Una Merkel in SUMMER AND SMOKE (1961) - Supporting Actress Sundays

In homage to the performance itself, StinkyLulu's agonna keep this entry into the Supporting Actress Sunday catalog quick. Partly because this performance involves two of StinkyLulu's absolute least favorite things about being a Tennessee Williams fiend: the recurrence of Geraldine Page as a featured player and the simple fact of Williams' worst great play, Summer and Smoke.

Thankfully, there's a touch of delight in this version – a dotty, goofy bauble of a performance by...
In the 1930s, Una Merkel became somewhat famous in a series a tart-tongued sidekick roles; she revived her career in the 1950s on Broadway. In Summer and Smoke, Merkel plays Mrs. Winemiller – the mother and “cross to bear” of Alma Winemiller (a signature Tennessee Williams’ neurotic played to hysteric dimension by the tic-laden Geraldine Page.) See, Mrs. Winemiller’s a little “off” – possibly senile, certainly nutso, with a penchant for spouting little non-sequiturs that symbolically articulate the emotional subtext of the scene. It’s an open question whether Mrs. Winemiller’s affliction is by disaster or design. (Hey, if StinkyLulu were stuck in the Winemiller house, playing crazy might prove a very useful survival stragegy. You know, lovely reader, like on the subway, when you just want people to leave you the hell alone...)

The character of Mrs. Winemiller serves as a foil for her daughter, Alma (“Spanish for soul” – in case you missed the 300 or so scripted reminders of that fact). To be sure, her mother works Alma’s very frayed last nerve, and Merkel’s Mrs. Winemiller seems almost to have a good time tweaking the mannered “airs” put on by her “spinster” daughter. Merkel spends about half of her screen time in quiet private moments – dressing, struggling with a puzzle, skulking about the house, stealing hats – and the rest shrieking evocative nonsense. Basically, she’s a crazy klepto with a sugar habit and a mild touch of Tourette’s. (Indeed, Merkel's Mrs. Winemiller could probably walk right into a John Waters movie and just blend… And really, Lulu has to wonder if Merkel’s hollering of “The Ice Cream man! Where’s the Ice Cream man?!?!” didn’t just spark the germ that became Edie, The Egg Lady in Pink Flamingos.) Merkel's Mrs. Winemiller is nearly the only dash of surrealist verve in Summer and Smoke, Williams' most luridly sincere piece of romantic piffle. Gotta love La Una for at least that.

But it's a blip of a performance, more an accenting than a supporting role. (Indeed, Una Merkel has more screen time, emotional dimension and narrative import as Verbena the housekeeper in 1961’s The Parent Trap.) Clearly, Merkel's nomination is of the "Not Dead Yet" variety of tributes... Solid, fascinating but incredibly fleeting – without even "that one" scene to which a fan might point in justifying the nomination. And yet, Merkel's Mrs. Winemiller remains the most interesting character (along with the surprising hot Earl Holliman as Archie Kramer) in this turgid plop of a picture.

So, that's it for 1961. Quite a year...
Tune in shortly for The Smackdown.

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