Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)

*This post is part of the "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" blogathon at The Film Experience*

Where do we even start with Suddenly, Last Summer? The film has plenty going for it: it's based on a one-act play by Tennessee Williams, with a screenplay by Williams and Gore Vidal. Katharine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, and Montgomery Clift are the headlining stars. Four-time Academy Award-winning director Joseph L. Mankiewicz (All About Eve) was at the helm of the production. Ostensibly, just from this line-up, something classic is going to emerge, right?


And something…interesting does, to say the least. The film centers on the death of Sebastian Venable, who perished under questionable circumstances while on vacation in Europe with his cousin, Catherine Holly (Taylor). Sebastian's wealthy mother, Violet (Hepburn), is eager to have Catherine committed to an institution to be lobotomized in order to cover up the possibly sordid details about Sebastian's life and death. She calls on Dr. Cukrowicz (Clift) to "assess" Catherine's mental state, but the more he attempts to understand the situation, the closer this family comes to reconciling the secrets they've long kept buried.

What would those secrets be? Well, you'll have to find out after the jump.



The film presents itself as a psychological melodrama similar to the film versions of Williams' other plays, particularly A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Yet, while there were controversial elements to those films (they each dealt with homosexuality, though in veiled ways), they weren't quite to the extent of Suddenly, Last Summer. Over the course of the film, as the secrets are revealed, we're treated to: the horrors of insanity, lobotomies, Sebastian the predatory gay, incestuous overtones in his relationships with Cathy and Violet, and, last but not least, cannibalism. And not just cannibalism: cannibalism by way of tiny, "exotic" European children. The film may look like prestige melodrama, but it's ultimately well-dressed camp.

Not that this is necessarily a bad thing. The vast majority of Williams' plays exist somewhere between seriousness and playfulness, often imbued with the delirium of the sticky, sweet Southern heat of his beloved New Orleans. But they rarely extend into all-out camp the way that Suddenly, Last Summer does (Williams would later denounce the film, claiming to have no involvement in its script). But it's obvious that those involved - particularly the actors - are treating this pretty straightforward, and only Hepburn and Taylor emerge relatively unscathed (they each earned Best Actress Oscar nominations, too). Hepburn plays Violet theatrically, selling the grandiosity of the character's wealth while keeping her just mentally unstable enough to realize something is wrong. Taylor, however, throws herself into the crazytown nature of Catherine, playing her as a woman who believes she really is crazy because everyone keeps saying so. It's Taylor who ends up owning the film, especially with her lengthy final-act monologue in which she details exactly what happened to Sebastian.


And what did happen? Well, while on vacation, Sebastian had Catherine wear a sheer bathing suit to the beach (something that apparently Violet used to do for him), attracting young men with whom he would then hook up with. One day, the two of them are followed around by a group of children, banging on makeshift instruments and seem to multiply the more they try to escape them. The children catch up to Sebastian, and then tear his flesh apart and eat him. The Production Code Administration gave the film special permission to be explicit with Sebastian's homosexuality, since it could still be considered "moral" by having Sebastian be punished for his "perversions." So the moral of the film, I guess, is if you're gay, small European children will eat you alive.

Thematic and narrative nuttiness aside, Mankiewicz has a strong hand with the film's visuals, relying on the inherent nonsense of the material to craft some pretty terrific images. If nothing else, the visual style of the film helps it sell the insanity it's selling. It's not enough to "save" the film, per se (not that it needs saving), but it certainly makes it all the more fascinating.

What I mean is, Violet is introduced essentially sitting on a throne that descends from above:


While Catherine is introduced fighting a nun for a cigarette, which she succeeds in procuring:


There's also an impressive, practically-full-rainforest garden in the back of the Venable estate:


But more than anything, I'm really fond of the editing techniques used in Catherine's account of the events of Sebastian's death. There's a dreamlike quality to these images, blurring the edges while including Catherine's present self somewhere in the frame, like so:





But when it comes to picking a "best shot," there's a terrific one that pretty much sums up the film's serio-camp tone. It comes somewhat early in the film, when Dr. Cukrowicz is meeting Violet for the first time, and they tour the gardens together, pausing for this moment:

*Best Shot*

Yeah, a literal angel of death between them. There's a lot of things that Suddenly, Last Summer can be accused of, but subtlety is definitely not one of them. It's made even better that this image is echoed later in the film, as Catherine is recounting the children's pursuit of Sebastian:


You know, just in case you weren't certain of where this was going. It's not a particularly deep film, but it's a pretty enjoyable descent into cinematic madness.

1 comment:

NATHANIEL R said...

"subtlety is not one of them"

i always wonder about the explanation of what happened to Sebastian... just how much is literal and how much is metaphorical and I don't think all that much is clear by the end of the movie to tell you the truth.

but i love the movie