I don’t think the subject has come up yet on my blog, but I’ll go on record right now as being a pretty big fan of Tennessee Williams. Yes, all of his plays are the same and can get a bit tedious after a while, dealing with all of the closet homosexuality and overbearing southern mothers leading up to insanity in some form, but as long as I space them out they never cease to entertain and instruct me. I hadn’t seen/read one in a while so when I came across Suddenly, Last Summer, and since I was in the mood for that sort of thing, I went for it.
Whenever you see a movie adaptation of Tennessee Williams, you always have to watch out for the censorship. A good rule of thumb is if there some sort of implied “deviant” sexual behavior, assume the worst because what they are trying to get at is what is actually happening. The reason I put quotes around “deviant” is that what’s considered deviant at the time is different than now, but a lot of times they’ll overlap (but sometimes for different reasons). I ran into the same trap with this movie. I couldn’t figure out what they were getting at with a certain character, even though the Production Code allowed the film to be more explicit since it shows homosexuality in a pretty bad light. But the code got it wrong as per usual, the reason why what he did was wrong wasn’t because what he was doing was with males, but because they were far younger than him and he used them heartlessly.
The character in question is Sebastian Venable, who is dead before the film even begins. His death is the main mystery the film concerns itself with, as it was the trigger for his cousin Catherine’s (Elizabeth Taylor) madness. Dr. Cukrowicz (Montgomery Clift) is bribed by her aunt and Sebastian’s mother, Violet Venable (Katharine Hepburn) to perform a lobotomy on Catherine in exchange for the money to build a new hospital building. As Cukrowicz investigates the family more, he finds that it’s not so much that Catherine needs a lobotomy as it is Violet wanting to hide the truth that Catherine knows.
I was surprised to read (on Wikipedia, for shame!) that the film is classified as a mystery. That’s exactly what it is, however. Mainly it concerns itself with finding out exactly how Sebastian died and how he lived his life. Violet’s account is very different different from Catherine’s, and Cukrowicz is the outsider standing in our place trying to figure out what happened. As such, the story comes out over the course of several flashbacks. Some of these are done better than others. I thought it was a lot more intriguing (content aside) when Violet was just talking about her son rather than the big dramatic production it had to be with Catherine.
Mostly this is due to Elizabeth Taylor. Surprisingly, this only marks the second film I’ve seen her in (the first being Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) so I feel a little bit strange making broad generalizations about her acting. Here she was a bit annoying, to tell you the truth. She got pretty whiny and obnoxious, especially in the flashback portions. But her voice is just kind of annoying for the whole movie, and I know she didn’t do this Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? so I hope she doesn’t do it most of the time because it’s annoying. Williams himself believed Taylor was miscast in the role of Catherine, saying that she was too smart to be taken advantage of like Catherine was and not realize it for so long. I have to agree, on the whole. Maybe the annoying voice was an attempt on Taylor’s part to dumb down a bit, but really it was just annoying.
The original play was structured in two long monologues, which is a structure more suited to the theater than film. The film is mostly dialogue and to do this they have to add in some more characters for the original characters to talk to. That leaves poor Dr. Cukrowicz’s presence feeling unnecessary at some points. During the final flashback, he keeps interrupting Catherine to get her to continue, and it really gets in the way. Catherine is actually talking pretty well on her own. Cukrowicz also has a weird relationship with Catherine that was a bit uncomfortable. He is her doctor after all, potentially going to be performing a lobotomy on her. Then he acts as more of her therapist to get the truth out of her, but doesn’t think it’s a big deal when she kisses him. They sort of go off together in the end, after she’s “cured” (it’s debatable), which I guess is okay, but still a little weird. You’d think it’d affect the story more than it actually ends up doing, which is a bit strange in itself.
Whenever there’s a creepy skeleton angel in a movie, I can’t help mentioning it. There’s one in Violet’s garden and then later, in the the town where Sebastian lost his life. I don’t know if it’s a symbol of Sebastian or death or what, but it was creepy as hell and no one ever mentioned it, which made it that much creepier. That entire garden is pretty fantastic, as a matter of fact. There’s a lot of talk about Sebastian being able to see the world in it’s most primal state, and the design of the garden brings that out really well. Especially the Venus Fly Trap, and Violet symbolically feeding the flies to it.
I enjoyed Suddenly Last Summer quite a bit, though I can tell it won’t be for everyone. Fans of Williams will at least be happy to see less censorship interference on this one. Out of the actors, Katharine Hepburn is in really fine form, and the others are alright. The long speeches can get a bit tedious, but the images are pretty interesting. There are some trade offs in this one, but overall it’s a pretty good film.
“Most people’s lives, what are they but trails of debris – each day more debris, more debris… long, long trails of debris, with nothing to clean it all up but death.”