Classics reviewed: ‘Suddenly Last Summer’

I have a strange memory of Joseph Mankiewicz’s 1959 drama Suddenly, Last Summer. I hadn’t watched the film for a long time and remembered liking it, even revering it. I watched it again last night and forgot just how uneven the film really was. None of the elements of the film: the writing, the directions, the cast, the cinematography gel together to make a cohesive work. Instead each individual component works on its own – not terribly well, by the way, to make a disjointed and highly mixed viewing experience.

***spoilers spoilers spoilers***

Taken from Tennessee Williams’ play of the same name, Suddenly, Last Summer is a mystery of sorts – a Southern Gothic whodunit. Montgomery Clift stars as the young and brilliant doctor John Cukrowicz, a former Chicagoan who is working on experimental lobotomies in a struggling New Orleans mental institution. The hospital’s facilities are dire – during a procedure in front of an audience, Dr. Cukrowicz had to contend with crumbling plaster and flickering lights, as the failing building was in need of some renovation. Cukrowicz is obviously great at his job, but is chafing under the severely limited resources in which he has to work. It’s the desperate need of the hospital that brings in the main plot point of the film.

Because the hospital’s in such disarray, its administrator, Dr. Lawrence Hockstader (Albert Dekker) is willing to take bribe money from the rich Mrs. Violet Venable (Katherine Hepburn) to pay for a new wing. In return, Hockstader hopes that Cukrowicz is willing to perform a lobotomy on her disturbed niece Catherine (Elizabeth Taylor). It all seems like an easy fix – and when Cukrowicz visits Mrs. Venable, he also learns that she is mourning the violent and mysterious death of her poet son, Sebastian. It’s clear that the two had a special relationship that while not incestuous, it was rather codependent. In his death, he has become sainted – a brilliant young artist cut down before his prime. Mrs. Venable indulges in these moments of grandiose memories, building up a legend of her son.

The interview scene between Mrs. Venable and Cukrowicz is the first scene that I’ll go into with some length. It’s interesting, but ultimately it fails to deliver for a number of reasons. Set in Mrs. Venable’s insanely ornate garden which she likens to the “dawn of creation” the set design is pretty impressive. But the scene is undone mainly by Hepburn’s performance. As she goes on rhapsodizing about her dead son’s genius, the actress is a mess of all the Katherine Hepburn cliches and tics that people deride her for: her stuttering delivery, done in a braying lockjaw New England accent as well as her wildly overacting her scenes. She’s given little support by her costar who squirms impassively at her side, while she makes a mess of the whole scene.  Also the editing at certain points becomes a bit choppy – and it’s clear at times that when one scene cuts to another the actors are standing on different marks.

But there are some interesting spots that deserve some recognition, namely is some of the placement of the sets. In particular is the recurring image of a winged skeleton. It appears in a scene in the garden, with Clift and Hepburn bookending the ghoulish statue. It also appears later in the film in the climactic flashback when the angry mob kills Sebastian. I had to do some digging to figure out what a winged skeleton means – some saw it as the angel of death. When talking about her son’s death in the garden, Mrs. Venable maintains that her son died of a heart attack, but the winged skeleton may be letting us know there’s more. I was also wondering if Sebastian wasn’t buried in Mrs. Venable’s own Garden of Eden. It feels that the winged skeleton could be seen as a grave marker – a cross, of sorts – it marked his gruesome death, the statue looking impassively at the dying Sebastian, and it may be watching over his body. There’s nothing to suggest that Mrs. Venable kept his body at home, but it was clear that the skeleton meant something important – and it’s clear that the statue is meant to clue the viewers into realizing that her son’s death was no heart attack. The other interesting – though rather heavy-handed part of this scene is the Venus flytrap sequence, in which Mrs. Venable has to feed her carnivorous plant with expensively-procured flies (again, more on that in a bit).

In the interview, Mrs. Venable asks that Cukrowicz treat her niece. Catherine was with Sebastian in Europe at the time of his death and returned an unwell woman. Holed up in a Catholic mental institution being treated for Dementia Praecox. The doctor immediately questions the diagnosis and presses Mrs. Venable to explain the symptoms which include incoherent babbling and “obscene” memories. When he finally meets Catherine, she’s willful and obviously very troubled, but Cukrowicz is not convinced that a lobotomy is the best option. He tries but is initially unsuccessful to understand why Catherine would be suffering from trauma-induced amnesia. This scene introduces us to Elizabeth Taylor. Taylor is an interesting choice to play Catherine because the actress has already played a Tennessee Williams character, Maggie the Cat in Richard Brooks 1958 classic Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (which shares some of Suddenly, Last Summer‘s themes). In Suddenly, Last Summer, however, the script and the character call for Taylor to convincingly portray a woman whose sanity is highly questionable. It’s in this bit of casting that the film falters at time, because though Taylor is solid throughout most of the film, the necessary heights required for the rule are just beyond her grasp. And like Hepburn, she’s saddled with a rather unpleasant voice – discordant instrument that veers easily into a shrill tone that is barely listenable.

