Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Review of Suddenly, Last Summer

Expect a follow-up to last week's discussion of Science Fiction and Oscars soon, but for now, a review.

I’m a huge fan of writer/director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who tends to receive universal acclaim for “All About Eve,” “A Letter to Three Wives” and “The Barefoot Contessa.” While I agree that these are all fine films, enduring masterpieces even, I’m upset that his reputation drops off in discussions that move beyond these classics. There are few directors I find myself wanting to defend as often as Mankiewicz, but his less-famous films seem unusually beleaguered with inane criticisms.

Some examples: Contemporary critics bickered about the casting of Marlon Brando in the musical “Guys and Dolls,” despite the fact that he plays marvelously semi-against type, sings gracefully and helps out a film adaptation that may actually be better than the stage version. “The Quiet American” was lambasted by many, including original author Graham Greene, for changing the overtly anti-American ending, despite the fact that the noirish amoral fog condensing on every frame still delivers the central disillusionment and critique of Western foreign policy in a film that is gorgeously shot, brilliantly acted and thematically complicated. (I know my friend Molly with back me up on that front.) Complaints that Mankiewicz screenplays were too talky dogged his entire career, though personally I’d rather listen to Mankiewicz dialog for two hours than see almost any three globe-trotting action-packed epics.

The film I want to talk about today, “Suddenly, Last Summer” also has its share of deriders, this time concentrating on the stereotypical negative depiction of a homosexual man who figures at the center of a peculiar gothic plot. I’m going to address that in more detail later, but first the story.

Dr. Cukrowicz (Montgomery Clift) is a neurosurgeon at a crumbling state asylum, who sees an opportunity to acquire badly-needed funding when one of the richest women in the region invites him over on “a matter of great urgency.” Mrs. Violet Venable (Katherine Hepburn), the twitchy overbearing mother of non-prolific poet Sebastion, who died “suddenly last summer,” wants the doctor to lobotomize her niece (Elizabeth Taylor) who was traumatized by the incident. When Cukrowicz meets Catherine Holly, the niece, at a private mental institute that is expelling her for unbefitting behavior, he begins to suspect that she is not insane, but rather the victim a terrible shock. Her mind has submerged the memory Sebastian’s death and it becomes clear that Mrs. Venable wants the operation to ensure it never resurfaces.

The Tennessee Williams play on which the film is based consists of just two monologues, a format ideally suited to Mankiewicz verbally-driven narratives. His skill at delicious wisecracks takes a backseat to his serious side, loaded with façade-tearing claw-and-fang diatribes (made all the more vicious by the real-life behind-the-scenes animosity between Hepburn and Taylor) and spells of “Heart of Darkness” gothic poetry. The characters pick their words with supreme precision, slip into jolting spasms of profundity and repeat certain phrases (like “suddenly, last summer”) with metrical dramatic emphasis in a way that will either drive you nuts or mesmerize you.

Perhaps the most memorable monologue is Hepburn’s description of the moment went Sebastian “saw God” and simultaneously lost his faith while travelling in the Galapagos Islands. On an empty beach he saw turtles hatching from buried eggs and racing towards the sanctuary of the sea while the sky turned black with birds that swooped and dove on the creatures, flipping them on their backs and devouring the soft flesh of their underbellies while they squirmed. Only one in every hundred survives. Sebastian tells his mother that those doomed turtles are mankind.

If this sounds a little over-the-top, it is, especially delivered by Hepburn while in Sebastian’s fantastic tropical garden, complete with a Venus flytrap that she hand-feeds flies, a life-size statue of the angel of death and whimsical references to the Garden of Eden. The other major settings include an over-crowded asylum and a sun-baked island village, both depicted with ominous overtones and keyed to haunting music. If the locations weren’t enough to signal that we’ve entered into the nightmare depths of madness, than the performances should make it abundantly clear.

