Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Taboos. This picture deals with a few. Mental illness and permissive sex. Even in 2010 we struggle with the concept of insanity, the crumbling of the mind. It's as if it couldn't happen to you, yet we all do irrational things that in certain circumstances could be deemed insane. We still don't discuss the concept of insanity, is it fear for our own? Of course, Suddenly, Last Summer is Tennessee Williams material, so secret homosexuality and incest between a mother and son are also up for examination. What's so interesting about Mankiewicz's film is how it tackles these issues head on, yet in subtle ways as to avoid the glare of the then strict US sensor.
Elizabeth Taylor plays the sexually charged Catherine Holly who witnessed the death of cousin Sebastian whilst on vacation last summer. Catherine went seemingly insane due to Sebastian's demise, yet can't really recall what happened. Eccentric socialite mother to Sebastian, Violet (Katharine Hepburn) wants Catherine lobotomized by the good Doctor Cukrowicz (played by an obviously struggling Montgomery Clift). Catherine is spreading indecent suggestions about Sebastian's sudden death, Violet wants to stop the rumors.
Hepburn and Taylor rip into the delicious script by Williams (co-written for the screen by the trusted Gore Vidal). It's terrific watching Hepburn and Taylor at the top of their respective games. Despite Clift's obvious frailty, he delivers the requisite sympathy as the Doctor who pieces together what really happened last summer. Mankiewicz uses long takes, and lets the acting and the script work its magic. At times, Suddenly, Last Summer seems too stilted, yet when the story unfolds of rough trade in far off places, cannibalistic savagery and a mothers over bearing, unnatural love, Suddenly, Last Summer comes alive through its storytelling. This is an intelligent film which requires some patience but offers ample reward for sticking with it. And Taylor's white swimsuit has become a thing of legend.
The script for Suddenly Last Summer is filled with such wonderful sentences that we have to stop watching a couple of times so I can write notes down in my black book. It's Tennessee Williams again.
Madness and homosexuality with ample animal metaphors – certainly lots of inspiration to write a song about.
Katharine Hepburn plays a rich mother, Violet, who has lost her son Sebastian a summer ago and is now convinced that her niece is to blame on the death. The mother lives in a dream-like house with a garden full of Amazonian plants, carnivorous flowers and vultures on the branches of ancient trees. When she introduces the garden to a visitor she says: "My son's garden is very unusual: like the dawn of creation." (imagine the Hepburn accent, the dramatic pronunciation)
Violet associates Sebastian with a god-like creativity and control. She is clearly in love with her son in a completely possessive, stifling manner. The odd surroundings and Violet's overly passionate monologue about her son suggest that madness actually lives under her roof instead of the accused niece's.
Elizabeth Taylor plays the niece, Catherine. Her role is less imaginative because we see immediately that she is not crazy but traumatized. Her main function is to be bate, outside and inside the film. The lobotomy doctor, Montgomery Clift, falls for her in their first scene and his job is to prove her sanity by getting her to remember what really happened on the day that Sebastian died in Spain.
In the end Catherine (why is the 'mad girl' in the attic always Cathy?) is put in front of her relatives and doctors drugged and hypnotized by the serious doctor (Clift) and she can finally remember the truth.
It is an exhilarating scene to watch: the wrongly accused and misunderstood woman unburdening her perspective while the others can only listen. Her story changes the position of the women; now Violet is mad as she ascends back upstairs in her elevator talking to the doctor as if he was her son, Catherine is sane and she goes home with the doc.