Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Suddenly, Last Summer

Suddenly, Last Summer (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1957) A tawdry gothic-noir that was so compromised by concessions to the moral powers-that-be that nobody associated with its production ended up liking it, not the original author of the play, Tennessee Williams, not his co-screenwriter Gore Vidal, nor the director Joe Mankiewicz. Pity, as its an example of how Mankiewicz could juice up material directorially in a truly unsettling way when given the chance. And he had a great cast in Katherine Hepburn, Montgomery Clift (even in the semi-drug-addled condition he was in), Elizabeth Taylor and Mercedes McCambridge.

What's missing is the person everyone talks about—the late Sebastian Venable, (poet and narcissist) who died (suddenly) last summer, ostensibly of a heart attack, as the whispers state, but has nothing to do with the truth, which is damaging enough that his doting mother Violet (Hepburn) will do anything to keep it secret, even if it means lobotomizing her niece Catherine Holt (Taylor) who witnessed his death and has blanked it from her memory. Mother Violet entreats the local psychiatric hospital and its brilliant lobotomist Dr. Cukrowicz (Clift) to see if Catherine is a suitable case for treatment, with the promise of a large endowment if she can be "cured." "Cured" of the memory stuck in her head, and if not cured, silenced, whether institutionally or medically.

But what those memories are of that led to Sebastian's death "suddenly, last Summer" are only implied for the first 3/4 of the movie. In the first couple of movements battle lines are drawn as Cukrowicz first gets Vi's version of things (as he investigates why she wants to donate so much money to his institute), then, once questions are raised, tries to coax it out of the mostly comatose Catherine without success. The gist of it is that Catherine, at Sebastian's request, had replaced his mother as his traveling companion on his world-traveling jaunts from which he would produce his yearly published book of poems. That Summer, in the town of Cabeza De Lobo, Sebastian died, leaving no book and no issue.
Except for Catherine.  The play's third scene is the explanation in the drawing room scene if this were a detective novel, where Catherine, under the influence of sodium pentathol reveals all (from her point of view), and Mankiewicz goes to directorial town (his point of view) in a weird silent flashback that threatens to crowd out Taylor from the frame, and that veers wildly from realism to German expressionism to surrealism within the course of its run, containing some of the most bizarre imagery just outside the horror realm (or Salvadore Dali's dream sequence from Spellbound).
To tell you what it all means ruins the ending, except that the movie itself doesn't come right out and say anything, owing to the tenor of the times (meaning you couldn't be too explicit) and to the so-called community standards that this particular era of film-making was challenging. This was before ratings systems—G, PG-13, M, R, X and NC-17—but there was The Legion of Decency, over-run by the Catholic Church, that crossed itself, said five "Hail Mary's" and then banned your movie from being advertised. You couldn't talk about homosexuality, procurement, prostitution, drug use, pedophilia, and cannibalism except in closeted code, and the "Truth Serum" sequence obfuscates what's going on to the point of obtuseness. Williams wasn't entirely guilt-free of this; he was just as capable of pulling the shade over a naked light-bulb or turning pleurosis into "blue roses"—he made an art of it. But here, the mother-love perversity at the heart of so many of his plays runs on the hysterical side, and, try as he might, Mankiewicz can't make more of the empty book of poems than he can. All he can do is try and push Hepburn over the brink of sanity, after she's been doing wheelies near the edge that entire movie (Vivien Leigh nearly played the part; can you imagine?)
How far we have come since then—except, of course, for the cannibalism part (unless you were voted to the House of Representatives in 2010).
P.S. there's an excellent breakdown of the film, courtesy of The Last Drive-In, that did an excellent job of pulling screen-caps-two of which I cribbed above.
Liz Taylor glamour shot draped over the rail of an asylum

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