Summer and Smoke

September 15, 2011

Have you ever watched a movie, decided it was definitely one of the worst movies you'd ever seen and headed over to imdb to read some reviews, only to find everyone has rated the movie 10/10 and that it was nominated for multiple Oscars? This was my experience with Summer and Smoke.

The film is about a repressed Preacher's daughter named Alma --played by Oscar nominated Geraldine Page-- who has been madly, obsessively in love with the town delinquent, John -- played by Laurence Harvey-- since she was five years old. The movie opens with a very stage-like scene of the two characters as children. Alma is already strangely prim and proper for a toddler, and John starts his lifelong pattern of using her obvious crush as a way to tease her. Fast forward 20 years and not much has changed. Alma is still living at home with her father and her mother who had a nervous breakdown while Alma was in high school. John has just returned from Medical School, having acquired a seedy reputation on his trip home, stopping at gambling halls and keeping company with loose women. Throughout the rest of the film John keeps leading Alma on while he's going steady with Rosa -- Rita Moreno in a painfully stereotypical role.

Laurence Harvey wasn't bad at all, except that his fake southern accent kept disappearing every now and then.. but I expect that of almost any movie where the actors take on fake southern accents. Pamela Tiffin played one of John's love interests, and she was really cute and fit the role well. But everyone and everything else bothered me. It was heavily dramatic, very theatrical and stage-like. An almost-40 Geraldine Page was, I think, terribly miscast as a "young old maid" in her early 20's. She overplayed the part tremendously and I honestly could not believe she was nominated for an Oscar!

I think I must just have very bad good-acting radar. I can't even count how many times I think a performance was God-awful, only to find out the actor was nominated for an Oscar. Or a quick search for "terrible actors name, bad movie" yields hundreds of articles raving about what a fantastic character study it was, and how the actor was able to express a million things with one slight eye movement in the fourth scene.

Aside from the acting, the story itself was not too bad. It's by Tennessee Williams, after all. But I think the weird treatment of repression just sticks in my craw. Almost every film I've seen that deals with a repressed woman treats the character as if she is literally psychotic. In Summer and Smoke, Alma constantly runs to the doctor in the middle of the night due to panic attacks for which he gives her tranquilizers. Her eyes are constantly darting about, unable to focus unless John is in view. In Repulsion, a repressed Catherine Deneuve goes absolutely mad. In Psycho, the male is the one who is repressed and he goes on a mini killing spree while the skeleton of his dead mother is locked up in the basement. Repression is terrible, but from most movies you'd get the impression that anyone who hasn't been in a romantic relationship must be harboring an extreme mental illness.

The character of Alma could have just been a girl with a crush on the boy next door who is painfully disappointed by his constant teasing and rejection. She didn't have to also be a borderline insane woman who gets violent panic attacks whenever the thought of sex crossed her mind. I think it adds an unnecessary element to a story that would have been fine without it.

While Summer and Smoke was *definitely* not my cup of tea, I guess in retrospect I can understand why so many people might love it. The plot was constantly interesting and occasionally mesmerizing in a strange sort of way. So if you're in the mood for some melodrama and good old fashioned [over-dramatized] repression, it's available on netflix instant.


NoirGirl said...

Well welcome back, darling! :D Love the new design.

You aren't alone in your perception of the phenomenon of a lot of Oscar nominated films or performances being subpar. I often find myself bewildered at what the Academy could have been thinking to award the honor on such odd recipients. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is one of the films I can't bear but the Academy seemed to love (Sorry Paul Newman!).

I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment of this film. When I tried to watch it, I found it so painful, I couldn't make it through. I attributed most of the unbearable-ness to Geraldine Page. Heavens YES she was too old for this part. And her acting style is always the same, no matter what part she plays.

S&S is such a sad waste of Laurence Harvey, too. He's always a fabulous cad, but why cast him as a southerner and cover up his glorious accent?

Anyhow, I'm very glad S&T is back! :D

Anonymous said...

YAY! You've gone all wonderfully movie blogger on us again!

Oh, isn't it aggravating when you think a film is horrid and other people proclaim it to be the greatest thing since fried bananas?! And then you try to run through the whole film in your mind wondering what YOU missed, and then you doubt your judgement so much you end up watching the whole thing over again, and then wonder why you tortured yourself a second time. (Can you see I have this problem sometimes?!)

