Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Suddenly, Last Summer


Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Montgomery Cliff on the set

 Mankiewicz with Elizabeth Taylor

Elizabeth Taylor

Playwright Tennessee Williams




















































SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER                 B+                                                                               USA  (114 mi)  1959  d: Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Don’t you understand?  I was procuring for him!                                                                  —Catherine Holly (Elizabeth Taylor)

A decaying relic from a Gothic age of Southern delirium is summoned from the demented imagination of a Tennessee Williams one-act play, re-imagined by screenwriter Gore Vidal, and shot by heralded director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, coming on the heels of the success of what is arguably Williams’ best-known play, Cat On a Hot Tin Roof (1958), where this film’s overt treatment of homosexuality, insanity, incest, lobotomy, and even cannibalism challenged the limits of the Hays Production Code Era (1934 – 1962) and pretty much blew it to smithereens, opening the door for a mostly uncensored decade of the 60’s which exuded unlimited freedoms. But this may be one of the defining examples of how writers and film directors attempted to skirt the heavy hands of the censors, where everything is spoken in code and sexual ambiguity, and certain taboo subjects could never be openly discussed.  Tennessee Williams, of course, is the granddaddy of exploring outlawed territory, yet surprisingly film adaptations of his plays were extremely popular in the late 50’s and early 60’s, bringing out the top-tiered performers in the lead roles, grabbing all the headlines, furthering their careers, while Williams sat in the background watching these films dance around unnamed problems and literally expunge the heart of his material, calling to mind a memorable line from Big Daddy (Burl Ives) in Cat On a Hot Tin Roof, where he bellows “Something’s missing here!”  And indeed, the subject of homosexuality was simply carved out of the film, where an entire generation of film goers never knew what they were missing unless they looked behind the scenes, where Brick’s friendship with Skipper, an old football buddy who drank himself to death, was more than it appears, as their gay relationship is the central premise for Williams writing the play, with the playwright often disowning any connection to the watered down versions that eventually graced the screen.  And, in fact, he hated this film version, where Gore Vidal entirely reworked the original material, particularly incensed that references to cannibalism were meant metaphorically and not literally.  It’s a baffling production filled with behind-the-scenes rancor, the first film Elizabeth Taylor chose to do after her contract with MGM expired, producing an A-list of gay icons, from Tennessee Williams to Gore Vidal, yet also screen legends Elizabeth Taylor, Katherine Hepburn, and Montgomery Clift.  Hepburn, in particular, was furious at the favorable treatment of Elizabeth Taylor, but was especially appalled by the demeaning treatment of Montgomery Clift on the set from both Mankiewicz and producer Sam Spiegel, allegedly spitting at Mankiewicz after her filming was complete.  Mankiewicz was so troubled by Clift’s performance that he tried to get him fired, as Clift, still reeling from the effects of a serious car accident from which he never recovered (relying upon pain pills and alcohol), was unable to shoot lengthy scenes, but his friendship with Taylor prevented that from happening.  What remains is a campy, over-the-top rendition that may be more Gore Vidal than Tennessee Williams, but this is what would fly under the radar in the oppressive, post-McCarthyism atmosphere of the times, feeling more like a time capsule into a forgotten age of Hollywood.  Yet this reflects a time when homosexuality, like communism, was viewed as a threat to national security and the American “way of life,” as gay men and women became routine victims of police violence and harassment, described as sex perverts, perpetrators of sex crimes and treated as transgressors, leading to FBI manhunts hunting down homosexuals and lesbians that mainly ended up in imprisonment, their names appearing in the newspapers the next day, with FBI director J. Edgar Hoover placing Williams under a watch list while keeping an extensive file on him.  Williams’ excessive drug and alcohol use may have been an attempt to blot out that harshly oppressive reality, all in an attempt to keep it from consuming him.  In this scenario, homosexuals were victims of an age of unenlightenment, viewed as the personification of evil, yet those that perpetrated this wicked misconception were the real national threat, driven by hypocrisy and moral superiority, sadistically offering their religious-like wrath in condemnation, blatantly exhibiting signs of homophobia, where extreme prejudice defined the times.  This film is a window into that era, where what’s unspoken speaks volumes, even in an excessively wordy film like this.  What’s immediately apparent is just how effortlessly the Katherine Hepburn character at the end of this film slides so easily into her next role, Sidney Lumet’s adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT (1962), slipping into a morphine-induced trance of forgetfulness, lost in her drug-laden dreams of the past, which on many levels is extraordinary, yet has to be one of the most traumatically depressive works on film, the impact of which is simply unforgettable. 

