The Secret World of Cenci and Leonora

An eerie promotional image from the 1968 film SECRET CEREMONY starring Mia Farrow and Elizabeth Taylor, directed by Joseph Losey.

Pretentious art house bomb, neglected masterpiece or inscrutable personal project for Joseph Losey? Secret Ceremony (1968) had the misfortune to follow Boom! (1968), the director’s notoriously lambasted film adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore starring the world’s most famous celebrity couple at the time, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Equally challenging for mainstream audiences, Secret Ceremony was promoted as a kinky psychodrama with lesbian overtones and such tag lines as “It’s time to speak of unspoken things” and “No one admitted the last 12 minutes.” Yet, despite the presence of Elizabeth Taylor, Robert Mitchum and Mia Farrow, who had just appeared in the as-yet-unreleased Rosemary’s Baby the same year, the movie was too strange, decadent and moody to hold the attention of moviegoers and critics expecting a more traditional genre film.

Based on the novella Ceremonia secreta by Argentine writer Marco Denevi, the director stated in Michel Ciment’s Conversations with Losey that “Secret Ceremony was brought to me as a project for Ingrid Bergman by her agent…I got George Tabori to write a script, and it was finished at least three years before Boom!.” It was just after the completion of the latter film when Elizabeth Taylor suggested to Losey that they do another film together. Losey sent her a screenplay, she agreed to do it and Losey brought Tabori back in to re-work sections of it, some of it on location in the gloomy mansion where it was filmed.

One Losey scholar refers to Secret Ceremony as an “odd, ritualistic film” and it certainly exudes a perverse fascination with the darker side of human nature with its intimations of incest, rape, mental illness and unhealthy familial attachments. At the center of the story is Leonora (Taylor), a prostitute, who, at the film’s open, is followed to her daughter’s gravesite by a young girl (Farrow) named Cenci, who looks remarkably like her deceased child. Cenci then invites Leonora to her mansion, where she lives alone, and Leonora discovers that she also bears a resemblance to the girl’s deceased mother. The two form a surrogate mother-child relationship and, for a while, enjoy a happy but cloistered existence until it is threatened by Cenci’s two greedy aunts, Hannah (Peggy Ashcroft) and Hilda (Pamela Brown), and the arrival of Albert (Mitchum), Cenci’s stepfather, who presents a sexual threat to the young woman. Events spiral into tragedy and culminate in madness, suicide and murder.

Leonora (Elizabeth Taylor, left) meets Cenci (Mia Farrow) at a cemetery and feels a strange connection to her in Joseph Losey’s SECRET CEREMONY (1968).

In an interview, Losey stated that the movie was about characters who tried to conceal their “private and sexual urges and needs” and, on a deeper level expressed the view “…that people come to you only when they need you, or when they need something from you, and they discard you when the use is finished.” This bleak viewpoint is often a running thread throughout Losey’s films from Eva (1962) to The Servant (1963) to Accident (1967).

Leonora (Elizabeth Taylor, right) confronts Cenci’s two greedy aunts Hilda (Pamela Brown, left) and Hannah (Peggy Ashcroft, center) over the estate in Joseph Losey’s SECRET CEREMONY (1968).

With Elizabeth Taylor already cast in the role of Leonora, Losey began a search for the other key players. He needed a high profile star with box office clout for the role of Albert and chose Robert Mitchum whom he had known briefly in Hollywood. Several actresses such as Marianne Faithful were considered for Cenci until screenwriter Tabori’s ex-wife actress Viveca Lindfors suggested Mia Farrow, who was in the middle of a traumatic breakup with husband Frank Sinatra. Farrow was assigned the role and British character actors Pamela Brown and Peggy Ashcroft were cast as Cenci’s two meddling aunts.

Albert (Robert Mitchum) plays a conniving stepfather to Cenci (Mia Farrow) in the 1968 Gothic melodrama SECRET CEREMONY.

Probably the most crucial part of the casting was the spooky residence where the eccentric tale unfolds. As the sprawling residence at Addison Avenue, Kensington, where Cenci resides, “Losey chose an art nouveau mansion tiled in peacock blue and emerald green and filled with the lustre of light and dark woods, leaded glass, Venetian galleries, post-Pre-Raphaelite stained-glass windows and De Morgan mosaics. Built between 1896 and 1904 by Halsey Ricardo for the furniture magent Debenham, the house was now empty and dilapidated, offering [production designer] Richard Macdonald a pretext for extravagant restoration and furnishing.” (from Joseph Losey by Edith De Rham).

Director Joseph Losey consults with Mia Farrow on a bath tub scene in the 1968 film SECRET CEREMONY.

Losey would soon regret his decision to hire Mitchum. According to the director, “…from the moment he arrived, he was on the defensive, and he was hostile to me, to Elizabeth and to Mia, and he was very unpleasant. So it was extremely hard for me to work with him. In the scene in the kitchen, for instance, or the one by the coffin. It’s a terrible experience to remember. But in some curious way, I must have made some mistake with him. I don’t know what it was. But there was nothing ever that he did with any pleasure.”

