Thursday, May 19, 2011

Suddenly, Last Summer (Horizon/Columbia, 1959)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Suddenly, Last Summer — the title is sometimes reproduced without the comma, but the comma is in the original credit — began life as a one-act stage play by Thomas Lanier “Tennessee” Williams. He was undergoing psychoanalysis by a therapist who, according to the conventional psychiatric wisdom of the day, regarded Williams’ homosexuality as a mental illness and sought to “cure” him by turning him straight. As part of the “cure,” he pointed out that Williams’ previous plays had featured cruel, destructive heterosexuals and he should write one about a cruel, destructive homosexual. The 45-minute play was expanded by Williams and fellow screenwriter Gore Vidal (who was also Queer, though Vidal was actively Bisexual and insisted that there was no biological or psychological basis for terms like “straight,” “Gay” or “Bi” — in that regard Vidal can be considered a founding father of the modern-day “Genderqueer” movement of young people who are open to either same-sex or opposite-sex relationship partners and refuse to regard their sexual and emotional choices as part of their personal identity) into a script for a full-length film, but the padding shows in this relatively simple story.

Rising young neurosurgeon Dr. Cukrowicz (Montgomery Clift) has been recruited to the Lion’s View state mental hospital in New Orleans in 1937 to practice lobotomies — then a new and highly touted procedure. In the film’s opening scene, we see him in an operating theatre that’s a converted warehouse, attempting to lobotomize a patient even though the lamp he’s working by shorts out and he has to finish the surgery with just the normal room light. He complains to the hospital’s head, Dr. Lawrence J. Hockstader (Albert Dekker), about the rotten conditions in which he has to work, and Dr. Hockstader replies that he has the answer: wealthy society matron Violet Venable (Katharine Hepburn) is willing to donate $1 million to build a state-of-the-art brain surgery facility if Dr. Cukrowicz agrees to lobotomize her niece, Catherine Holly (Elizabeth Taylor), who’s been in a Catholic mental hospital since she returned home six months previously from Europe. She had gone there with Violet’s son Sebastian — only Sebastian had died under mysterious circumstances in a Spanish beach town called Cabeza de Lobos (“head of wolves”?) and Catherine has freaked out ever since. We soon learn that every year Sebastian had spent the summer traveling through Europe with his mother Violet, only this year he had decided to go with Catherine instead.

Catherine is admitted as a patient at Lion’s View and is given accommodation in the nurses’ wing instead of with the rest of the patients — whose overall demeanors are so frightening this place makes the asyla in Bedlam and The Snake Pit look like health resorts by comparison — and Dr. Cukrowicz gradually becomes convinced that she doesn’t need a lobotomy: what she needs is a chance to break down her defenses and tell the terrible secret of what happened to her and Sebastian suddenly, last summer. Eventually Cukrowicz brings Catherine to Violet’s garden — full of Venus fly-traps which she raises and actually has flies shipped in so she can feed them herself — and she has a wing-ding of a breakdown in which she narrates the tale while a series of stylized flashbacks shows us Sebastian (always shown from behind, like Jesus Christ in both versions of Ben-Hur, though not out of reverence but as a result of a deal producer Sam Spiegel and the releasing studio, Columbia, cut with the Production Code Administration to get around their flat prohibition against the depiction of homosexuality or any other “sex perversion” on screen) as he really was: not the ethereal, celibate aesthete of Violet’s imaginings but a relentlessly predatory homosexual who used his mom to lure young men into his orbit so he could then have his way with them — and who took Catherine along on his last trip because mom was getting too old to lure anybody and he needed a younger, fresher woman as his bait.