Echoing the play, which takes place at a single location and features just two monologues, the film is told through a series of very long scenes, culminating with a prolonged Elizabeth Taylor monologue that borders on the surreal, given a nightmarish, horror-filled dream sequence tone, drawing parallels with Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf (Vargtimmen) (1968) made a decade later.  At the center of this film are the obsessional ravings of Violet Venable (Katherine Hepburn), an obscenely wealthy matriarch from New Orleans whose wealth has survived the Depression in 1937, embellished to ludicrous extremes, channeling Norma Desmond from SUNSET BLVD. (1950), the patron saint of drama queens, making her grand entrance in a garish elevator throne that descends from the heavens, bringing her back down to earth, speaking nonstop even before she’s seen. Setting the story in a Victorian Gothic mansion in New Orleans’ Garden District, where there are foreshadowing statues of black boy servants and a life-sized angel of death, yet she speaks with reverence about her recently departed son Sebastian who she has immortalized in death to near godlike status, constructing an Edenesque “Dawn of Creation” gardens on the premise of her home in honor of his life, having died of an apparent heart attack last summer under mysterious circumstances.  The only one who knows the truth about what happened is her niece Catherine (Elizabeth Taylor), who accompanied Sebastian on a summer excursion through Europe, yet remains traumatized and under psychiatric confinement since witnessing her cousin’s violent death.  Enter a prominent young surgeon, Dr. John Cukrowicz (Montgomery Clift), who is seen at the outset performing an experimental lobotomy, a radically invasive brain procedure meant to eliminate aggressive tendencies, often leaving patients in a near vegetative state, rendered harmless, but having no will of their own, having lost all distinct signs of their personality.  Violet gets wind of this unique talent and immediately sets out to take advantage, offering the underfunded state facility one million dollars in exchange for the doctor performing a lobotomy on Catherine.  In another reflection of the times, Catherine was raped after the big Mardi Gras ball by a married man offering her a drive home, with the man suffering no consequences, while she was labeled hysterical in her response, one of the psychiatric terms that led to her confinement.  Her abuse is a metaphor for the crimes committed by the institutions and the police, oppressing women, under threat of being labeled hysteric, while nationally tracking down homosexuals and threatening them with imprisonment.  In a society that implements irrational laws of morality, crimes are committed by respectable men, doctors, lawyers, teachers, policemen, and family members.  The entire film is structured around the invisible presence of Sebastian, a metaphor for the forbidden subject of homosexuality, (the image of Saint Sebastian pierced by arrows or tethered to a tree has been strongly identified in the last century as a homoerotic male gay icon, Saint Sebastian as a gay icon | Art UK), but is not necessarily about homosexuality, more about truth and lies, and how we use and manipulate people for our own ends, covering up our real intentions with lies and deceit, yet suppressed homosexual symbols, themes, and metaphors are more prominently displayed here than anything coming before, literally breaking down doors, a major reversal from just a year before.   Most shocking was the homosexual link to both pedophilia and cannibalism on the forbidden Spanish beaches of Cabeza de Lobo, where oppressive heat blurs all reality, providing a horrifying presence, causing outrage at the time of its release, calling the film disgusting, repulsive, and morally obscene.  According to Gore Vidal, the publicity generated from a scathingly negative review from Bosley Crowther of The New York Times, describing with salacious detail a work obsessed with rape, incest, homosexuality, and cannibalism, sent audiences to theaters in droves.  Even seen 60-years later, this film packs quite a punch, but is hysterically overcooked by both Hepburn and Taylor, both of whom were nominated for Academy Awards for Best Actress, but lost to Simone Signoret in ROOM AT THE TOP (1959).  It’s that Elizabeth Taylor monologue, however (she collapsed in uncontrollable tears on the set afterwards), that fills in for the Sebastian poem which was never written, blisteringly caustic and unsettling, yet morbidly creepy, where one can’t help but be moved by the elegance of the descriptive poetic lyricism leading to an incantation of hallucinatory images shot in bleached-out white superimposed over her face that lay the groundwork for the long, stream-of-consciousness soliloquies of damaged and tortured souls featured in Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas (1984) or Robert Altman’s Fool for Love (1985), which are utterly enthralling, tour de force examples of unparalleled moments in cinema, eloquently shot in black and white, with skeletal signs of death everywhere, a provocative scene that’s sure to cause controversy even today, canonized further by a pop song from the Motels that appropriates the title, The Motels - Suddenly Last Summer - YouTube (3:59).