I like the point you make about repression being always psychotic in films. It seems like a silly idea, but I suppose it makes everything more...dramatic? :P

kate gabrielle said...

Thank you so much for commenting, guys!! I was so scared I'd post this and nobody would even notice :)

Casey - I AM SO GLAD YOU DON'T LIKE IT EITHER!! Geraldine Page was definitely unbearable... I've never seen her in anything else so I was hoping it was just her style for this film, but now I think I'm going to avoid her other movies as well! :p

Emm - YES YES YES! I've done that so often it's almost embarrassing! I was tempted to do it with this movie, but I really don't think I can put myself through the torture again! lol

NoirGirl said...

HAHA! I was trying to remain objective in my criticism of Geraldine, but being that you hated her too, isn't her voice HORRIBLY annoying?! She has this dreadful way of whine-talking with imaginary stuff in her mouth that drives me up the wall. I avoid her movies like the plague!!

Oh and I totally agree with your assessment of the repression angle! The prevalence of it as a theme in classic movies is darn annoying because honestly, I have NEVER seen anyone I thought was just dying from being repressed in any way. If it was so common before, there's no way it would have gone away entirely this soon. I believe women being repressed and pining away for some guy was a figment of many writer's imaginations. Perhaps even expressions of these writer's own wishes for secret admirers!

Audrey said...

Yay! You're back. I kept your blog in my feedreader just in case. :)

Maybe I'm mean, but I always find that overly-dramatic psychotic thing kind of funny--in a so-bad-it's-amusing kind of way. But I don't go out of my way to watch bad movies, so this is one I'll probably avoid, as I trust your judgment.

Oh, and the whole thing with lots of people loving a movie I hate happens to me all the time. There are a handful of classics that everyone else seems to love and that I have never understood why. But I guess that's just because we all see a film differently and bring our own lenses and experiences to the viewing. I once saw a quote that describes this well: "no two people ever saw the same movie."

Sorry about the rambling comment! :P

Amanda said...

I'm so glad you're back! Whatever frequency you choose, your movie posts are always met with excitement.

Sally said...

Welcome back!!!

Andi B. Goode said...

I haven't seen this film so I'm probably going to go rather off topic here but I find I dislike the perpetuation of the idea of the 'hysterical woman' in general and how it's possibly lead to a lot of stigma surrounding real mental illnesses as well as meaning many women, who get worked up about something (and often rightfully so) be dismissed simply because she is obviously just being 'hysterical'. I really have to watch Repulsion again as I loved it the first time round, despite thinking Polanski himself is a repellent human being - but I think isn't there a hint at the end that she's been sexually abused? I think it would make her mental state throughout the film more understandable if it's something she's never talked about or worked through. I don't know. That's one I need to see again.

I think films like that and Psycho play up to the 'it's the quiet ones you have to look out for' idea.

I find it hard to call films to mind off the top of my head so I wonder if there are any interesting films by women that deal with sexual repression?

Also, though I do often hate something everyone else loves, I often find I'll love a film and then see everyone else has trashed it. Haha. ;)

-Andi x

PS Good to see you posting here again!

kate gabrielle said...

Casey - YES HER VOICE. Oh my goodness! It reminded me a lot of Julie Harris who also kind of bothers me (okay really bothers me). Millie said I'd like her if I saw East of Eden, but I'm having a hard time getting around to it because of her voice lol..

Audrey - Thank you! :D It can be really amusing sometimes, I totally agree! But in movies like this particular one it just drives me nuts. I guess it depends on the movie! And I love that quote! It's so true!!

Amanda & Sally - Thank you so much! :D

Andi - I completely agree! Even my brother & dad do that to me and my mom whenever we're upset. It's one of those "oh, those silly women" things. Ugh! I loved Repulsion, too, I'll have to re-watch it as well. I don't know that they ever hinted that she was abused, but it would definitely make sense. It's been a long time since I watched it.

There might be some newer films by women that deal with repression, but I doubt any older ones did since the industry was so dominated by men back then :\ I wonder how to even go about searching for that!

haha, I think in general my opinion of a movie just never coincides with what other people think. If I like a movie, I find out everyone hated it. If I hate a movie, I find out everyone loved it :p

Andi B. Goode said...

It's been a long time since I've watched it, too, and I only watched it once as well!

That's very true that the industry was dominated by men...I guess it still is in a lot of ways! So many more female directors now but still not as many as male ones. But, would one look for that? Hmm.

Millie said...