Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Hit Me With Your Best Shot - Summertime

Hello. My name is Daniel and I am a hopeless romantic.

I can't help it. I live for a very specific kind of romance in films: Love that comes unexpectedly, burns bright for a very short amount of time, and cannot, must not last. Star-crossed lovers who don't end up together, for whatever reason. I can't help it. Casablanca, In the Mood For Love, Brief Encounter, Before Sunrise... these films are like crack to me. And one of my favorites, one that has kind of sadly fallen through the cracks of history a bit, is David Lean's Summertime.

I was thrilled when Nathaniel announced this Katharine Hepburn-Rossano Brazzi picture, because I first saw it about a year ago and haven't seen it since. I was eager to give it a revisit. It is swooningly, heartbreakingly romantic in the best way, and it takes place in that most captivating of Italian cities (at least for me), Venice. And while Summertime is certainly a beautifully-shot film in a very beautiful place, every single shot I thought about choosing for this piece was just of Katharine Hepburn.

This is one of The Great Kate's Oscar nominations, and it's well-deserved. I'd even go so far as to say she should have won the Oscar for it. I can't count the number of shots in this film in which she amazes me with her ability to show that her heart is blooming and breaking at the same time. She's the main reason why Summertime works as well as it does. It could very well have worked with another actress (Bergman, say, or Bancroft), because, hey, it's pretty damn hard NOT to fall head over sensible heels for Rossano Brazzi (SWOON). But I can't think of another actress that could have made Jane Hudson work as well as Hepburn, solely because the character runs almost completely contrary to our thinking about her - or at least, to the image she tried to cultivate of herself.

When we think of Kate, we mostly think of Tracy Lord, or Eleanor of Aquitaine, or Amanda Bonner, or Susan from Bringing Up Baby, or any other number of strong, forceful women. We may think of her as a romantic, but not in the sad, shy way of Jane Hudson. We do not think of her as someone who has never taken a vacation abroad, and certainly not as someone who would have trouble calling a waiter in a café. But Jane Hudson is all of these things, and Hepburn plays her as someone who resents that she is those things, even as she half-heartedly struggles to overcome them. She may laugh off her falling into a canal while wearing a white dress, but the second men start trying to dry her off, she finds the little boy who has attached himself to her and tells him to get her the hell out of there. Jane does not like attention. Perhaps being in her forties she has gotten used to not having it, and any time she gets it she finds it a strange, unnerving experience. Why would anyone pay attention to her? Why should they?

Well, they would because she looks like Katharine Hepburn, and even at her meekest, Kate has a presence about her. She just does. There's no hiding it or glossing over it. Perhaps this is what attracts Rossano Brazzi's Renato to her. That presence combined with her silence. She may be in her forties, but in many ways she is still an awkward teenager, amazed that such a beautiful, suave Italian man would take an interest in her, and not entirely sure if she wants it. There are very brief moments when you can see Kate rebelling against Jane - when Jane gets angry at herself for not being strong enough to do something she wants, that's clearly Kate - but it actually works in the character's favor. In the great scene when she tells Renato she is leaving later that day: She begins to cry, and Kate turns her head away from the camera, not willing to let the audience see her this weak, this sad. But at the same time, that makes the scene play much more interestingly than it might have, with Jane instead turning to the camera, or shaking her head back and forth. It's a simple motion that adds interest to the character where there really isn't on the page, and Hepburn's performance is filled with moments like that.

Which brings me to my Best Shot. It's from the final scene, one that has played out on the silver screen since time immemorial: Jane is getting on the train that will take her away from Venice, away from Renato. Will he come for her or not? This type of film is dependent on this scene to work. If this scene doesn't work, the film doesn't - it falls flat on its ass. As usual, the one leaving told the one that is being left specifically not to follow them, not to come after them, even though they really wanted the opposite. Even as she gets on the train, you can see the hope in Jane's eyes that Renato will disobey her. She wants him to; she doesn't want him to. She hates her self for wanting him to; she hates herself for hating herself. She must leave; she can't leave. She will leave.

And then, as usually happens, Renato does show up. With a gift. Just as the train is departing. She sees him. Even from very far away, she knows it's him. He runs with all his might to try and get the gift to her, but man is never faster than locomotive. So, standing at the end of the platform, he throws open the box and holds up the flower that was inside for her to see.

And then, this happens:

In six seconds, Kate goes from being down in the dumps to walking on cloud nine. Screenshots don't do it justice (sorry, I'm good with Photoshop but suck at making gifs). In motion, it's wondrous (you can see the whole scene here). This one shot made the movie for me the first time I saw it, and the second time it was the same punch to the gut. That's great acting. But more than that, it's great filmmaking. For a film like this to work just as well (if not better) the second time around, it has to hit some pretty deep emotions, and hit them well. Summertime, thanks to Katharine Hepburn, does just that.
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I feel like I'm understating the importance of Rossano Brazzi in all of this. He is perfectly swoon-worthy as Renato, and he is personally on my list of Top Ten Sexiest Male Stars of All Time. Great as Kate is, this type of film doesn't work unless BOTH the leads are easy to fall in love with, and he is. OH, he is.

David Lean, too. Was there are an auteur as versatile as he? Great Expectations, Brief Encounter, Blithe Spirit, Lawrence of Arabia, Bridge on the River Kwai and this? The guy mastered practically every genre.


  1. This is a beautiful write-up, Daniel. Definitely my favourite on the film, and not just because you're swooning for it and Kate as much as I am.

    It's strange, Kate has a number of "actorly" moments to exploit in the film - and she does - but for proof of how much work she's doing I'd readily choose this ending scene. Like I keep mentioning, all the best things about her Jane Hudson are not the usual Kate things (like her voice) and I love how you point out that it's the unlikely nature of Kate being like Jane which makes the performance work. The emotions that she goes through before that final wave is just perfect.

    1. Thanks, Andrew! This is not my favorite Kate performance (which would be a toss-up between The Lion in Winter and Bringing Up Baby), but it's still a stand-out in her filmography. This is based on a play by Arthur Laurents, which I have not read, but I doubt the text is nearly as good as this filming of it, mostly because Hepburn brings so much more to the character than there is on the page. I can't imagine reading this script and thinking it was anything other than trite, but in the hands of Lean, Brazzi, and Hepburn, it becomes something much more.

  2. I have to second Andrew's sentiment that this is a terrific write-up, DESPITE the fact that I liked the film less than both of you.

    1. Aw, thanks man! Means a lot, since I liked your write-up quite a bit, too - it made me think about the film in a different way.