For Tennessee Williams, who first came to New Orleans in 1938, “I found the kind of freedom I had always needed.  And the shock of it – against the puritanism of my nature – has given me a subject, a theme, which I have never ceased exploiting.” (Tennessee Williams' Early Days in New Orleans - Stop 3 of 7 ...)  The city represented an exotic and erotic fantasy world that Williams exploited in contrast to stark realism, which is exactly what Williams discovered when writing this play, where homoerotic desire represented an unleashed sexual freedom.  Using both his mother in prior summer trips and Catherine as bait to procure available men, as they were able to attract boys without risk of exposure, they facilitated Sebastian’s gay liaisons, having his pick, as if they were “items on a menu.”  It’s clear Sebastian was smothered by an affection from his mother in an incestual-like relationship, as it was impossible for her to see any flaws in her son, viewing him as perfection itself, speaking of him endlessly even after death in present terms, as if he’s still with her, describing him as a poet who lived the rest of the months to prepare for an epic poem he wrote every summer.  Preferring to remain anonymous and unpublished, his work is pure, untouched, and without criticism.  His insatiable appetite for abusing young boys, however, is clearly a one-sided exchange, emerging each afternoon from the bathhouses, having had his fill of dark-skinned boys, he has his eye on Nordic blonds next, believing people exist purely for his own gratification, where his dehumanizing treatment of his subjects has a colonialist feel about it, as if they somehow belong to him, which is why the payback in the end is so viciously and cruelly disturbing, as they refuse to allow him to get away with that contemptuous attitude of superiority.  This scene recalls one of Euripides’ greatest tragedies from the 5th century BC, The Bacchae, which references similar barbarism with implied homosexuality, while also mirrored by an earlier voyage to Herman Melville’s Encantadas of the Galápagos, described as Las Islas Encantadas, seeing something Melville hadn’t described, where powerless, recently hatched baby turtles desperately scramble for the safety of the ocean, but are mercilessly attacked and gobbled up by a darkened sky of gathering carnivorous birds, turning them over to expose their soft undersides, then tearing them open and eating their flesh.  It is this uncompromising view of the hostile forces of nature that completely changed and transformed Sebastian, turning into a narcissist and taking what he wanted at will, living a hedonistic life of pleasure, displaying the life of depravity exhibited by the super wealthy.  Cannibalism is used as a highly graphic metaphor for the social anxiety surrounding homosexuality, exaggerating the sexual exchange to the extreme, exactly as Melville did in his 1854 novella, using his imagination to conjure up the wildest suggestions of men being with other men during lengthy voyages at sea.  Like Conrad’s Heart of Darkness exploration of the primitive unknown, this jungle motif allows homosexual desire free reign, given extraordinary latitude in this work, where the drama is achieved through the power of suggestion, as we never meet Sebastian, all but invisible, yet his lifestyle drives the action, where the macabre wickedness of his death is the traumatic trigger, sending Catherine into an asylum and Violet with an expressed desire to prevent her from defiling the memory of her son, eliminating all signs of debauchery from Sebastian, as she has purified his remains, turning him into a glorified saint.  Yet it’s a story, according to Catherine, that must be told and no one wants to hear.  Violet’s true desire is to expunge that memory from Catherine in the form of a lobotomy, “You’ve got to cut this hideous story out of her brain,” believing she has the money and power to do it, and nearly does, with Catherine’s own family willing to sacrifice her for a hefty price, leaving only Dr. Cukrowicz to sort out the truth, conveniently using the magical and mythical qualities of a truth serum, the mainstay of spy thrillers for decades.  Though the film can be humorously campy and hyper-melodramatic, filled with grotesque exaggeration and tragic excess, yet it’s also indisputably among the most scathingly accurate portrayals of a supremely detrimental criminal misdiagnosis when it comes to the disastrous effects of societal homophobia, a cautionary tale of authoritarian overreach, and in some ways an autobiographical exorcism, perfectly capturing the horrific consequences and extreme detriment of this cruelly misguided morality purge.     

