Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Suddenly, Last Summer

Suddenly, Last Summer has to be one of the most bizarre films to come out of classic Hollywood. To be honest the strangeness belongs entirely to the original play by Tennessee Williams which I have not read yet but will definitely do so soon. The film adaptation by Joseph L. Manckiewicz, as befits his reputation, is quite straightforward and flat cinematically but even then it remains an unforgettable experience. I was not at all surprised to learn that it had lots of censorship problems but even after all the cuts it manages to touch a lot of shocking and taboo topics and goes quite some way beyond the acceptable limits of what "normal" and mainstream movies are supposed to be about.

The film basically contains two long monologues with brief scenes in between. Elizabeth Taylor plays Catherine who seems to go insane after witnessing the death of his cousin Sebastian during their European vacation. Sebastian's mother Mrs Venable, played by Katharine Hepburn, is trying to cover up the truth about the horrible circumstances of his death by persuading a young doctor, played by a very ill-looking Montgomomery Clift, to lobotomise Catherine. In the end Catherine under the influence of a truth-serum tells the shocking story of what really happened "Suddenly Last Summer".

The film, as I said, effectively contains two long monologues delivered by both the lead actresses. I sometimes wonder why more films don't use this device of monologue since it offers so many poetic possibilities. I can't think of any director after Bergman and Fassbinder who used monologues effectively. (Not surprisingly they both had successful parallel career in theatre.) In the first monologue Katherine Hepburn recounts a trip she took with his son to the Galapagos islands where they both saw with their own eyes the horrible sight of flesh eating birds devouring the just-born turtles. This cruelty of nature convinces Sebastian that he has finally seen the "face of God," a cruel, psychopathic God. He is shown to have strong nihilistic strain in his personality and disturbingly the film links it to his artistic vocation of poetry and his homosexuality. To him love is just a facade under which people use and exploit each other. He doesn't even spare his own mother and cousin from this.

Gore Vidal who co-wrote the screenplay with Williams has been one of the most prominent gay rights activist in America and it is actually interesting to see it as a mockery of society's homophobia by exaggerating the portrayal of homosexual character by turning him into a faceless voiceless paedophile, with a cold and monstrous heart. Katharine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor are as expected both very good, though they do ham it up good at a couple of places. The final scene in which Taylor screams for "help" comes off as ridiculously over the top and so does the first scene in which Hepburn enters the stage through a bizarre elevator. I don't think any of these is their faults though. Overall I found it quite unsettling, something that is hard to shake off easily. Specially admirable since it was a mainstream success, garnering a few Oscar nominations, including a couple for the two leads.

4 comments:

puccinio said...

''Suddenly Last Summer'' is one of those films that make you wonder, "how did that get past the censors?". It's a much better film than ''A Streetcar Named Desire''(which is essentially a recording of the original Kazan Broadway production) and holds up as one of the great Tennessee Williams adaptations, alongside ''The Night of The Iguana'' and his own screenplay, ''Baby Doll''.

Tennessee Williams himself was gay of course and much of the wild colourful portraits of sexuality and mental illness(two of his major themes) derives from his own life and the lobotomy of his beloved sister by his parents. And Gore Vidal was a major Williams' expert. Joseph L. Mankiewicz was a director who specialized in a kind of chamber film, Hollywood's version of the Kammerspielfilm of Weimar Germany where the action looks and feels theatrical but the way it's cut and framed reveals a grasp of cinema. The close-ups of ''Suddenly Last Summer'' are magnificent.

And yes it is disturbing and one of the few great films about mental illness to come out of Hollywood(''Lilith'' made a few years later with a similar taste for sex, madness and death is the best).

Alok said...

I haven't read the play but I doubt if the original play also avoided mentioning homosexuality, cannibalism or prostitution. the film doesn't mention any of these explicitly but it is always implied.

the story about Williams's sister doesn't surprise me. It felt very personal and very authentic, all the more suprising because it was so over the top and so extreme.

puccinio said...

Broadway had fewer censorship issues than Hollywood in the 50's, just no f-words I guess(now thanks to David Mamet, that's gone too). So yes the play is far more explicit. Many of Tennessee Williams' plays were often compromised when adapted on-screen. For instance in ''A Streetcar Named Desire'', Blanche's husband was supposed to be gay and his death was a suicide because of her incessant gay-bashing and the ending made it clear that Kim Hunter would never leave Marlon Brando. The film still works because of the acting and Vivien Leigh is something else in that film.

The most compromised of Williams' adaptations was ''Cat on a Hot Tin Roof'' which is absolutely ridiculous. Good actors but it's like they are floating on empty space.

Tenessee Williams by the way also contributed to the screenplay for Visconti's ''Senso''. Visconti was a big admirer of Williams and did many productions(in translation) in Italy where Anna Magnani garnered much repute for interpreting his works. Magnani and Williams were also close friends.

''Suddenly Last Summer'' is by comparison practically uncompromised. John Huston's ''The Night of the Iguana'' wit Richard Burton(Mr. Elizabeth Taylor) and Ava Gardner is very recommended.

Alok said...

And he also wrote The Rose Tattoo for Magnani, which got her an Oscar! I haven't seen it though. Of all the films based on his plays or written by him I have only seen Streetcar Named Desire. It has some amazing onscreen chemistry between the actors but not much else.