Another review from the world of dark cinema.
With each review, I am also sharing minimalist movie posters I have created for every film after watching it. ( More on my film poster project at large, here. )
FILM :: SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER
YEAR :: 1959
DIRECTOR :: Joseph Mankiewicz
“Suddenly, Last Summer.” Just saying the name in film circles stirs conversation. Yes… Homosexuality was considered taboo when the film was released. Yes… Cannibalism and predation are still bizarre territory and… Yes… There are some cartoonish performances in their intensity, here. BUT… IMHO, this is a striking bit of cinema and I think it has gotten a bad rap in many ways. In reviewing it, I thought I would address those criticisms head on.
WHAT ABOUT THE SOURCE MATERIAL?
Ahhhh… Tennessee Williams, the great American bundle of neurotic literary genius. He was a literary giant of the 20th century and among the absolute best playwrights of the modern era. He gave us the story that forms the basis for this striking film. The play was challenging material when it was written and remains so to this day, but Williams does his usual masterful job of broaching a range of sensitive subjects in ways that are both deft and unforgettable. However, no matter how deftly it is approached, theater that addresses sexually predatory behaviors, homosexuality in the 1950s, mental illness, human exploitation, lobotomy, pedophilia and CANNIBALISM is just GOING to be a challenge for audiences.
The censors were a bit aghast at this one and they did have to lame the material in order to allow it to make it to the screen. Director Mankiewicz also wanted to bring out his own vision within the original work. Things got changed up a bit in the process. Williams was NOT pleased, as you might imagine, later saying that the film made him want to “throw up.”
All of this may be true on some level, but I do think the themes and the “edge” are still within this film. It is still lurid and psychologically fascinating at its core and that makes it a great watch for me.
IS THE FILM HOMOPHOBIC?
Although the censors wanted to see this as an anti-gay piece, seeing the film as an illustration “the horrors of such a lifestyle,” they forced the filmmakers to remove any direct references to homosexuality. That has resulted in a long-standing reputation as a “homophobic” film for “Suddenly, Last Summer.”
Even taking into account a healthy amount of self-loathing on the part of Williams, it’s very difficult to imagine a genuinely homophobic story from someone partnered for more than 14 years with his personal secretary, the dashing Frank Merlo. Williams was gay, clearly not homophobic, so the source material remains agnostic on this, choosing not to demonize the homosexual lifestyle, but rather predation of any kind and from any sexual perspective.
True enough, the film was adapted for the screen by another of our “American Lions of Letters,” Gore Vidal, a self-declared bisexual with some decided self-loathing around homosexuality. It is true that Vidal did have trouble with the idea of self-identifying as strictly a “gay man.” He was however, most assuredly, a “power top,” having sex with over 1000 men before he was 25 years old and going on to enjoy dalliances with many of the stars of his era (even carousing with Williams himself). Though he may have been existentially conflicted on the subject of homosexuality and the meaning of the term “gay,” in practice, the great screenwriter of “Suddenly, Last Summer” was not. This also does not make this a homophobic film.
And what of the final cut of the film? Does it add, in the end, homophobia to the mix? Again, it’s difficult to give the film bad marks on this front as the film’s central on-screen villain, the detestable Mrs. Violet Venable is straight and certainly where the film’s gay character, Sebastian, learned his predatory behaviors. Often literally descending from above in an elevator and decked out as a ravenous raptor, some bizarre bird of prey, the hetero Violet is certainly the most “hateable” character in the film. Though this matriarch’s attempt to cloud the truth about her son’s sexual lifestyle lies at the film’s central drama, Violet also has a complex relationship with it, acting as “bait,” attracting young men for Sebastian to prey upon for sexual favor. Fascinating.
I do not think this film is homophobic, but rather again demonstrates a hatred of predatory behavior of any kind. Seriously, it’s time to look past this.
HEYYYY… WHAT ABOUT THE PERFORMANCES?
OK. There are some performances that border upon caricature here. Fair enough.
BUT… I think this is just what the material needs. It only serves to underscore the wonderfully skewed, funhouse mirror of a story that we are experiencing in “Suddenly, Last Summer.” I may be in the minority, but I really thought the actors here did an amazing job with difficult storytelling. And let’s not forget that it’s a hell of a cast here, too. At the top of the bill, we have the legendary Katherine Hepburn as the frighteningly detached Violet Venable, the gorgeous Elizabeth Taylor as the unhinged Catherine Holly and as foil to them both, Montgomery Clift as the inscrutable and unflappable Dr. Cukrowitz. Let’s not forget Albert Dekker, Mercedes McCambridge and Gary Raymond to boot. All heavy hitters to be sure and, for me, they bring a lot to their respective roles.
I was also fascinated to hear of the incredible conflict on-set during the making of this film. After a car crash near Taylor’s house prior to casting, Clift had become highly dependent on alcohol and drugs to make it through the day. Taylor insisted that he be hired for the Cukrowitz role. He found his long, emotional, “talky” scenes exhausting and required special help filming them. Director Mankiewicz showed little patience for the delays, berating Clift throughout filming. When the final “CUT” was called for the film, Hepburn reportedly approached the director and spat in his face for what she considered inexcusable treatment of Clift. How can you NOT think that something FASCINATING can come of that sort of combative and difficult chemistry? Come ON?
Again, this film is a challenge on a host of levels. No question. But I feel it’s time to recognize it for the classic that it is. Challenges or not. The fact that it still makes us uncomfortable and perhaps even scares us after well over a half-century is a testament to the power and the skin-crawling rewards “Suddenly, Last Summer” can offer.
RATING ………………. 4 STARS