Montgomery Clift virtually disappears when Katherine Hepburn or Elizabeth Taylor enter, usually by their preferred methods of, respectively, being lowered in by an elevator-mounted throne (I’m not kidding) and burning herself onto the celluloid in a comet blaze of rage, panic and seduction. Hepburn is at her creepiest (although I’m of the minority opinion that she is a little creepy even in her comedic and romantic roles) and Taylor is at her vampiest, and they both have enough sexual repression to give the constant impression that the entire set is about to spontaneously burst into flame.

The type of acting in a movie like this often times gets incorrectly classified as melodrama or camp, complete with the usual negative connotations. As an advocate of unconventional acting modes I get really fired up about the narrowness of critics and movie-goers who insist that naturalism is the only acceptable style of performance. Our perceived need to relate to, identify with, or at least recognize a performance is highly overrated in my opinion.

I’m a big enthusiast for silent film gestural acting, expressionism, melodrama, hyper-realism, method acting, camp, animation, deadpan, etc. I love the drained existentialism of “Buffet Froid” and “Vengeance Is Mine,” the overly idiosyncratic roles in the work of Welles and Argento, the sugar-pop fantasy personalities of musicals, the hypnotized zombie-delivery of “Heart of Glass,” and many other styles for which no one has yet coined a succinct and descriptive term.

The type of acting in “Suddenly, Last Summer” reminds me of films like “Apocalypse Now,” “Possession” (and other Zulawski features), “Bug,” “Inland Empire” and “High Strung.” I think of it as “intensified” acting. It’s a way of imprinting intensity, insanity and anxiety on the screen. It’s not always done well, and at worst it can come off as self-important scene-swallowing perpetrated by vulgar peddlers of jumbo-sized emotions.

I’ve been digressing, but now it’s time to get around to the issue I promised to address. Should “Suddenly, Last Summer” be dismissed as homophobic?

Sebastion, whose face is never actually shown, is eventually revealed to be gay through various flashbacks and insinuations that spell things are pretty directly for a 1959 film. He dresses fashionably in white silk suits. He writes one poem per year, while enjoying a summer vacation on an exotic island. We learn that he habitually “uses” people, an act he considers synonymous to love, and looks down upon humanity with disdain. In the film’s first major reveal [SPOILER ALERT], we learn that he cavorts with Hepburn and Taylor merely to use them as bait for hooking suitably lively young men. In the most vivid example, he dresses Catherine in a white swimsuit, that naturally turns translucent when wet, and has her splash about in front of the chain-link fence that separates the wealthy tourists from the hungry masses. [SPOILERS ENDS]

So we are not dealing with a progressive depiction of a homosexuality by any means, though I don’t think it’s exactly stereotypical either. What seems clear to me is that his general cruelty is not supposed to be due to his homosexuality, but a result of his misanthropy and detachment. It is only the deranged and incestuous Violet that sees his central flaw as being attracted to men (hence her desperate attempts to deny it and cover up the evidence), and I think it would be unwise to accept her perspective as the authorial one even though she provides much of our insight. Consider, too, that Sebastian’s homosexuality is revealed in the false climax. The central trauma, the final monstrous revelation, turns out to be a direct reflection of his own apocalyptic worldview; a punishment for the crime of exploiting, of coldly “using,” the humanity that he considered beneath him.

In one last salvo, I’d like to point out that the original author (Tennessee Williams), the screenwriter (Gore Vidal) and the lead actor (Montgomery Clift) were all, themselves, homosexual. Williams and Vidal, in particular, showed consistently progressive liberal tendencies in their writing, and I think a deeper look at their characterization of Sebastian reveals that they are more interested in exploring the breakdowns and borderlands of human relationships than in parroting the status quo. The choice to let the audience neither see nor hear Sebastian is certainly conspicuous, and should lead one to consider what the writers intended by only describing him through the eyes of others and only explaining him through the agendas of survivors.