In her own account of the filming of Secret Ceremony, Farrow noted in her autobiography, What Falls Away, that ,”The movie people dyed my hair soot black, hoping to create any slight resemblance between myself and ravishing, raven-haired Elizabeth Taylor. When that failed to do it, I wore a long, dark wig.” Farrow also got to know the Burtons quite well during the shoot as Richard was often on the set, jealously observing his wife and her director. At the time he complained to a reporter, “My wife and Joe Losey are having a professional love affair.” Burton even offered to step in and take over the role of Albert when Mitchum became difficult to work with.

Robert Mitchum plays a sinister character who is stalking his stepdaughter in the 1968 melodrama SECRET CEREMONY, directed by Joseph Losey.

Elizabeth Taylor proved to be the consummate professional throughout the shoot and was loved by the cast and crew. The only time she experienced any hesitation in doing a scene was the one in which she undresses and enters the bathtub with Cenci. Dressed in only a towel, Taylor apparently froze before the cameras and the crew, unable to move until Losey offered her encouragement and cleared the set of everyone except a skeleton crew to shoot the scene.

Director Joseph Losey oversees a scene of Leonora (Elizabeth Taylor) slapping Cenci (Mia Farrow) in SECRET CEREMONY (1968).

Off the set, Farrow reported that, “Weekday lunches with the Burtons took place in a restaurant near the studios and generally lasted about two hours. Without fail, Elizabeth saw to it that I was invited to lunch and any other event she thought I might enjoy. “I feel protective of you,” she recently told me. “I always have.” In addition, Farrow noted that “Secret Ceremony took us to Holland, where we filmed in an immense, decaying seaside hotel. In the off-hours I rode horseback on the beach, and Bob Mitchum wrote beautiful little poems on shreds of paper. Every evening we all gathered in the lounge where Richard Burton recited his many favorite verses in a golden voice.”

When Secret Ceremony was completed and released, it garnered some of the worst reviews since Boom! and resulted in Elizabeth Taylor’s box office ranking dropping several notches in popularity, a trend that would continue with her subsequent movies. The film didn’t help Losey’s career either and he wouldn’t regain his once high standing with the critics until The Go-Between in 1970. On the subject of Secret Ceremony, critic Rex Reed wrote “This piece of garbage is so totally ridiculous that I can’t imagine why anyone would want to be in it, let alone see it.”

Cenci (Mia Farrow) finds a mother figure in Leonora (Elizabeth Taylor), a woman she meets in a cemetery, in Joseph Losey’s SECRET CEREMONY (1968).

Pauline Kael judged it as “truly terrible,” and Judith Crist dismissed it as a disaster. There were a few dissenters, however, such as Variety which called it “moody, leisurely developed and handsomely produced…performances are generally good.” And Renata Alder of The New York Times wrote that it was “Joseph Losey’s best film in years. The lacquered decadence works well this time…There is also a ceremonial quality – coffins like cribs, parallelisms, people reunited in death – that turns crude and embarrassing at times; although I don’t usually like this colored genre of sick ritual film, I rather liked this one.”

Celebrated British actress Peggy Ashcroft plays an odd, sneaky aunt in the bizarre 1968 art film/melodrama SECRET CEREMONY, directed by Joseph Losey.

Losey was completely unhappy with Universal’s promotion of Secret Ceremony, which he felt misrepresented the film as a sordid lesbian romance with some posters showing Farrow and Taylor in bed together. Regardless of this exploitation approach, the movie was an expensive box office failure for the studio and when they sold it to television, they offered up a completely different version, further enraging Losey. “The producers had some kind of pre-contract with NBC and they thought that the film was censorable and unintelligible and that NBC wouldn’t take it – so they never presented it to NBC in its original form,” Losey said. “They presented it only in their own form and not one person connected artistically with the film was consulted or involved in those changes. They’re absurd – they completely destroyed the rhythm, intention and content of the film. They added a prologue and an epilogue, made alterations all the way through, absolutely reversing the meaning of the film. Anyway, they got $1.5 million out of their deal with NBC.”

Both Boom! and Secret Ceremony have since taken their rightful places as outré art house disasters so outlandish they achieve a high camp perfection. John Waters cites Boom! as one of his favorite bad movies and Dan Callahan from Senses of Cinema says Secret Ceremony “is in a class all by itself. It is much funnier than either Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959) or Leo McCarey’s Duck Soup (1933) and rewards multiple viewings….Secret Ceremony is a film that is so bad, so irredeemably, lovably foolish, that it provides the sort of life-embracing laughs many comedies fail to engender. I have shown it on successive nights to large groups of people and all of them laugh uproariously throughout. Is there room to include such a film among a great director’s great works? Unless we are unnecessarily stuffy, which would miss the point of his career entirely, the answer has to be yes.”

Leonora (Elizabeth Taylor) tries to unravel the mystery about Cenci, her mother and the in-laws in the gothic melodrama SECRET CEREMONY (1968).

Secret Ceremony was released on VHS by MCA in the U.S. in 1987 but has been unavailable on DVD and Blu-ray until recently when Kino Lorber released it in a remastered edition in both formats on April 21, 2020. If you own an all-region Blu-ray player, an even better option was released around the same time by Indicator in a special limited edition of 3,000 copies that includes an archival interview with Joseph Losey, the infamous TV version of the film, an audio commentary by film critics Dean Brandum and Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and more.  

*This is a revised and extended version of an article that originally appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.

Bath time fun with Cenci (Mia Farrow) and Leonora (Elizabeth Taylor) in the bizarre melodrama SECRET CEREMONY (1968).

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