Taylor and Clift share their first scene together in the library of the Catholic institution. Catherine has spitefully put out her cigarette in a nun’s bare hand, thereby cementing her reputation as a dangerously violent patient. In fact there’s a bit of self-fulfilling prophecy involved in which Catherine taunts Cukrowicz, playing up the part of the mad woman because she’s treated as so. It’s in these heightened moments that Taylor’s limits are betrayed and she’s not quite convincing. But the scene still has merit if only because the two stars share a warm chemistry, cemented by their close friendship (Taylor reportedly used her box office clout to guarantee Clift’s casting despite the actor’s well-publicized alcoholism and difficulty in being insured). Because both Taylor and Clift are such recognizable and legendary icons, they don’t disappear into their roles – and instead it feels as if we’re watching Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift playing a scene together. The script doesn’t call for them to do much, and the smoldering passion that they were able to project in their first collaboration together (1951’s A Place in the Sun) has been replaced by a strange disconnect – mainly because Clift’s performance is so strange and unformed (he seems to be trying to work out his character in every scene, not content on a specific choice). The problem with casting big movie stars in roles like these is that if the actors don’t convince, their stardom merely distracts. With a stronger script, I’m sure Clift would have been able to salvage a more consistent performance, but as such, he’s merely reacting to Taylor’s bravura acting.

After their interview together, Cukrowciz begins to question the whole idea of a lobotomy. He takes her from the Catholic institution and checks her into his hospital – and this is where the film unintentionally approaches camp. In the depiction of mental institutions, Hollywood has struggled in maintaining an unflinching reality without going overboard in the sort of extravagant “crazy” that plagues most filmed institutions. Suddenly, Last Summer doesn’t avoid this trap, and we get all the popular cliches and standard tropes of mental institutions – shrieking laughter, unprovoked screaming, almost animal-like rage, and in one particular scene when Catherine is teetering on a catwalk over the male patients’ rec area, the film depicts the men as grunting, lascivious animals, grasping at her in unbridled lust and carnal desire – suddenly the mental institution cliche becomes the prison cliche.

When it’s time to finally figure out what happened to Sebastian and Catherine, we get the convenient truth serum which blocks any mental inhibitions in poor Catherine. Assembled in the garden along with Catherine’s aunt, mother, brother, Hockstader, among others, Catherine finally breaks through and describes why Sebastian’s death was so traumatic.

Earlier in the film, Catherine suggested that she and Mrs. Venable were used as “bait.” It was unclear what Catherine was referring to until this prolonged scene, dominated by Taylor’s unsteady voice as she recalls that Sebastian planned a grand tour of Europe, but decided that his mother was too old to be used as “bait” – and Catherine was brought on as his companion. It’s then that it becomes clear that Sebastian’s alluded-to homosexuality was in fact the truth. While in Spain, Sebastian used his gorgeous cousin to get the local young men to flock to them and then would exploit their poverty to solicit sex. It becomes unclear exactly how this arrangement devolved so quickly because the script doesn’t give much explanation, and instead has Taylor describe with increasing distress how at one point the two were surrounded by a gang of men, some of whom were playing makeshift instruments and swarming the two. Crippled with shame and embarrassment, Sebastian angrily shouts down all of Catherine’s suggestions of getting help, and instead he dashes off, running up a seemingly-spiraled road to the top of a hill. The men flock toward him like a group of angry birds (more on that image in a bit), and finally get him to the top and they pounce on him. When Catherine finally reaches the top she realizes that the men have started to rip him apart and eat him.

Obviously, this tale is distressing for everyone involved, but most so for Mrs. Venable, who reacts to Catherine’s breakthrough by reverting to a strange, almost catatonic place in which Sebastian is alive and well. In her newly-demented state, Cukrowicz stands in for her son, and she begins to talk to him, calling him Sebastian, warning him to stay away from the hot son. She chatters on about how wonderful their relationship is, and how they’ll be a pair forever. Amid all of this, Catherine seems to have recovered, finally unburdening herself of this deep and dark secret, and she leaves the garden with Cukrowicz.

