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.