I was probably as surprised as anyone to discover that far from being a flop, Secret Ceremony was in fact a hit, taking $3 million in rentals in the U.S., ranking among the Top 20 foreign movies at the French box office, and hitting the target in Italy, Germany and Australia. Yet, outside of France, it was universally derided by the critics.
Joseph Losey (The Servant, 1964) held the unusual position of being a cult director working in Britain. He was the “object of a vociferous cult….his following grown in scope and size with each new film” and, conversely, as his popularity among the arthouse fraternity increased, he attracted more critical ire. Courting popularity by entering the spy genre with Modesty Blaise (1966) and linking up with the Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton box office colossus for Boom! (1967) seemed to go against the critical grain. Losey ascribed the critical coruscation Boom! received as less to do with the merits of the film itself than “people using the opportunity to launch personal attacks on the Burtons.”
Boom! had been packaged John Heyman, who coupled acting as agent for Burton and Taylor with being the producer, not necessarily a good combination. Universal was convinced it had “Virginia Woolf in color,” a reference to the previous enormous hit, although the box office told a different story. Jay Kanter, Universal’s London production chief who greenlit the project, commented: “When the Burtons were involved a lot of my judgement was colored by the magnitude of the star she (Taylor) was considered to be.”
So it was something of a surprise to find Losey and Taylor teaming up again for Secret Ceremony. Of course, it may have been the money, Taylor at this point still holding out for a million-dollar purse. Heyman said, “We were regarded as whizz-kids just for making two consecutive films with Elizabeth Taylor and bringing them in under budget.”
Losey’s world reflects a “highly selective form of naturalism.” Except for Accident (1966), from Sleeping Tiger (1954) through to Secret Ceremony, Losey worked with the same design consultant/production designer Richard MacDonald whom the director treated as a sounding board, to “test (ideas) and reject them in the telling.” This is a director for whom “patterned exoticism is extraordinarily precise.” A more important collaborator had been playwright Harold Pinter who had fashioned The Servant (1963) and Accident, bringing to both films his distinctive ear for dialogue. He was hardly required for Boom! whose screenwriter was the even more famous playwright Tennessee Williams (A Streetcar Named Desire, 1951) and for Secret Ceremony Losey went elsewhere for his screenwriter.
Losey was among the string of American talent who taken refuge in Britain in the wake of the anti-Communist hysteria of the late 1940s/early 1950s – others included producer Carl Foreman (The Guns of Navarone, 1961), and directors Cy Enfield (Sands of the Kalahari, 1966) and Edward Dmytryk (Mirage, 1965). By the time of Secret Ceremony, Losey had been working in Britain for nearly a quarter of a century and established himself as a director of distinctive vision, a critical fave in his adopted homeland, wildly appreciated by the French, with an occasional box office home run.
But although regarded as a British film-maker, Losey made Secret Ceremony – and Boom! for that matter – exclusively with Hollywood money, the budget 100 per cent supplied by Universal, that studio having decided that anything coming out of Britain would appeal to younger audiences. There was an untapped pool of talent available in British television who could be hired for substantially less than their U.S. counterparts. In three years Universal’s London production unit, headed by Jay Kanter, spent $30 million on a dozen projects. The biggest budget was allocated to Boom! with $3.9 million followed by $3.5 million to The Countess from Hong Kong (1967) starring Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren. The Night of the Following Day (1968) cost $1.5 million as did Fahrenheit 451 (1967) and Three into Two Won’t Go (1968). Secret Ceremony came in at $2.45 million.
Robert Mitchum and Joseph Losey went way back to a time in Hollywood when both were working their way up the RKO ladder. As well as Losey, Mitchum had been friends with many who would fall foul of the blacklist including screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, Dmytryk and Howard Koch (Casablanca, 1942). When Mitchum’s dalliance with drugs brought him a jail sentence, Losey visited him and brought him chilli from a famed restaurant.
Mitchum was recommended for the role in Secret Ceremony by Roddy McDowell, a friend of Taylor, who had been working with the actor on Henry Hathaway western Five Card Stud (1968). Mitchum received the job offer while on holiday in Mexico. For two weeks’ work he would earn $150,000. The role itself was scarcely onerous, drawing on aspects of the loathsome character he had created for Night of the Hunter (1955), but it did require an English accent of some kind and to his amusement Mitchum found himself on the telephone, like a salesman listing available product, going through the variety of accents he bring to the part.
Whether it was almost having to sell himself to the director or some previous incident, Mitchum and Losey did not resume their friendship. In fact, their relationship was the polar opposite. “He was very unpleasant,” recalled the director, “it was extremely hard for me to work with him.” Losey never found the source of Mitchum’s contempt. “In some curious way I must have made some mistake with him; I don’t know what it was.” Even attempts to recall Mitchum’s collaboration with Charles Laughton on Night of the Hunter failed to break the ice. Losey believed that Mitchum played tough to mask “an intense sense of failure.”
Mitchum wasn’t above sneaking away from the set. On one occasion taking himself off to visit old friend Robert Parrish, he knocked back some tequila and complained about the movie. On the Holland section of the shoot, Mitchum got into a food fight with a hotel diner. In the end, Losey was so disturbed by Mitchum that he was grateful when he departed as per contract despite the fact that some scenes had not been shot, including, according to the actor, the bathtub sequence, which would have accentuated the incest theme rather than the hint of lesbianism. Mitchum’s epitaph to the movie was that he talked Mia Farrow out of True Grit (1969) claiming Hathaway was a terror to work with.
The bath scene turned out to be the cause of some marital anguish. The set was cleared for its shooting of the scene after Taylor froze on emerging from her dressing room to see so many people gathered. But this was hardly Taylor at her beautiful best as she had been gaining weight. Even so Losey filmed her at times as though she was the grand Hollywood star with hair framing her face and the camera glimpsing her cleavage, but at other times her weight was a source of determining her character, when she eats with her mouth full and belches.
