Things I read off the screen in Suddenly, Last Summer

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What can you see in the shadows?

There are spoilers in this…

Though Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s use of horror movie tropes to depict homosexuality in his adaptation (with Gore Vidal) of Tennessee Williams’ SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER has drawn comment, I suspect in time we may come to be more alarmed by the film’s depiction of Mexican street boys as cannibals, and lunatic asylum inmates as zombies.

Of course, there is a certain amount of weaseling around the cannibalism thing — “It looked as if” Sebastian had been eaten alive, we are told. But the sequence as staged by Mankiewicz evokes Romero horror movies which had not yet been made, plus THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN and the climax of ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (two other movies with very queer gentlemen who play God), and it’s supposed to prove that Liz Taylor is NOT insane, so even if we don’t take it 100% literally, we have to take it as to some extent true.

(John Gielgud dubbed the play, “Please Don’t Eat the Pansies.”)

Williams’ evocation of the monstrous-feminine, ably embodied by Katherine Hepburn in Mrs Bates embalmed mode, might also raise eyebrows. Perhaps we need to just admit that the Gothic imagination is not inclined to be politically correct.

Poor Monty Clift is very good in a role (sympathetic lobotomist!) that basically involves looking quietly freaked at how goddamn WEIRD everybody is in this picture — a vital role to make the audience acclimatize.

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LOOK: Even when Hepburn casually picks up a magazine in the hospital sun room, it features swimsuit sexiness on the back cover and a devouring tropical beast on the front.

Occurred to me that Hepburn’s first scene, with the primeval garden (containing its own Audrey II flesheater in miniature greenhouse) is like the briefing of Humphrey Bogart in THE BIG SLEEP, and the movie is a Freudian detective story like SPELLBOUND or MARNIE, but even more investigative and Marlowesque than those. And did Bunuel clock Hepburn’s buzzing box and steal it for BELLE DE JOUR, perhaps thinking that, although the specially-imported Venus flytrap food was a good gag, it was a pity to introduce a mysterious buzzing box and ever explain what was up with that?

Jack Hildyard’s photography is incredible, well served by the DVD. ┬áHis career seems to have gone to shit after MODESTY BLAISE, but before that he shot BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI — he also did uncredited work for Mankiewicz on CLEOPATRA and much as I love Leon Shamroy (The King of Technicolor), I have a suspicion that the nocturnal throne-room stuff in that movie which is FAR handsomer than anything else in it, may conceivably be Hidlyard’s contribution. I’d love to know.

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What a weird film. Though Clift and Taylor have mucho chemistry in A PLACE IN THE SUN, here their love story is pretty flimsy, and the movie brushes aside any qualms about Clift falling for a patient (whom he also hypnotizes). The grotesque circus hangs together remarkably well, with all its brazenly unsubtle symbolism and incantatory, Salome-esque monologues, but the romance may be a beat too many. Whatever — just getting a freakshow like this made at MGM deserves some kind of chutzpah award.

Embarrassing note: I’d never seen it.

Fiona: “You have so seen it. I’ve seen it!”

Me: “But we have not seen all the same films, because we are two people.”

Though this at times seems decreasingly true.

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12 Responses to “Things I read off the screen in Suddenly, Last Summer”

  1. We were discussing this film just yesterday, a friend and I. I remember catching it on television when I was pretty young, and it scared the shit out of me in a way no conventional “horror” film ever did. Seems I recall a scene where mental patient Liz puts her cigarette out in the palm of a nun’s hand. Does that actually happen in the film or are my memory banks playing tricks on me?

  2. david wingrove Says:

    No, you’re not making that up. Our Liz actually does use a nun as a walking ashtray. This film terrified me as well. (I was 12 when I first saw it.) That ominous sound the street boys made on a conch shell recurred in my nightmares for years!

    Nor do I have a problem with the way the film depicts homosexual characters. Back in 1959, you could depict gay people in one of only three contexts – horror (SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER), farce (SOME LIKE IT HOT) or some deeply buried subtext in the Ancient World (BEN HUR). Any realistic contemporary depiction was simply unthinkable, at least in Hollywood.

