Tuesday, February 04, 2014

The Abrupt Whole of History

The world is populated by amoral, ravenous monsters who do not respect class or beauty. This is what one may take from 1959's Suddenly, Last Summer, a movie about two women who passionately love a dead man who was by accounts somewhat cold in life. There is one great scene in the film but for the most part it performs well below the expectations one may form based on the film's credited writers--Gore Vidal and Tennessee Williams--and its cast which includes Katharine Hepburn, Montgomery Clift, and Elizabeth Taylor.

The brilliant scene is near the beginning, when the resident brain surgeon of an insane asylum, Dr. Cukrowicz (Clift), visits the wealthy Mrs. Venable (Hepburn)--I'll resist the temptation to say "the venerable Mrs. Venable" but I think that's something Tennessee Williams probably meant to tease our ears with. We first see her descending from the ceiling in a little elevator, telling Cukrowicz that, unlike the Byzantine emperor whose throne would rise to impress onlookers with his divinity, she prefers to descend to her guests because she lives in a democracy.

Of course this leaves the implication that she's descending from some place spiritually as much as physically, that her natural place is in the heavens. We soon find this manner of her speaking, pointedly conveying things by saying their opposites, is characteristic of her.

She takes Cukrowicz into her deceased son Sebastian's extraordinary garden of tropical plants and proceeds to tell him why her niece requires a lobotomy.

Hepburn is terrific, taking full advantage of a monologue of a graceful woman whose concealed intentions are perhaps sometimes perceptible on purpose, sometimes perhaps accidentally betrayed by her own madness. Her son was a poet, a languid, cool, atheist we gather from her descriptions and later the niece's. In one great moment, she tells Cukrowicz about Sebastian forcing her to watch birds devouring helpless baby sea turtles on the beach, telling her how it signifies the real nature of the world.

She tells Cukrowicz that he reminds her of her son though the movie does not spend much time on Cukrowicz's character, using him more as an audience surrogate to investigate the story behind the two women and the poet.

This was one of the movies Montgomery Clift made after his disfiguring car accident in 1956. The accident changed not only his appearance but the nature of his performances. Supposedly he had trouble remembering lines but to me the layers of expressed emotion are so much more complex and genuine in his post-accident performances. Even in this role where he really doesn't do very much there's an intriguing, quietly plaintive vulnerability in him that was not there before. John Huston put this quality to perfect use in The Misfits.

After the interview with Venable, Cukrowicz insists on meeting the niece before he decides whether to operate. The niece, Catherine (Elizabeth Taylor), is being kept in an asylum run by nuns and it's quickly apparent that Catherine's supposed insanity is a lie carefully and/or incidentally constructed by Venable and the rough hospitality of the nuns who don't allow her to wear her own clothing or to smoke.

Tennessee Williams complained about Taylor's casting in the role and one may see he has a point when Taylor's sanity is perhaps too apparent and her self-confidence too evidently strong to be manipulated by Venable and the nuns. But the primary failure of this film is the limited commitment of its director, Joseph Mankiewicz, whose imagination takes a story about a cruel mechanism of reality and makes it into a somewhat artificial feeling spectacle.

Ironically, this film based on a play by a gay man with a screenplay by a bisexual man was permitted by the Hays office to explicitly allude to same sex relations because the censors felt the depiction was a lesson in the fundamental evil of homosexuality. Their bias apparently blinded them to the fact that the worst things done in film were done by heterosexuals.

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