Friday, May 19, 2006

Picked Flick #54: Suddenly, Last Summer

Sometimes even the major, personality-shaping fixations in our lives recede for a while, but then forcefully reassert themselves at unexpected moments. Literally, in this one week, I am experiencing a mini-revival of my Tennessee Williams fandom, on three wholly different fronts. Professionally, as my students pass in their senior thesis projects, I have pulled my own undergraduate thesis out of the mothballs: a structurally daffy, theoretically promiscuous, but mercifully unhumiliating argument about Williams' plays as pre-Foucauldian parables of panoptical social regulation, taking Not About Nightingales as the central text. In a public context, Warner Bros. has just released a seven-disc box-set of films adapted from Williams plays: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Night of the Iguana, The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, Baby Doll (which is actually an original Williams screenplay), Sweet Bird of Youth (a slightly neutered version of one of my favorite plays), and two DVDs devoted to A Streetcar Named Desire, which figured further down on this list. Theologically, today is May 19, which was not Katharine Hepburn's birthday, but it was the day she often cited as her birthday—May 19, 1909, rather than May, 12, 1907—in order to shave two years off of her age.

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 Sebastian—the 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 lives—what 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.

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Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

(with great breathiness) You! have! sud! den! ly! re! turned!

so glad you're back. and you brought my fav 50s duo (the Monty & Liz show) with you which i'll pretend is an early birthday gift to me. Wheeeeeee....

10:07 AM, May 20, 2006  
Blogger Unknown said...

Hey, Nick, I hope you've seen Blythe Danner in the San Diego production of The Eccentricities of a Nightingale that PBS televised in the year of my birth (1976). If not, you should absolutely check it out; it's available on a NetFlixable DVD from the Broadway Theater Archive. Her performance is like a long aria sustained through a zillion modulations--her Alma Winemiller may be American theater's most passionate misfit. (Frank Langella is beautiful in it, too, though singling him out for praise here is a little like raving about Dean Stockwell's work next to Katherine Hepburn in Long Day's Journey Into Night.)

12:41 PM, May 22, 2006  
Blogger tim r said...

You know how much I love this film. Or maybe you don't. Anyway, I do!

3:34 PM, May 22, 2006  

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