  3. It IS rather Hammer, but I never found anything in it terrifying — save Hepburn. The Oliver Smith garden (“Like the dawn of creation”) is a masterpiece of set design.

    Suddenly Last Summer was a one-act that premiered Off-Broadway with another Williams one-act play Something Unspoken ( about a lesbian couple, cha-cha cha!) under the overall title Garden District

    In adapting the play Eugene, very cannily, created “sides” for it. We see what problems the hospital is having in operating on a first-rate level and Albert Dekker (who died of auto-erotic asphyxiation in real life) is suitably pushy as Monty’s boss. The heart of the piece is the climactic monologue — an aria really — in which Miss Catherine gets the courage to recount what happened hat day. Beside being a great star, Elizabeth Taylor was a superb Williams interpreter. She catches his poetic rhythms like very few actors. Here it’s crucial in making the piece work.

    Suddenly Last Summer was the fruit of Williams’ encounter with psychoanalysis. It’s the Monster version of The Glass Menagerie As we all know his beloved sister Rose was lobotomized on doctors orders — or so Miss Edwina said. Tennessee never got over this and was convinced she had Rose lobotomized in order to keep her from telling about a sexual advance their father had made on her. Add the fact that the shrinks were trying to “cure” Tennessee of his gayness (they ORDERED him to send is beloved Frank Merlo away) and you have Cousin Sebastian — Gayness as a Monster so horrible his face can never be seen.

    While Elizabeth Taylor’s bathing suit has been afforded deserved attention I’ve always been partial to Cousin Sebastian’s bathing suit. It may well have inspired Irving Rosenthal’s reference to “my white homosexual bathing suit” in Sheeper.

    In any event Monkeybitch with Eugene’s invaluable aide REALLY “slipped one past the goalie” by bringing “strange twilight urges” to the masses once and for all.

    After all these years the film hasn’t lost its power — and neither has my favorite line from it: “Tired of the dark ones, FAMISHED for the blondes!”

  4. In The Celluloid Closet, Vidal bemoans the difficulty of getting ANY reference to homosexuality past the censors, but he succeeded better than he knew: I don’t think anybody could watch the film and be in any doubt about what was going on, and if you’ve got the idea across it doesn’t really matter what terminology was allowed.

  5. Well it’s never a question of terminology — just ideology. The term “Homosexual” didn’t come into existence until the close of the 19th Century when it was coined by a Hungarian journalist (note: not a medical authority) named Karoly Benkert aka. Karl Maria von Kertbeny. As a result he also coined the term “heterosexual.” Both were then taken up my medicine the better to pathologize and “treat”
    this new “mental illness.”

    You see while we may come from you, ideologically speaking you come from us.

    For the whole story read The Invention of Heterosexuality by Jonathan “Ned” Katz.

  6. Fascinating!

    Speaking of terminology, I have had difficulty persuading some people on the internet that “retarded” is an offensive term in more ways than one. The scientist who coined it was convinced that, as the fetus seems to develop through various evolutionary stages (hence the giant Scottish frog in WC Menzies’ The Maze, arrested in his development at amphibian stage), we also evolved through the various racial groups and until we attained caucasian form. So a child with Down Syndrome was retarded at the “Mongoloid” or Asian stage, and other children represented different non-white races, hence their primitive mentality.

    A good enough reason to lay that term to rest, I think.

  7. With “heterosexual” and “homosexual” you have the illusion of a scientific label, but the phenomena described still have no scientific basis other than a preference. No “gay gene,” just an extremely complex set of factors which MAY combine to orient us one way or another. It’s a bit like inventing a special science-y sounding word for liking custard, or abstract art.

  8. There’s even a question of “retarded” being offensive? It was a common insult when I went to grammar school, which is enough to mark it as offensive.

  9. Cowardly Custard.

  10. david wingrove Says:

    According to Gore Vidal, who co-wrote this film…

    “There are no heterosexual or homosexual persons, only heterosexual or homosexual acts.”

    But can one include liking Barbra Streisand as one of the above?!

  11. Perhaps not, since such an act might well include two sexes, if the fan were male: one male and one Streisand.

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