Friday, January 20, 2012

SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER 1959


Watching Suddenly, Last Summer (adapted for the screen by Gore Vidal and Tennessee Williams from Williams’1958 play) it’s hard not to think about the frequency with which homosexuality=death themes crop up in Tennessee Williams’ works, and to wonder to what extent some gay artists have been subtly complicit in perpetuating damaging social perceptions of homosexuality. 
           
In 1937 New Orleans (a year necessary perhaps to emphasize the infancy of lobotomy surgery, but not at all evident in the 50s-style clothes, hairdos, and make-up on display) super-rich widow Violet Venable seeks to secure— through not-so-subtle bribery—the services of groundbreaking psychosurgeon John Cukrowicz. Her objective is to have the doctor perform a lobotomy on her beautiful niece, Catherine, who apparently went insane the previous summer after witnessing the death of Mrs. Venable’s adult son, Sebastian.
Lady's Very Hungry Today
"The Venus Fly-Trap, a devouring organism aptly named for the goddess of love."
The mysterious particulars of Sebastian’s death, life, and the reason behind Mrs. Venable’s wish to silence her niece, make up the narrative body of Suddenly, Last Summer. A film whose overarching Freudianism (intentionally or not) parallels closet homosexuality with everything from pedophilia and mother-fixation to sociopathology and flesh-eating prehistoric monsters. 
Elizabeth Taylor as Catherine Holly
Katherine Hepburn as Mrs.Violet Venable
Montgomery Clift as Dr. John Cukrowicz
If Tennessee Williams’ views on same-sex relations were unremittingly bleak, I suppose one can’t overlook the fact that Williams (of whom nothing I've read biographically would indicate a familiarity with love or happiness to any sizable degree) was nothing if not a product of his repressed, shame-based time. Raised in that bastion of open-mindedness, the American South, Williams (1911- 1983) had his greatest commercial successes during the 40s and 50s; a time when balanced/loving depictions of homosexuality would likely have resulted in his professional ostracism, if not incarceration. It’s a certainty that audiences at that time had no interest in seeing homosexuality portrayed as anything other than deviant aberration, but there’s no ignoring Williams’ willing participation in promoting this perspective. This in spite of Tennessee Williams being one of the few “out” public figures I can recall from my youth.

Expressly acknowledged homosexual characters appear in only a handful of this prolific playwright’s body of work: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Skipper, who commits suicide); A Streetcar Named Desire (Blanche’s husband Allan, also a suicide); and this, Suddenly, Last Summer (Sebastian, murdered and cannibalized). But wouldn’t you know it? They’re the works that have had the greatest longevity. (Tennessee Williams didn’t initiate popular culture’s tiresomely persistent association of homosexuality with death. In Lillian Hellman’s 1934 play, The Children’s Hour, a character’s mere suspicion that she might be a lesbian is enough to induce her to hang herself.)

There are those who believe it’s folly to look at old movies through a contemporary prism. While I think it’s important to keep in mind the cultural context and social time-frame of films, I also believe that all true art endures. And as such, one of the essential challenges facing any creative work to which the term "art" is to be applied, is its ability to withstand the critical application of changing cultural sensibilities.
Mercedes McCambridge (Giant) and Gary Raymond ( Look Back in Anger)
as Violet Venable's poor relations
 Suddenly, Last Summer (my favorite of all the films adapted from Tennessee Williams’ plays) passes the test because its antipathetic attitude towards homosexuality merely mirror the film’s larger themes of nihilism. NOBODY in a Tennessee Williams film is ever having much fun. It goes with the territory.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
In an unfavorable review of Suddenly, Last Summer in The New York Times, critic Bosley Crowther denounced the film for its talkiness. A valid point, perhaps, for 1959. But in today’s “Era of the Inarticulate,” the euphuistic language of Suddenly, Last Summer is like an oasis in a desert.

“The dinosaurs are vegetarian… that’s why they became extinct. They were just too gentle for their size. And then the carnivorous creatures, the ones that eat flesh...the killers… inherited the earth. But then they always do, don’t they?”

“Life is a thief. Life steals everything.”

“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.”  

“Mr. Venable was a good man, but dull to the point of genius.”

