Long before Carrie Bradshaw gave the single-and-over-thirty demographic a reputation for being independent and terrible at writing, Katharine Hepburn was thriving as a single woman with as much use for a man as a fish does a bicycle. The year was 1955 when English director David Lean took it upon himself to grab a hold of the actress’ new-found popularity and present the opportunity to play against type in Summertime – a love story, travelogue, and battle cry for the single lady which will have its own Criterion release on July 12th.
Based on Arthur Laurents‘play, Time of the Cuckoo, Lean presents Venice in all its occasionally over-glorified glory, with Hepburn as the aging “spinster” Jane Hudson, a secretary from Ohio who travels to Venice for a three-week holiday. As she clings frantically to her camera, quivering with delight at every structure, skyline, and street performer, it becomes apparent that Jane isn’t just here for the gondolas and fettucini, but she is running away from a life of nothingness in the hope. of finding… somethingness? The parade of pairs strolling the piazzas two-by-two gives the impression that Noah’s Ark has docked in the Grand Canal, adding to Jane’s sense of isolation.
This is where the trouble starts: the push and pull within Jane is evident as she aggressively protects herself from outsiders by thrusting a camera between her body and the world at every opportunity, but chokes back tears as she yearns to be one of the carefree, lovestruck couples. It is in these moments of internal conflict that Lean brings out something rare in Hepburn – a naturalness and ease with vulnerability. Despite a catalog of films that show glimpses of fragility and even the occasional comeuppance for her typically brash and proud persona, Summertime presents a Hepburn without contrivance. Her portrayal is of a real woman lugging around a genuine dissatisfaction with herself and her life, along with the constant fear of what changing might mean. It’s not long before sights of well-dressed women and divine cathedrals give way to the feeling that their very existence is a personal attack, as Jane’s confidence fades along with her love for Venice.
During one of many solo expeditions, she seats herself in a cafe at the overcrowded Piazza San Marco. So chaotic is the atmosphere that one cannot help but wonder how waiters keep track of orders and payments. Apparently, this is not anxiety-inducing enough to deter our lonesome tourist, as she orders her coffee and waits and observes; and waits some more; happy couple after happy couple passing by. Everyone seems to be enjoying themselves, completely oblivious to her desperate existence. But if an outsider knows anything it’s when they are being watched, and it’s not long before Jane feels the burning eyes of Renato di Rossi (Rosanno Brazzi), an Italian Cary Grant, fixating on the back of her head. Oozing just the right amount of “ciao bella grazie” and genuine affection, Renato helps attract a waiter to assist his new little obsession, while Hepburn treats the audience to another internal struggle, frantically resisting the urge to make eye contact before darting off with the grace of Wile E. Coyote fleeing a landslide.
Fate intervenes in the form of a single, antique goblet, which catches her eye from a shop window. One can imagine a previous Hepburn quipping about the glass’ allure lying in the fact that it, like she, is rare, old, and alone, but Jane Hudson’s attraction to glassware is less complex and the realization that the shopkeeper is none other than our cafe-hopping silver fox is met with barely-disguised fear. Long gone is the Hepburn who would go head-to-head and trade barbs with her leading man, intimidating, frightening or being above them: Bringing Up Baby showed Hepburn as the leader, pursuing her man and almost destroying his life in the process. Holiday gives us a woman filled with energy and cheering for the life of wanderlust.
The Philadelphia Story was created for Hepburn, showcasing her wit, elegance, and the sense that she felt better than others. This is not the case in Summertime. The unexpected encounter with Renato renders Jane flustered, stumbling, and out of control. Lean presents a woman fighting the realities of age and her lot in life. There is no rom-com gloss to the scene: when Jane removes her glasses, she does not become Prom Queen — she’s still a vulnerable tourist who looks her age. What may have once been given the classic screwball treatment is re-written through a filter of cringe, with her inability to carry the goblet along with her maps and camera clumsy rather than cute, made all the worse by the unbroken gaze of Renato, who seems hell-bent on observing every moment. Jane wonders, cautiously, if there may be the option of acquiring a second goblet. The symbolism might be on the nose, but it’s a damn sight better than “you had me at ‘hello.”
The possibility of being regarded as attractive is not enough to warrant an immediate subscription to Tinder, but it clearly gets the wheels turning, as Hudson starts to entertain the idea of being more sociable, even bolshie, when it comes to her needs. But Summertime does not let her jump the gun, and it is within these attempts at self-assertion that Hepburn’s performance is at its best: In a genuinely heartbreaking scene, having spent her trip bidding farewell to fellow tourists as they disappear into their world of tea. for two, Hudson evokes all the courage and wannabe life-of-the-party vibes she can muster and suggests she join one of the friendlier couples for a drink. Their polite rebuff is agonizing to watch, all the more due to her response, laughing it off while fooling no one, before disappearing out of view to hide her shame. Her absence lasts only a few moments, but it is long enough to sufficiently hate herself. The initial “nobody’s older than me” quips which served her well at the beginning of the trip, and possibly through her life, have lost their air of shtick and are now a cold reality that further isolates her.
The hurt and anguish of years of nothingness finally explode when Hudson learns that di Rossi is married with several children, and that her new comrade, the young street urchin-cum-tour-guide, Mauro (Gaetano Autiero), is moonlighting as a go-between for adulterous relationships within her hotel. It is all too much for Hudson, shattered illusions about humanity, the lost innocence of Mauro, and her own inadvertent status as “the other woman.” Hysterical, broken, and afraid, she grabs Mauro violently, admonishing him for being part of the world’s deceit. But her breakdown as played by Hepburn is more than this. Her desperation smacks of a lifetime of injustice and of an anger severely self-directed. How stupid she was for believing a change in location and a new dress would fix what was lacking within her. It is with pitiful horror that she screams at the child, trembling through tears as she recognizes that the geography has changed, but the facts have not.
Mercifully, you can not keep a good woman down, and with the benefit of time, closer analysis of the di Rossi homelife, and the distraction of her own libido, Hudson comes around to the point of being afraid but intrigued by the possibilites of having a sexual awakening at the ripe old age of… undisclosed. Our resident dreamboat remains game, pursuing her like Pepe le Pew. Eventually, a combination of her own desires and di Rossi’s patience, not to mention foolproof arguments including “my dear girl, you are hungry. Eat the ravioli, ” are enough to cement the love affair, and La Hepburn emerges, hair down, vibrant complexion, and a smile that does not threaten to break into tears.
The end of the film may not be the Disney conclusion audiences hope for, but there remains a great sense of happiness and reward: Hepburn showing glimmers of her Independent Woman trademark but without the prickliness and studied grandeur. A new lease on life and the experience of love may have been what Hudson wanted, but the lesson learned was that she no longer needed a man to make her complete, to make her happy. As the train pulls out of the station and the lovers wave frantic farewells, Hudson’s track leads back to Ohio as a changed woman – whatever had been lacking in her past, she no longer needs.