Picked Flick #54: Suddenly, Last Summer
Suddenly, Last Summer features one of Hepburn's best and steeliest performances, and certainly her most gleamingly villainous. She literally enters the movie from a great height, soaring down in a rococo elevator, spouting redolent mythologies about herself and her dead son Sebastianthe ghostly, depraved Rosebud of this particular mystery. Now get ready for this plot: Hepburn's fabulously venal Violet Venable has called one Dr. Cukrowicz (Montgomery Clift) to her eerie palace in order to persuade him to lobotomize her niece Catharine (Elizabeth Taylor), whose first-hand account of Sebastian's outlandish death has landed her straight in the booby-hatch. Catharine's story is quite a whopper, pivoting on details like pedophilia, prostitution, homosexuality, and cannibalism: it would seem that Sebastian has been gobbled by a ravenous band of young Spanish street-hustlers. Being a Williams play, this Guignol tale is, of course, a benchmark of truth. Instead, it is high society and social institutions that are unmasked as killing lies: the deceptive, carnivorous will of old-money aristocracy, embodied by Hepburn's Violet and her garden of Venus flytraps, and the buyable ethics of modern corporate medicine, represented by the endowment-hungry trustees of Monty's hospital. Granted, political content is not the first thing one might look for in Gore Vidal's mad adaptation of Williams' play, itself as purple as a low-hanging cluster of grapes. The script needlessly and distractingly pads the sensational atmosphere with predictably googly-eyed sanatorium scenes. Clift, recklessly sunk into this maelstrom of insanity, crosses his arms and darts his pupils in several scenes as though he is barely, quietly holding himself together, while his famous pal Liz Taylor sallies forth with her lurid monologues without quite adding much to them. Still, Suddenly, Last Summer fascinates almost as much as it entertains, which is tremendously. Director Mankiewicz, having helmed some of the greatest Hollywood movies about dubious, contested tales (All About Eve, A Letter to Three Wives), cleverly whets our appetite for the naked, bleeding truth, even as his direction of the actors and his gamely bold production design make clear that he is most interested in the nervy climate of repression and panic that surrounds the breech-birth of a horrible family secret. When Mercedes McCambridge, the most proudly perverse of 1950s character actresses, shows up as a fluttering flibbertigibbet, the movie's fruity compote gets even more aromatic and flavorful. It simmers enticingly, and sometimes, gloriously, it boils right over.
In short, if it's camp you want, it's camp you'll get, as when Monty gives a blond male nurse a visible once-over, or when Liz starts struggling with a locked door in the wrong place at the wrong time, triply imprisoned by an iron-barred causeway, an expressionist camera angle, and a triangulated bra. The movie makes it so easy for conservative culture vultures to tear away at it, like the flesh-eating birds that feast on baby sea turtles in one of Hepburn's centerpiece monologues. Tear they did: Suddenly, Last Summer sparked a bonfire of disgusted protest in 1959, but the movie, even more than the play, belongs in that beastly menagerie with Faulkner's Sanctuary, Pasolini's Salò, and Mary Harron's film of American Psycho, aggressively vulgar works in which a hard, proud skeleton of social critique and complex implication is nonetheless palpable, even to viewers as green as I was at age 15, when I first saw the movie. Floating between its scenes of family terrorism, pulsing beneath the shiny enamel of Williams' lyrical prose ("Most people's liveswhat are they but long trails of debris, with nothing to clean it up but, finally, death"), triumphing over the drag-revue flourishes like Hepburn's emu-feather hat and Liz's perpetually breathy delivery ("We! pro! cured! for! him!"), there is something remarkably formidable about Suddenly, Last Summer. It makes you chuckle, sometimes against its own interests, but it also lingers like few "better" films ever do, and in that way at least, it's a better Williams film than those bashfully catered affairs that Richard Brooks whipped up out of Cat and Sweet Bird. Just you try flossing it from your mind. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)
Image © 1959 Columbia Pictures.