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.
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
I can only hope. But then after summertime must come the fall. Who knows?
More best-shots over at The Film Experience.