He didn’t die of a heart attack, as Violet insisted; instead a gang of boys (presumably the ones he’d been preying on) formed an improvised band (in both senses of the word, since the script makes a big deal of them playing homemade musical instruments as they hunt Sebastian down) and stalked Sebastian, surrounded him, overpowered him and started eating him alive, throwing him off a beachfront cliff when they were through with him and he was really most sincerely dead. Violet had clung to her idealized memory of Sebastian and wanted to get Catherine an unnecessary lobotomy so there would be no one — at least no one believable to an American audience — to tell the truth about Sebastian and his fate, and she’d gone so far as to bribe Catherine’s mother (Mercedes McCambridge) and brother (George Raymond) with a $100,000 inheritance to go along with her sordid plan and sign the authorization papers. Only now that Catherine has blurted out the truth with all the other principals present, Violet loses it completely — we got it about five minutes into the movie that she, not Catherine, was the crazy one — and starts addressing Dr. Cukrowicz as Sebastian.

Suddenly, Last Summer
is a weird movie — just about everyone in it is an abstraction of Tennessee Williams’ mind, and both his real-life Queerness and his self-hatred come through in just about every frame — and it’s been denounced by all sorts of people both when it was new and since. Bosley Crowther, the New York Times’ film critic, wrote a review saying it was the work of degenerates obsessed with rape, incest, homosexuality and cannibalism — and Gore Vidal said later that Crowther’s screed actually ensured the film’s box-office success. Vito Russo, in The Celluloid Closet, raked the ending over the coals, saying that American Queers were at far more risk of U.S. Gay-bashers than Spanish cannibals, and when the film was new Dwight MacDonald said that director Joseph L. Mankiewicz (a rare credit for him since he usually wrote as well as directed his films) “can count one directorial triumph: he has somehow got Elizabeth Taylor to give a mediocre performance, which is a definite step up in her dramatic career.”

Actually Taylor is the best of the three leads, by a considerable margin: she’s the one person in the movie who’s actually well suited to her part, and she delivers her final narration with an incredible fervor that makes its ridiculous content at least barely believable (she was supposedly coached by Clift to draw on a real-life situation — her grief when her third husband, Mike Todd, was killed in a plane crash — to do the scene). Clift is simply too weak a screen presence as the tough, idealistic doctor, and maybe in the alternative universe in which Richard Burton played Jett Rink in Giant and therefore met Taylor six years before he actually did, he might have been cast in this role and given it an authority and power that eluded the almost neurasthenic Clift. By then years of drinking, prescription drug abuse and overall detachment from the rest of the world’s reality had made the already vulnerable Clift almost totally pathetic as a specimen of humanity, and while Taylor fought to get him the role (even persuading producer Sam Spiegel to keep him on the film despite the refusal of the production’s insurance company to cover him), he’s simply wrong as an idealistic man of science willing to defy a rich woman and insist on not giving Catherine a treatment he knows full well is wrong.

As for Katharine Hepburn, she does her best to bring Violet Venable to life — and the character is at least faintly credible as a Hepburn role (a strong-willed, indomitable woman), but it’s essentially an unsympathetic role — the way she drones on and on and on indicates to us in the first few minutes that she, not Catherine, is the crazy one — and Hepburn’s films generally succeed or fail based on how close the character is playing is to her own off-screen personality. Violet Venable is miles away from it (supposedly she proclaimed ignorance of the whole idea of homosexuality and kept asking Spencer Tracy, who was keeping her company on the set, to explain it to her — but I don’t believe that; if she did ask Tracy for advice on being Queer it was probably just to needle him; I can’t believe a woman whose most frequent director, and one of her closest friends, was George Cukor being that naïve about it!), though Hepburn deserves technical praise for getting through long stretches of Williams’ and Vidal’s dialogue without seeming to pause for breath, adding to our impression of Violet as the really crazy one in her family. Suddenly, Last Summer is a bad movie by any normal standard, but it’s also haunting as an index of Tennessee Williams’ own psychopathology — and Columbia’s marketing department seemed aware that that’s what its appeal would be, since they sold it under the tagline, “Tennessee Williams Shocks You Again as He Transports You to a Strange, New, Bold World!”