Thursday 31 March 2011

Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)

SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER is an adaptation of a play written by Tennessee Williams in 1958.  It was directed by Joseph L. Manciewicz and the script was written by Gore Vidal and Williams himself.  It stars Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Clift and Katharine Hepburn.  A prestige production then, bringing together some of the biggest names in film and theatre.  So it is perhaps surprising that the film deals with some uncomfortable themes, including a few that were practically taboo in Hollywood at the time.

It tells the story of Catherine Holly, an emotionally disturbed young woman who has been incarcerated in a convent since witnessing the death of her friend Sebastian Venable while holidaying in Europe the previous summer.  Sebastian's mother Violet, who idolised her son, wants the girl to be lobotomised, ostensibly to reduce her suffering but actually to prevent her from repeating her account of Sebastian's death, which conflicts with Violet's idealised view of her son.  The extremely wealthy Venable offers a large donation to the impoverished Lion's View Mental Hospital on the condition that talented neurosurgeon Dr John Cuckrowicz performs the surgery.  After meeting Catherine, Cuckrowicz is convinced the girl can be treated without surgery, if he can persuade her to confront the truth about what happened last summer.

Williams uses this plot to explore the relationship between reality and perception, and the effect on people of changes to their perceptions of reality.  It's also about repression and the extremely damaging consequences of repressed beliefs and emotions (note the film's opening image - a vast brick wall).  To depict the interaction of all these forces, the film uses imagery based around the idea of people feeding off each other.  Violet fed off her son in life and off his memory in death, Sebastian fed off hjs mother and Cathy, Cathy's mother and brother leech off Violet's wealth, as does the mercenary hospital administrator, and so on up to the final, shocking revelation of exactly how Sebastian met his death.  This imagery is encapsulated by the memorable sequence in which Violet, meeting Dr Cuckrowicz for the first time, shows him her prized venus fly trap and feeds it some live flies.

Ironically, the film's treatment of repression was affected by the prudish morality of '50s Hollywood.  Unable to explicitly address Sebastian's homosexuality, special dispensation had to be sought even to merely allude to it.  Similar problems afflicted several other film adaptations of Williams' work.  For example, in Richard Brooks' CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF (1959) the reason why Brick Pollitt won't sleep with his wife is never made clear; and in Jospeh Losey's BOOM! (1968) the central relationship is between a heterosexual thirtysomething couple, rather than the intended older man and his much younger male lover.

Nevertheless, I think Manciewicz's film is remarkably effective.  The self-deluding matriarch Violet Venable is as cruel and viscious a character as Williams ever wrote - the effect that her smothering delusions have on others is traumatic and widespread; and Mrs Holly is another in his long line of grotesque, twittering Southern belles whose outward politeness cannot conceal their rotten venal core.  Katharine Hepburn and Mercedes McCambridge, respectively, are excellent in these roles although Hepburn's more traditional acting style does jar a bit with the Method style, of which Clift was a student.  Elizabeth Taylor at times seems to think that all she has to do is effect a sing-song Southern accent, which is a bit annoying, but when really called upon to act - as in the final revelatory scene - she really delivers the goods. You can use that scene as proof to people who say she couldn't act her way out of a paper bag.  Montgomery Clift has a supporting role but, as in all the films of his I have seen, he plays it with intelligence and sensitivity.  The slow but inexorable decline of his life and career from this point on was a genuine tragedy.

Montgomery Clift
One or two trainspotter points.  Albert Dekker, who plays the grasping Dr Hockstader, was a veteran character actor who is possibly best known as the even more grasping Pat Harrigan in Sam Peckinpah's THE WILD BUNCH (1969), his final screen role.  Gary Raymond, who plays Cathy's brother George, is a British actor who was in a few American films around this period (notably as the treacherous Acastus in Don Chaffey's wodnerful JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (1963)) before returning to the UK and settling into parts in various delirious TV series.  He even popped up in an episode of the fondly-remembered HAMMER HOUSE OF HORRORS in 1980.

Mercedes McCambridge and Gary Raymond
Mercedes McCambridge was a real one-off: she started out as a member of Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre company and ended up voicing the demon in William Friedkin's monumental THE EXORCIST (1973).  In between she acted with James Dean in GIANT (1956), won an Oscar for her performance in ALL THE KING'S MEN (1949) and appeared in arguably the most delirious western of all time, the proto-feminist JOHNNY GUITAR (1954).  And as if that wasn't enough, she successfully battled alcoholism and suffered the tragedy of losing her son, who killed himself after murdering his wife and daughters.  A thoroughly remarkable woman, she died in 2004 aged 87.  The director, Joseph L. Manciewicz, had a patchy career at 20th Century Fox but did direct a couple of films I'm rather fond of: the Brando / Sinatra musical GUYS AND DOLLS (1955) and the original version of SLEUTH (1972).

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