mashups, i've also inserted diana ross's do you know where you're going to over the scene at the beginning of valley of the dolls when ann leaves lawrenceville for new york at the beginning of the film. and last but not least, during the confrontation between neely o'hara and helen lawson, i inserted livvi franc's now i'm that chick.

    you do the cinema gods's work, ken. and there are very few who could do it as well as you with such panache, insight, analytical depth, and humor.

    1. Thanks very much for the more than kind words, Peter.
      I only saw EDGE OF THE CITY for the first time about 2 years ago. I absolutely loved it and wondered how it had eluded me. Cassavetes is great, and it's nice to see Poitier cast as such an Average Joe type.
      The editing/manipulation of film images and music that you do is very interesting. Reminds me of the kinds of things we used to do back when I was in film school. I always like it when certain films gave a unique significance in a person's life, and they respond to them in ways that are meaningful.
      Thank you for checking out so many of my past posts. I'm not always able to respond to every one (but I try). And it's the rare submitted comment that doesn't "make the cut": Only if it's too off-topic, in some way rude or disrespectful, or if the language is inordinately explicit in terms of sexual violence.
      I hope you continue to comment, and that you continue to feel a part of this fun film community.

  17. Ken, your terrific essay prompted me to revisit this perhaps-flawed gem. Like a Doors record – and in many ways the feminine cinematic equivalent – ‘Secret Ceremony’ springs from its era and beckons us to the darkest places of the psyche via free association.

    We’re sadly mistaken of course if we think we’re only in for what the exposition implies: Elizabeth Taylor’s transition from whore to Madonna. Losey layers it all on 60s-style: “What is truth?”, “What is sanity?”, “What is sexual abuse?” “What’s an impostor?” et al.

    And as he’s resolutely refusing to answer these questions for us, he’s needling us to think about what our true moral stances are. And if they’re as sane as we think they are. What could be more contemporary than the challenge of looking at the deceit component of assumed identity as it seeks to exploit others - for none of the positive aspects of exploitation?

    I liked it a lot this time around. I recommend it and I don’t recommend it!

    1. Hey Rick
      Isn't it nice to revisit a film to see if age, life experience (dare I say, wisdom), and the passing of time has added anything to our initial perceptions?
      As I've said before, your insightful assertions regarding the art-film element of Taylor's latter career was so eye opening for me. It was you observation that gave me fresh eyes to watch this film though the last time I revisited it.
      It always intrigues me how Losey comes across so precise and sure of what he's trying to do and say, and yet his films are like funhouse mirrors--they show you a different perspective every time you look at a different angle.

      Movies are only occasional topics for your blog, but I can well imagine what a thought-provoking essay you could come up with for this one. Thank you, Rick!
      Always appreciate it when you discover an old post of mine.

      PS - I know what you mean about I recommend it and I don't recommend it. I'm crystal clear in my feelings about the film, but I would never just recommend it outright to someone. It's hard to gauge another's response to SECRET CEREMONY.

    2. <>

      Apart from "Boom!" I'm not at all familiar with his films or his ethos Ken but yes that's quite obvious in "Secret Ceremony". I'd also say Elizabeth Taylor is at the top of her game here & it's difficult to work out whether it's disciplined acting or terrific direction. Or both.

      You're so right about revisiting a film, and if it stimulates the grey matter then it's more than entertainment.

      And that's so great that you're getting into Miss Taylor's Baroque Period - interesting isn't it?

      Now why should I blog about film when you're doing it so well? (Haha I'm trying to keep my focus on manhood / masculinity culture without entirely focusing on arts & entertainment.)

      As always, thanks for the kind words.

    3. If you haven't already seen it, Losey's "The Servant" is a terrific and terrifically thoughtful film. Far less impenetrable than most of his oeuvre, and has many intriguing aspects regarding masculinity and sexuality.