One should examine the personal life of Tennessee Williams, one of the greatest playwrights of modern American history, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for two plays, A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), so he enjoyed popular and critical success early on in his career.  But he had his fair share of failure as well, undergoing psychoanalysis in 1957, the same year this play was released, while also paying frequent visits to his sister Rose who had been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic (Dementia praecox) and was subjected to a lobotomy in 1943 with the permission of their mother Edwina, effectively silencing her after accusing her father of rape, an event that traumatized Williams, who was away at school at the time, never forgiving his mother afterwards, haunted by Rose’s memories, writing about her extensively, becoming a recurrent motif in his writings, perhaps best exemplified by the physically crippled and emotionally fragile Laura in The Glass Menagerie in 1944, but also the insecure ravings of Blanche DuBois in Streetcar, an aging Southern belle who eventually becomes institutionalized, and perhaps again projected as Catherine in this film, more openly rebellious and nonconformist, yet viewed as untreatable during her psychiatric institutionalization.  Many of Williams’ plays rely upon psychoanalysis, where the institution itself becomes part of the overall authoritative oppression that crushes the will of its patients, with homosexuality viewed as a sexual perversity and a crime when many of his plays were written, officially described by the mental health profession as a mental illness, categorized as a sociopathic personality disorder and systematically treated as such, purging homosexual desire from the system, much like a lobotomy excises part of the brain.  It’s a Kafkaesque absurdity that was part of everyday gay life during the puritanical conservatism of the 1950’s.  Openly homosexual, much scholarly attention has been paid to analyzing his plays from a gay perspective, yet this play seems to combine all these elements into cinematic language, where Williams’ poetic use of language mirrors the deep connections to the subconscious of the characters, revealing major character flaws in both Violet Venable and her son Sebastian, greedy and selfish reflections of a capitalist society, neither of whom feels any guilt or remorse for their behavior, where Violet devotes obsessive maternal affection to her gay son who can barely write one poem per year, and cannot travel alone, apparently, despite being around forty, while being unable to separate his own identity from his mother.  Early on, Violet describes their relationship as a couple, going places and seen everywhere together, with suggestions they are supposed to be together.  Routinely traveling together for his entire life, Violet suffered a minor stroke and was unable to travel, opening up the doors to his cousin Catherine, yet he wrote no poem that summer, with Violet claiming he couldn’t write without her, as they were a symbiotic pair, viewed as inseparable.  Strangely, Violet repeatedly accuses Catherine of being the murderer of her son, refusing to allow anyone to speak to her, keeping her confined in a mental asylum, using a host of elaborately fabricated story constructions to keep her there.  One of the unsung aspects of the film is Elizabeth Taylor herself, where it’s difficult not to sexualize the glamor of her look, given the sensuality of her appearance and the flattering way she is photographed, an erotic object of the camera, viewed as an irresistible object of desire, inexplicably kissing the doctor on occasion, constantly accentuating her figure, as if that was intentionally at the forefront of the director’s mind, and Sebastian’s as well.  Violet continues to live under illusions of grandeur concerning her son, growing more perfect each passing day, until no one would be allowed to criticize him at all, while the overcontrolling mother refuses to allow her son to have his own sexual identity, contending he was chaste and had no sexuality at all (the ultimate castration complex), that “he was looking for a clearer image of God.”  Sebastian failed in his search for God, or perfection, discovering instead the morbid secret of the Encantadas, symbolized by images of decapitation, a version of truth his mother refused to allow to exist, while also evading the truth about her son’s death, passing the blame onto others.  Yet in her zeal to keep the reputation of her son unsullied, she may have been the driving force behind his death, renouncing his sexual drive altogether, contending it doesn’t exist, describing him only in saintly perfection, which no man can live up to.  In the shocking break from the womb, finally detached from the umbilical cord connecting him to his mother, he is free to express his own desires as they are, unbridled and liberated, a true representation of his own truth, yet he experiences a psychotic crisis, a meltdown of the worst order, defying rationality and belief, thinking he is somehow above the rest, like a supreme deity, finally brought down to size by the clamoring hordes. 

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