“Of course God is cruel. No, we’ve always known about Him. The savage face he shows to people and the fierce things he shouts. That’s all we ever really see or hear of him now. Nobody seems to know why.”
Sebastian's empty book of poetry
  
PERFORMANCES:
My admiration for Elizabeth Taylor is well documented in the blog posts for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Reflections in a Golden Eye. The real surprise for me here is how much I was impressed by Katherine Hepburn. Never one of my favorite actresses, here all of her starchy mannerisms and stylistic affectations have been put to fine service in helping to flesh out the marvelously complex character of Violet Venable. As the domineering, cold-hearted mother who is willing to go to monstrous lengths to protect the reputation of her son, Hepburn could have easily played the brittle, icy card exclusively and her performance would still have been a marvel. What she does that really blows me away is convey, through wounded, frightened looks and a barely-perceived sense of grasping desperation; her character’s achingly lonely, desolate life. In the film’s final moments, when it becomes clear that the obsessive, stifling love of Mrs. Venable’s life never loved her at all, her character’s complete and absolute despondency is heartbreaking.
The Goddess from the Machine
Katherine Hepburn’s entrance in the film has to be one of the great screen entrances of all time. Descending from the ceiling in an ornate, cage-like elevator, Mrs. Venable addresses the surgeon she has summoned to her home: 
 “The Emperor of Byzantium, when he received people in audience, had a throne which during the conversation would rise mysteriously in the air to the consternation of the visitors. But as we are living in a democracy I reverse the procedure; I don’t rise, I come down.”

It’s very nearly my favorite moment in the film.

  
THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
When I was small, I remember my older sister telling me that Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift were really the same person, and scenes and photos of them together were accomplished through split-screen special effects, like on The Patty Duke Show. For a while I actually believed her… although now it occurs to me that I never asked which of the two was the original article.

In the three films they made together (A Place in the Sun, Raintree County, and Suddenly, Last Summer) the dark, strikingly similar beauty of Taylor and Clift always insinuated a kind of spiritual kinship between their characters. A quality used to deeply empathetic effect in Suddenly, Last Summer. When Catherine first meets the doctor, we immediately sense (as does Catherine) that there is something the two share that makes it possible for him to so quickly allay her fear and apprehension.
 It also doesn't hurt that the duality of Taylor and Clift provides subtle subtext to Mrs. Venable’s frequent assertions that her son Sebastian (so taken with Catherine’s exploitable beauty) would have been “charmed” by the young doctor. Although we never see the much-discussed Sebastian, Mrs. Venable is quick to note of Dr. Cukrowicz “You’re very like him” and, “Your eyes, so like his.” 
(When informed that the word Cukrowicz is the Polish word for sugar, Mrs. Venable wastes no time in referring to the the physician as Dr. Sugar; although from her tone it’s impossible to ascertain if it’s said in a friendly or mocking manner.)

The image of homosexuality Tennessee Williams presents in Suddenly, Last Summer may be grotesque to an almost preposterous degree, but I happen to like how it fits with the film’s themes of duality and displacement. In this context, homosexuality is the ultimate attraction of self. As manifest by the self-loathing poet, Sebastian, the allure of the similar (similar dark beauty, similar refined tastes, similar pitiless view of humanity) is a hunger unfulfilled. Named for the martyred saint whose portrait dominates his studio, Sebastian’s  face is never shown, but we know his clothes perfectly fit his male cousin George, and that George (equally as dark as Dr. Cukrowicz and his sister, Catherine) looks from the back, remarkably like Sebastian.
Recurrent Imagery
Angel of Death statue first appearing in Sebastian's nightmarish garden (above) reappears on the hill in Cabeza de Lobo (Wolf's Head) where Sebastian meets his fate 

THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
I really love the structure of Suddenly, Last Summer. On first viewing, it’s a puzzlingly bizarre Freudian murder mystery that grows increasingly dark and perverse as it leisurely wends its way towards its satisfyingly astonishing payoff. On repeat visits, the enjoyment derived from Suddenly, Last Summer come from the many fascinating existential questions the film poses about God, humanity, and the nature of evil.

People frequently look to nature and, upon witnessing the brutal dance of carnage and death in the animal world, defend its neutrality. It’s the cycle of life; it can’t be characterized as evil because animals only kill out of hunger and a will to survive. Throughout all of nature (plant life: the carnivorous fly-trap; animal life: Mrs. Venable’s witnessing of the sea turtles devoured by carnivorous birds) unspeakable violence, brutality, and the strong feeding on the weak, is accepted as random, blameless, and part of natural law.
Witness to The God of Carnage
Suddenly, Last Summer sets forth the provocative suggestion that man is just a sophisticated, complex animal. As primitive as the plants in Sebastian's nightmare garden. The hungers that drive man may be more complex, but are they just as elemental and necessary to survival as those of any carnivorous plant or four-legged beast? If man has a base hunger for love, a fear of loneliness and a need for human physical contact...aren't the feeding of these hungers simply natural acts, no less elemental than the will to survive? Should man engage in barbaric acts of cruelty and violence to feed these needs, could it be possible that God can be looking down upon it all with the same blameless neutrality we ascribe to nature? Suddenly, Last Summer is an allegorical rumination on the disquieting interchangeably of the words "devour" and "use" for the word "love."
Suddenly, Last Summer                             The Day of the Locust
That Tennessee Williams and Gore Vidal do such an eloquent job dramatizing such intriguing philosophical concepts is one reason why I’m able to (begrudgingly) overlook the patina of homophobia calcifying along the film’s edges. 