But whether you care about sexual politics are not, “Suddenly, Last Summer” is a compelling viewing experience, with more than enough to recommend it. See it for the controversy I’ve discussed, the colorful off-screen drama or the Elizabeth Taylor bathing suit sequence, but stay for the decadent sets, overflowing script and intensified acting.

Walrus Rating: 9.0


Mad Dog said...

I totally agree with you on Katherine Hepburn's creepiness. On Golden Pond should be recategorized as psychological horror.

But as for the whole issue of depictions of homosexuality being paired with misanthropy and detachment, I strongly (STRONGLY) urge you to find a copy of Osamu Tezuka's graphic novel, MW, and clear out a day to sit down and read it. I think it's an underrated gem. It's one of the edgiest, most provocative and mature mangas I've read and this was made in the 1970s, for Christ's sake. By the guy that created Astro Boy.

FilmWalrus said...

Cool. I keep meaning to get more up-to-speed on graphic novels and manga. I'll put MV on my wishlist for now, and buy it in my next batch of Amazon purchases. Should I go with the hardcover, or is there a cheaper worthwhile version available?

Mad Dog said...

There's only the hardcover so far, but you can get it for fairly cheap off of Amazon, considering how much content there is vs. cost when it comes to other manga available.

Unknown said...

It's hard to know what to do with atypical acting. I think I'm more open than a lot of people, but it can still be confusing, especially if it seems incongruous with our expectations or the other aspects of the film. I can't imagine what older generations must think of all the deadpan stuff we like.

Funny and not funny to watch basically everyone in the audience give up on Boarding Gate. It was very confusing, hard to get a handle on what genre, how serious it was, everything. I can sympathize with the frustration, even though we stuck it out and appreciated some aspects and pieces.

Anonymous said...

I love this movie, and I especially appreciate your discussion of the acting style, which I find mesmerizing. The dialogue, with all those wonderful evocations of primeval gardens, dinosaurs, turtles and that blazing white hot bone of a sun, is captivating, and I love the mannered repetition and the way other characters interrupt the monologues to echo certain phrases. Bosley Crowther's initial review of this in the New York Times is shocking in the way he completely missed the point and was blind to the manifold beauties of the piece. He wants plot details about Sebastian's death cleared up, but what makes much of the film compelling is what's unspoken or hinted at. What a shame Hepburn and Taylor didn't get along -- they are both quite magnificent. I love this film more every time I see it.

Augustus said...

Didn't mean to remain anonymous in posting my above comments -- sorry!

Unknown said...

I think at the centre of Suddenly Last Summer was the "unspeakable", quite conveniently so at an era of heavy censorship, even the various kinds of cannabalism that were spoken of were merely euphemism for something much more heinous, something that drove Catherine to write in third person in her diary, much like Williams/Vidal were narrating through third persons, namely, Mrs Venables and Catherine, who could be viewed as the ego (in the sense of a reconciliation of raw desire and social propriety resulting in a dreamlike reality) and superego (in the sense of rational moral constraints which created almost a complete disconnect with the speakable "truth") to the ID sunk in the deep unconscious represented by the unseen character of Sebastian, facing the "unspeakable" i.e. the horror of the insatiable sexual craving that would last as long as life itself, courtesy of the Creator.

The kind of sexual craving that Sebastian had was insatiable because it was obviously transgendered - i.e. the man had a woman's craving, Mrs Venables and Catherine were used as bait not just to lure young men, but also to allow Sebastian to momentarily project himself into these two women and access the situation where he would be desired by men as a woman - the internet pornography does not lack examples of these.

Whether the lobotomy (apparently inspired by Williams' own sister who underwent the same treatment and was incapacitated for life) as a misguided solution to Catherine's madness due to the inability to face the "unspeakable" and the sexual reassignment surgery that Vidal would write about a decade later in Myra Breckenbridge is Jungian coincidence or Freudian slip or something else is more difficult to say.