The quite wonderful Crystal asked me to take part in a blogathon that paid tribute to the iconic Elizabeth Taylor. I jumped at the chance to do so and will review Suddenly, Last Summer.
Suddenly, Last Summer
Joseph L. Mankiewicz
- Elizabeth Taylor as Catherine Holly
- Katharine Hepburn as Violet Venable
- Montgomery Clift as Dr. John Cukrowicz
A typically heated and startling play by Tennessee Williams provide the basis for this shocking and highly dramatic movie. Suddenly, Last Summer is a go to for great dialogue, taboo subjects being brought up and fine acting from a starry cast.
1937 New Orleans; Dr. John Cukrowicz is a young surgeon who works at an asylum for the insane. He is growing restless with the crumbling building and conditions not being up to scratch for his work. The answer to securing more funds and much more accessible ways of doing his work comes one day with a letter. It is from Violet Venable, a wealthy widow who offers to help fund a new wing for the hospital. That is if he meets her to discuss something she wants in return. Encountering the ageing matriarch, he learns that her son Sebastian died suspiciously on a holiday last summer. Violet has a young, beautiful niece called Catherine Holly who is institutionalised following a trip to Europe the previous summer. On that trip was when the shocking death of Sebastian occurred and Catherine suffered a breakdown. Violet wants Cukrowicz to perform a lobotomy on Catherine, as she is secretly worried that Catherine has sinister information about her son that she was utterly devoted too. In return, she would supply him with the necessary things he requires for his practice. Cukrowicz is naturally skeptical about all of this, so he decides to meet Catherine himself. Catherine, though emotionally disturbed by her cousin’s death, is not insane and Cukrowicz comes to see that she has blocked out the painful memories of the past but not completely forgotten it. He is determined to help her reveal what occurred with Sebastian on that fateful trip abroad. Due to her hysteria and in between sedation , it makes it difficult for him to push further with his investigation. But he is not going to stop and along with a determined Catherine, both want to get to the bottom of Catherine’s fragile mind and discover just what really happened to Sebastian last summer.
The talented Joseph L. Mankiewicz is the man behind the camera. He makes it a daring movie that isn’t scared to get close to taboo subject matter and high drama of a high factor. And on a stylistic level, the production design and cinematography conjure up the unusualness of this most startling tale, with many scenes tension filled and like something shocking is about to be revealed. Now I do believe that some of the subject matter covered is more alluded to than shown, probably because of the threat of censorship back in the day. But the issues that it mentions and hints at are there for us all to glean and be shocked by, which for me says that the movie still packs a punch. This is especially true in the emotions stakes, which is something that Tennessee Williams and his work often have. The stories are heated and button pushing with everything coming out in turns of torrid feeling. The Southern Gothic atmosphere and building tension are grand assets for Suddenly, Last Summer and ones it employs to bring out the melodrama of the piece to the highest order. The script isn’t afraid to push the boundaries of the time by focusing on latent homosexuality and attitudes towards mental health, ensuring that even a movie from the 50’s could tackle subjects(although a little watered down due to the powers that be) with dramatic prowess. Due to this we get some amazing monologues from characters, in particular Catherine as she has to dig into her subconscious and remember the shattering events of last summer. A flaw can be that the stage origins of the piece start to show in many instances. Yet the material and acting make up for that hiccup of not being expansive enough. And the mystery of what happened to Sebastian and whether or not Catherine will be able to put it together are brought out with the brass heavy and often very sinister score.
All the actors present get in touch with the overheated and highly dramatic stylings of the script, especially Taylor and Hepburn. Elizabeth Taylor is excellent as the traumatised and haunted Catherine, who is emotionally disturbed by the events of last summer. Taylor gets to be terrified and fearful of her own memory here, clearly tapping into the shock and horror of what the character has witnessed and just how much it has caused her to block out what really happened to her cousin. Catherine clearly knows something but it has been blocked out by her trauma. She’s many things from scared to often sensual to lucid and determined to uncover what’s being concealed. A lot is conveyed through darting eyes and body language to suggest the turmoil and terror Catherine feels, especially and most effectively in the stages in which everything comes out in the open. It’s a fine performance of shock, vulnerability, uncertainty and numerous angles from Taylor who really displays her sometimes overlooked talent here. Also fabulous is Katharine Hepburn’s sly and cracked Aunt. Hepburn’s marvellous voice and mannerisms are put to good use here; she’s like a broken piece of glass with her tremulous and fidgety switches in mood and behaviour. Aunt Violet is also very witty and acerbic, finding another side to a woman who is broken by her son’s death but intent on keeping what happened under wraps. The great Katharine Hepburn is another great entry to Suddenly, Last Summer’s strong acting bow. Montgomery Clift is the most subdued member of the cast but his sensitive doctor is still acted well. He is required to be the ears to both women’s stories and make up his own mind on what is the truth of the matter at hand. His role is not the most showy but it serves its purpose in a manner befitting the story.
A deliriously eye-opening slice of melodrama and Southern Gothic atmosphere, Suddenly, Last Summer is a very good adaptation of a Tennessee Williams play with grand acting and mystery.