Halfway through filming Taylor was afflicted by severe physical pain and she was rushed to hospital for a hysterectomy, an operation that lasted over three and a half hours. Complications followed the surgery and she was given drugs that caused her to hallucinate. Writing in his diaries, Richard Burton noted: “This is the first time 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.” She went from commanding him to leave the room to crying out for him to return. Sometimes she believed she was on board their yacht, other times that a film was playing on the switched-off television set.
The loss of her uterus may have affected her performance since in the film she plays a mother who has lost a child and in reality was a woman who had lost the ability to have another child.
The film exacerbated the tensions in the Burton-Taylor marriage. It was usually Taylor who was the one who had to keep a watchful eye on her partner in case he strayed. In this case, ironically, it was Burton who exhibited the jealous streak. The way Losey had whispered in the actress’s ear to build up her confidence during the bath scene while getting rid of extraneous crew found its way back to Burton who misinterpreted the action as intimacy. “My wife and Joe Losey are having a professional love affair,” he claimed. He spent a lot more time than usual on the set of his wife’s film. He even offered to take on the Mitchum role.
Losey had long been fascinated by a strange-looking house in West Kensington, London, and managed to hire it for the shoot. Debenham House in Addison Road, between Holland Park Avenue and High St Kensington, is one of a handful of truly Gothic London buildings. The church used was in Little Venice, St Mary Magdalene in Rowington Close, also in London, and the antique shop was located at the corner of St Stephen’s Mews and Westbourne Green. When the production shifted to Holland it was to the coastal town of Noordwjik with use made of the Grand Hotel there.
By the time the film opened, Taylor found herself in the middle of a storm over foul language (“gutter talk” in Variety parlance) for which she was seen as the “chief exponent.” It was an ironic position for Taylor to find herself in given her expletive-ridden performance in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966) had not only been critically acclaimed and a huge box office hit but seen as helping to break down the censorship barriers. However, it appeared that the “urination expression” and a word that was prefixed by “bull” were beyond the pale and Variety proclaimed that it was “evidently assumed that if a star of her (Taylor’s) magnitude can be gotten to speak the words, everyone else – actors, actresses, distributors, exhibitors and the public – will be accustomed to strong lingo in pix.” It was hardly coincidence that on the same day that this article was the leading story on the trade paper’s front page that inside six out of seven New York critics gave Secret Ceremony a drubbing, the exception being Renata Adler of the New York Times who called it Losey’s “best film in years.”
Even producer Heyman had his doubts about the material. “It should have been the story of two people who need and trust each other,” he said, “until one leans on the other a little bit more than she should. Unfortunately, the kind of sympathy which Losey shows for people in real life was absent from the relationship which is what I think made it unacceptable.” He summed up, “A cold picture.” (This has the taint of someone trying to work out why the film was a critical failure because otherwise I think Heyman got it exactly right for the movie I saw I did not view as cold nor unacceptable.)
And neither, strangely enough, did the public. Although making a poor showing in Britain, it was not a box office disaster. That was averted by astute marketing, the potency of the stars and a public who, not for the first time, ignored the critics. The movie broke records when it opened at the New York arthouse pair, the Sutton and the New Embassy, and further afield in cities like Dallas. Arthouse success would have been anticipated but nobody would have expected that when it went wide in New York the second week improved upon the first. As well as a decent showing in the States, it hit the ground running around the world, and “ought to be credited” as one of Universal’s “most successful pictures from either domestic or foreign source.” In the French box office rankings, it placed above The Detective (1968) and Hang ‘Em High (1968) and just below The Thomas Crown Affair (1968). Acclaimed by that country’s critics, the Academie du Cinema named it best foreign film with Taylor and Farrow taking the gongs for best foreign actresses.
When Universal sold the movie to television for $1.25 million, a fee which certainly provided the picture with a decent extra profit margin, fourteen minutes were cut out and replaced by a 500 lines of extra dialog and a filmed discussion of the psychological issues raised, prompting Losey to demand his name be removed, claiming it “exactly reversed the meaning an intention of my film.”
SOURCES: Lee Server, Robert Mitchum, Baby I Don’t Care, (Faber and Faber, 2001) p169, 232, 509-512; Sam Kashner & Nancy Schoenberger, Furious Love, (JR Books, 2011)p240, 242-243,2; Alexander Walker, Hollywood England, (Orion Books, 2005) p200, 345, 354-257; “Screen: Secret Ceremony,” New York Times, October 26, 1968; “Joseph Losey Following Has Grown,” Box Office, October 28, 1968, pE1; “No End to Gutter Talk,” Variety, October 30, 1968, p1; “N.Y. Critics This Week: Ouch,” Variety, October 30, 1968, p12; “Secret Ceremony Sets House Mark at Sutton, New Embassy,” Box Office, November 4, 1968, pE2; “Secret Ceremony Setting New Records in Dallas,” Box Office, January 13, 1969, pSW1; “This Week’s N.Y. Showcases,” Variety, February 5, 1969, p9; “Jay Kanter,” Variety, February 26, 1969, p78; “Kanter No Martyr,” Variety, March 19, 1969, p26; “Ceremony, Z Nab Kudos,” Variety, May 7, 1969, p107; “French Filmgoing,” Variety, January 28, 1970, P27; “Paris First Runs,” Variety, April 29, 1970, p76; “Losey Wants His Credit Blipped from Vidversion of U’s Secret Ceremony,” Variety, September 16, 1970, p70; “All-Time Film Rental Champs,” Variety, October 15, 1990, pM184.