Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Summertime

Who else but Katharine Hepburn to get me back to the blog? But what to say?

Ever since my appreciation for Hepburn turned into full fledged obsession circa 2003 I’ve steadily investigated her filmography seeking out in particular the times her work intersected with Oscar. And Summertime. Lean has done larger films with wider scope and more intricate technicalities, but I've always returned to this one and I can see why he considers it his favourite, too. The film has only two stars - Kate and Lean's direction, everyone else is supplementary. Excellently so, but still supplementary.

It’s the quintessential spinster performance from Hepburn. I use the word spinster with hesitation because of its connotation, but I mean it with no malice. Immediately off her work in Adam’s Rib, Katharine launched into the fifties with the first of three key roles of archetypal unmarried women – Rose Sayer in The African Queen, Lizzie Curry in The Rainmaker and Jane Hudson in Summertime. Jane is the only one who ends the film still a spinster.
Some of the most inventive opening credits...

At face value the film’s thrust seems questionable – secretary Jane Hudson makes her way to Venice for a vacation. She’s enchanted with the city, but her own inhibitions prevent her from enjoying the people until she meets Renato Di Rossi a shopkeeper she, I hesitate to say something as trite but, falls in love with. It does not end as a fairytale but it does not end in tragedy either. For an actress of such temerity Hepburn was frustratingly (to me) to starring in ensemble films as opposed to character studies. In fact, before Summertime the last film to wholly focus on Katharine was Alice Adams TWENTY YEARS earlier. Many great Hepburn performances (Jo, Linda, Tracy, Susan, Eleanor, Mary and so on) came while fighting against cast members with equally prime roles – Summertime is that rare film to focus on the gradations of her character with such relish. And what a character.

Like many a Hepburn film I am very protective of it, especially because I’ve always found the film one to be underestimated. The power of Summertime has never been in Di Rossi’s ability to change Jane through love – it’s significant, but not specifically for the romantic.

This, one of the first images of Jane we get – tells us so much.

This woman is a watcher, an excited watcher, but a watcher nonetheless and not a doer. In the film’s famous canal fall scene, Jane falls because she’s busy watching and not doing. So, in the summertime, she must grow into her own as a participant in life. As we watch the nuances Hepburn’s Jane moves through – the “story” of the woman looking for something she tells to the owner of the inn she’s at, the surprise and jumpiness at being propositioned – all reveal that this is a woman who has been hurt not just in romantic love, but in any type of love. We feel as badly for Jane when her feelings are hurt by Renato as we do when the Italian couple turn down her chance to tag along with them on their evening trip.
She sits and ponders – what now? The red of her dress is only an artificial bit of colour – her life is colourless. All around her the red roses bloom, but the dress she’s wearing isn’t bona fide. It’s what I love most about Hudson’s work as Jane. No other performance has forced her so much to depend on un-Hepburn-like tics. The role itself does not recall her sensibilities, it’s not her lilting voice which gives emotion but the way her face moves. Like this dejected pose.
But I have no qualms about returning to Renato. It might seem trite to boil down the bulk of this woman’s life and pain to her relationship with a man, and an adulterous one at that. But, the power of Renato’s relationship with Jane is that he presents her with the idea of someone willing to be as interested in watching her as she is in watching things. The fact that there cannot be a symmetrical meeting of the two, or the carving of a true relationship is sad but it is more a whimsical sadness than a jagged tragedy. And there are a series of shots which show this best for me.
Renato’s hand reaching for that rose is the single most evocative moment of the film regarding Jane’s tragedy – whether she started too late, or didn’t succeed soon enough she’s not thoroughly happy with her life. Not because she is without a man, but because she’s never experienced it as she ought to. The preceding scene where she explains why she asks him to buy this particular flower (curiously recalling a similar flower scene in Alice Adams, her previous one woman show) is heartbreaking in a pathetic way and the fact that even that small thing – a simple flower – escapes her grasps is the true sadness.
Kate’s reaction more so. But in the end, even if that shot is the finest I had to go elsewhere for the best. The shot of Renato with the flower is beautiful.
Brazzi nails Renato’s dilemma, so sad wishing that this woman could just have her flower. Katharine’s laugh is so welcome. Yes, Jane is saying, someone to notice me and remember something as simple as a single flower.
The reach forward is sad, indeed. Then the burying of emotions, it doesn’t matter if I don’t get it – at least he remembered.

So my best shot.

I knew it’d be my best shot even before I rewatched, but made you read through all that just for effect. It’s one of my favourite film endings – the feeling of profound sadness not at losing Renato, but always being one step behind permeates through the final scene but that single wave says, yes, thank you for the memories
She’s saying goodbye to Renato, to the lost flower, to the city (look how beautiful it is in the background) and to the vitality it gave her. But she leaves on the train not looking through the camera, but looking through her own eyes. She’s lived. So many great films are based on the idea of a single place and the people there teaching you something new. This is Dorothy saying goodbye to Oz, this is Brian saying goodbye to Berlin. This is everyone saying goodbye to a place they could not stay in forever, but which changed their life - no matter how seemingly trite. Certainly this means a fuller and happier Jane at home…? Isn't this what we all hope for?

I can only hope. But then after summertime must come the fall. Who knows?

More best-shots over at The Film Experience.


Marcy said...

I've always wanted to see this film and I'm charmed by your review. I love Katharine Hepburn and her performance in this film looks quite wonderful.


Andrew, wow. I never read these before I write my own and though you're a much bigger Hepburn fan than I we have very similar feelings about the film and nearly identical ones about the ending.

Daniel said...

What I love most about that final shot is that she never turns around - we never get to see her face in that last moment. It's an interesting contradiction, because she's very pointedly NOT looking forward, excited about what's to come, instead focusing on what was - which seems like an odd way to end a spiritual journey. But then you realize that she's celebrating what was an experience that changed her life, saying goodbye to this beautiful place as well as the Jane she was when she first came there. I love the little touch of ambiguity that comes with it, though: Will she be a different person when she gets back home? That's entirely up to the viewer.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

marcy i was worried this would read as too disjointed for someone who has not seen the film, but glad if it makes you consider seeing the film.

nathaniel i love how so many people congregated on the ending scene. sure it gives the idea that it's the film's only beacon, which it isn't, but it really is one of my favourite endings.

daniel we all HOPE she'll be a different person when she leaves, which is why we latch on to her even though if we were here i want to suspect that she probably won't be different. but really, who knows? hence the profundity.