In his “Trailers From Hell” for Secret Ceremony, Larry Karaszewski describes the films Elizabeth Taylor did from the late ’60s onwards as almost their own genre—and he is onto something there. She was becoming increasingly bloated, as the booze and prescription drugs started to take their hold. She would end up being the first celebrity to openly admit herself to the famous Betty Ford Center. Lizzy also increasingly looks like an ex-girlfriend of mine in these late ’60s / early ’70s films.
The commie American-expat director behind this disaster, Joseph Losey, is also kind of his own genre: awards contender with one film, and then next is totally bizarre—and it’s not uncommon for it to be the same movie… The Servant, anybody? Losey and Taylor worked back-to-back actually, making Secret Ceremony and the infamous bomb Boom!, in which she starred with her off-again on-again husband and fellow lush Richard Burton, at the same time. Boom! has gained a cult following, thanks to John Waters’ banging on about the film for years.
Secret Ceremony is utterly bizarre from the outset, with Liz playing the down-and-out prostitute Leonora (although in the chicest designer gowns… of course) who visits a graveyard where her recently deceased daughter is buried. She starts talking to a young woman named Cenci (Mia Farrow), and soon Leonora is invited back to Cenci’s home. Cenci lives with her aunts, but despite her increasingly childlike behavior, it doesn’t really faze anybody. Her stepfather Albert (Robert Mitchum!!!!!) shows up in one of the worst fake beards in cinematic history, and these events take increasingly stranger and more sinister turns.
This film is terrible in almost every convincible way, with a nearly incomprehensible story that at the same time doesn’t really go anywhere. It is, however, weirdly watchable at the same time, and touches on implied lesbianism, in-family sexual abuse and even suicide! The film was drastically changed for television to try to sanitize the implied lesbianism, prostitution (Liz is a “wig maker”!) but also to make the film more comprehensible. Mia Farrow is at her most wild, Mitchum has all the best lines, and Liz Taylor is drunk and drifting through the film.
The disc from Indicator includes a commentary from film historians Dean Brandum and Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, an archival featurette with Losey from ’68, and an appreciation from Gavrik Losey, who thinks it’s some incredibly deep and serious film. Larry’s “Trailers From Hell” commentary, the prologue and epilogue from the TV version (which was shot without the cast or Losey’s permission), the trailer and a photo gallery are also on the disc. The booklet has a new essay by Neil Sinyard, an archival location report, Joseph Losey on Secret Ceremony, a look at the source novella, and an overview of contemporary reviews.