06 May 2009

Suddenly, Last Summer

Superb Cast Owns Suddenly, Last Summer
By Kristin Battestella

Though it was a big controversial film back in 1959, folks today often overlook Suddenly, Last Summer. We know the big names here, from Katherine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor to Tennessee Williams and Gore Vidal, so where’s the love? Perhaps dated in its science and social mores onscreen and off, Suddenly Last Summer is still an intelligent, complex character study that deserves another look.

After the death of her high living son Sebastian ‘suddenly, last summer’, Ms. Violet (Hepburn) contacts Dr. John Cukrowicz (Montgomery Clift) in hopes his experimental lobotomy techniques can help her disturbed niece Catherine (Taylor), a witness to Sebastian’s death. Violet promises desperately needed money for Dr. Cukrowicz’s clinic, but after delving into Catherine’s psyche, Dr. Cukrowicz is not so sure brain surgery is the right course of action. What is the true genesis of Catherine’s mental troubles, and why is her aunt Violet so eager for Catherine’s memory to disappear?

Suddenly, Last Summer is intriguing today for its casual talk of lobotomies and brain surgery as new and radical. Taking place in 1937, these technologies were dangerous and misused back in the day. Scary then, that people with enough money can still play with lives and brains as they do here. The effortless toking up and cigarette talk is also strange to see on screen again. These old-fashioned viewpoints and styles like netted hats and gloves add to the black and white noir and suspense. It’s off its time and place, yet says much about us today. We tend to think of the past as so grandiose; but no matter how high and mighty, people are still corrupted by wealth and family secrets. The styles and perceptions may change, but some people don’t.

Made to look ugly even though she clearly isn’t, Elizabeth Taylor’s (A Place In The Sun-also with Clift, Giant, Butterfield 8) Catherine doesn’t appear until over a half hour into the film. Her disturbed, conflicted girl wavers from innocent to sultry to neurotic. Where is the truth? Taylor convinces us, and then turns on the dime. Matching Taylor’s Catherine to Hepburn’s Violet is an intriguing, intelligent game for the audience, and both ladies were nominated for Best Actress here. Even though they don’t meet until the final half hour of the film, Hepburn and Taylor bring this bizarre family’s secrets to a head. What was truly going on last summer? Is Suddenly, Last Summer about Sebastian- his life or his death; or is he merely the catalyst for these women to face their own demons?

Though modern audiences may not care for the one camera, one place, two people stage style; any fan of great film cannot deny the presence of Katharine Hepburn. Her aging eccentric has slick, near sociopath soliloquies, showing she still has her stuff. Hepburn’s (The Philadelphia Story, Woman of the Year, On Golden Pond) varying voice pitch and patterns, mixed with swift statures and fidgets with her shawls and wraps give an extra edge against Montgomery Clift’s quiet demeanor. She’s the elder statesmen of the cast, but Katharine gives Taylor a run for her money. As much as you feel a passing of the torch, Hepburn is sad and likeable while being a true bitch with bite. Violet is not a role just anybody can pull off.

Yes, poor Montgomery Clift (Red River, The Heiress, From Here to Eternity) is caught between these two exceptional women. Looking stronger and healthier than his last appearance with Taylor (he was in a car accident that damaged his face during filming for Raintree Country) Clift is up to the challenge here. He’s charmed by both women, yet keeps his doctor’s wits about him. He genuinely wants to help both ladies and gain the much-needed financial support for his hospital, but ‘Dr. Sugar’ as Violet says, can’t have it all. While quite capable of delivering his own intense scenes, Clift’s dialogue here is more reflexive and responsive to the star ladies. You would think our Dr. Sugar is quietly in control, but against these women, no. Montgomery Clift is perhaps my favorite actor, top 3 most definitely. In his short, tragic career there are quite a few gems and classic essentials. We idolize James Dean and Marlon Brando today, but Clift is often overlooked. One might say he is almost overlooked in Suddenly, Last Summer, but Dr. Sugar is the critical fulcrum on which his powerful co-stars balance. Some actors would crave their fair share, but Clift gives a solid, subdued performance in a decade where everyone seemed to over act.

The supposedly grand and Oscar nominated sets, unfortunately don’t transfer well to the modern screen. Perhaps you could get away with depth tricks and cardboard layers on stage, but not in the film adaptation of Suddenly, Last Summer. The supposedly lofty New Orleans mansions and exotic gardens are too flat, especially in black and white. Thankfully, it’s not the sets one is after. Adapted from his own play, Tennessee Williams (A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) and Gore Vidal (The Left Handed Gun, Caligula) bring dialogue and characters that are much more complex and layered than mere sets could be. Fine acting and simple staples work best: Hepburn always in white and the dark horse Taylor adorned in black-except for Liz’s scandalous, infamous wet and white bathing suit. Sound also plays a special part in Suddenly, Last Summer. Rising music as the women tell their tales, crazy asylum laughter, or lobotomized patients knitting in creaking rocking chairs; at the same time, effects and music know when to be silent for the critical speeches. It’s refreshing to see a film that sticks to old school techniques and lets the cast act-no desensitizing violence, sex, or CGI. Ah, they just don’t make ‘em like they used to.

I will say the end of Suddenly, Last Summer is somewhat overlong. There are too many flashbacks from Taylor, but it’s all necessary to confirm the pieces we’ve received. It’s twisted and bizarre, but worth the wait. Often I hear criticisms that older films are quieter and slow and over done, but for me that’s nicer than a top heavy modern film that ends with half its story to tell because it’s trying to be avante garde. Sure some of Suddenly, Last Summer is obvious to today’s audiences, but the fine performances and getting to the resolution trump any mishandled homosexual innuendo. If you’re a gay man, you’re automatically a pedophile soliciting boys-please! Again, it’s somewhat fascinating to look at these signs of the times. Much of what Williams and Vidal plotted was censored and forced to be redone amid a tense set due to Clift’s own gay leanings and substance abuse. In truth, Hollywood in 1959 was just as disturbed as our onscreen 1937 drama.

With a fine cast at the top of its game and intriguing perspectives on a variety of social subjects from the thirties, fifties, and today- Suddenly, Last Summer is a multi-layered mystery statement that deserves fans to study, dissect, and analyze this picture. Naturally, immature youths and prudes might be put off by the latent homosexual subject matter. Nevertheless, the gay plot elements aren’t what this film is about and one should not be deterred from watching Suddenly, Last Summer because of them. Fans of the cast will of course enjoy; and scholars in film, plays, psychology, or socially might take an educational viewing. Perhaps not easy to find in stores, the DVD is available online at very affordable prices. Take a chance on Suddenly, Last Summer. You might find an old film that makes you think.

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