But perhaps if I'm really being honest with myself, the one reason, above all others, for Suddenly, Last Summer remaining an all-time, lasting favorite-  it is the absolutely breathtaking Elizabeth Taylor
...the last of the great movie stars.


Copyright © Ken Anderson

8 comments:

  1. "the dark, strikingly similar beauty of Taylor and Clift always insinuated a kind of spiritual kinship between their characters" - nice observation, Ken. Vivien Leigh was originally cast as Violet, but backed out at the last minute. I'm trying to imagine the subtext if she'd played the part, as she and Taylor also bore a strong resemblance.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hi Jeremy, Thanks so much for the comment!
    I'd read about Vivien Leigh also, and you bring up a good point. Her fragile, dark looks would have made a trio of sorts with Clift and Taylor (even the tall and gorgeously goofy Gary Raymond has the same quality about him) that would have made for TONS of provocative subtext, as far as I'm concerned. Hepburn never convinces as a faded beauty capable of luring young men, but Leigh's tarnished gilt beauty would have made the role devastating.

    ReplyDelete
  3. HEPBURN. TAYLOR. CLIFT. TENNESSEE WILLIAMS.

    Who could ask for anything more really? This movie is gifted with such talent that it's a virtual master class in acting.

    Hepburn is truly evil and off her rocker in this one.

    Taylor as always is a beauty to behold...even in that bullet bra(!) and this movie is a great example, at least for me that she was a damned good actress when she really put her heart and soul into a part.

    Clift is peerless. That goes without saying. An acting GOD.

    The ending really creeps me out. The though of those boys literally tearing Sebastian up and stuffing pieces of him into their mouths is just disgusting and inhumane!!

    This film is a MUST SEE for any self respecting film buff.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi PTF,
      "...That bullet bra" HA! I know I know - period accuracy in Liz Taylor's look isn't this film's strong point (but who's going to quibble when she looks so spectacular?)
      And indeed, what a cast and what a playwright.

      The film is all very bizarre and perverse, but so humane I find it. Disturbing and brilliant. Thanks for commenting!

      Delete
  4. Oh woah! I've only seen this movie once in English class - the hysterics got on my nerve - but I always thought it was about pedophilia (or ebophilia?), not homosexuality per se.

    The fact that the cannibals are depicted as "of age" only being a byproduct of studio censorship.

    But your reading is probably the correct one.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi mangrove
      Re: ebophilia, I actually think, when viewed from a contemporary perspective, you make a very valid point. Although Mrs. Venable states to the doctor that Sebastian would have liked him, leading me to the homosexuality reading.
      But given that until rather recently our culture had in place an odd tolerance for sexualized young people (for example the Sue Lyon/Richard Burton thing in "Night of the Iguana," Blanche DuBois' attraction to young boys in "A Streetcar named Desire," the teenage lover of the adult teacher in "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" ) leadsme to think homosexuality is the topic more than man/boy attraction.
      But that's just my take, I can't say it's correct. I think your's is how many will see it as well. Thanks for the comment!

      Delete
    2. Thanks for replying!

      Your rebute is even more interesting. I had never thought about it that way, having not seen any of the examples you offer. But I suppose that, if Hollywood was cool with Maurice Chevalier singing "Thank Heaven for little girls", anything was possible.

      There's a strong disconnect in your reading because of the casting : Clift was 39 when he made this and yet, the cannibals look at least half his age. I know we're not supposed to see Clift's wear and tear, but it's really difficult not to (just like Di Caprio still playing 20-somethings when he's pushing 40 is asking a lot from me).

      Delete
    3. Well, you certainly call attention to how times have changed perceptions. Nowadays we have names affixed to an adult's romantic attraction to teenagers. But - dare I say - folks of the Roman Polanski/Woody Allen ilk come from a time when having in an interest in young girls did not necessarily preclude an interest in grown women as well. The memoirs and bios of Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, Tennessee Williams, and Christopher Isherwood reveal adult men who are simultaneously drawn to men their own age as well as young teens.
      So I think our perceptions are complimentary, but shaped by our different ages and the attendant shift in cultural attitudes about youth.
      Your thoughtful comments offer food for thought and would make a great film topic. Thanks!

      Delete