The pacing of the final reveal is too rushed, as if Williams was worried his audience would start to question the finale and its logic. I had so many questions – why were the marauding boys announcing their approach by playing makeshift instruments? Why did they eat Sebastian? Some of the violence made some sense to me – judging from the ages of some of the extras playing the boys, Sebastian was a rapist, so there is some justification (at least within the context of the film) of the violent death – had the death been just a hate crime or gay bashing, it would’ve been satisfying, but pushing it to the macabre point of having the boys cannibalize Sebastian I feel is a cheap way to titillate and horrify the audiences.

Because the film was based on a play (Williams worked on the screenplay with Gore Vidal), there are moments when the story’s stage origin intrude on the dialogue and action. The writing can be florid and oft-purple (this is especially true of Hepburn’s lines), but I was fine with that because some of my favorite films have been adaptations of plays. But because it is a play and a “serious picture” there is also some unsubtle use of symbolism and allegory – as well as bits of unintended irony, as well.

Earlier in the film, when in the garden, Mrs. Venable and Cukrowicz talk about Sebastian. As usual, she spins tales of loveliness and culture – but there is a dark undercurrent in her tales. When describing a trip the two took to the Galapagos, she talks about birds of prey swooping down on freshly-hatched sea turtles who are trying to make their way into the sea. It’s clear that the scene distressed her and initially we’re meant to understand that she was disturbed by the sight of a flock of birds so large that it made the sky black swooping down and devouring innocent turtle hatchlings.

 

Once the horrible ending is revealed, we understand that the grounds for Mrs. Venable’s distress is the deepseated knowledge (however much obscured by denial), that her son died a death not unlike the turtles. In a bit of cultural chauvinism and xenophobia, the men who descend on Sebastian are mostly dusky and swarthy and move in a controlled chaos, much like the flock of birds.

Another interesting question we should ask is how is homosexuality treated in this film? Both Williams and Vidal were gay as was Clift. And Taylor had a long history with gay men. Interestingly enough, though homosexuality in Suddenly, Last Summer is posited as an immoral character flaw that is synonymous with death. Sebastian is a mashing of two archetypes of homosexuals in film: the predator and the bon vivant. As the former, he goes to poorer countries and takes advantage of local penury to coerce men and boys desperate enough to perform sexual favors for him; as the latter, he’s shown as a witty cutup, who views his world with a perennially-arched eyebrow. When he indulges in his sexual proclivities he exposes himself to danger but he also exposes himself as a calculating, carnivorous being – like the Venus flytrap. His use of his cousin as “bait” to entice the young men implies that he was never interested in traveling with his mother for her company, but for her use as a female being – and when her utility ended upon age, he abandoned her for his travels with Catherine. And the mob of boys and men also align themselves within the sex=death narrative by showing that even situational homosexuality can lead one to barbarianism and murder. They performed homosexual acts and as a result have become animal-like in their brutality and uncivilized natures.

Interestingly enough, the film does do some clever compare/contrast with its two leading ladies. Both Hepburn and Taylor were celebrated beauties, and though Hepburn was older (52), she was still very good looking. However, the differences in age were exaggerated throughout the film especially in the oft-unforgiving closeups that highlighted Hepburn’s lines, freckles, and age spots – particularly when zooming in on her hands, which most believe are the best way to judge a woman’s age. Taylor, by contrast is at the height of her legendary beauty, and never looks bad – even when she’s in the throes of her madness. In the flashback scenes to Spain, Taylor is famously clad in a white swimsuit that quickly becomes transparent (by 1959 Hollywood movie standards, anyways), and her young voluptuous figure is shown. When she sits at the beach after doffing her swim cap, she sits on her needs looking very much like an idealized goddess.  The differences in costumes highlight character and mood as well – Taylor is dressed in somber, flattering black while Hepburn is done up as almost an eccentric with a feather-lined hat and voluminous, pleated skirts. There’s a starchiness to Hepburn that contrasts to the fleshiness of Taylor. Hepburn’s cheekbones jut out aggressively, casting tiny shadows of their on on her face and her somewhat exaggerated middle-age status almost renders her sexless, which illustrates Sebastian’s discarding of his mother in favor of his youthful cousin.

Upon its release, Suddenly, Last Summer was feted with award nominations, though many of its makers – including Vidal, Williams, and Mankiewicz have pointed out its flaws and failures. Taylor and Hepburn inexplicably were nominated for Academy Awards, though both actresses have done far more interesting work. The film’s considered a classic, but I view it more as an artifact or a relic of a type of film that was very popular in the 1950s and 1960s: deeply psychological dramas, often set in the south, that are taken from controversial stage plays. The psychology in these films – and this includes Suddenly Last Summer – is often half-baked and vague with a smattering of research. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend Suddenly, Last Summer, though it does have a strong reputation among audiences, so it’s with severe reservation that I recommend Suddenly, Last Summer.

Click here to buy Suddenly, Last Summer on DVD from amazon.com.

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