August 11, 2013

Suddenly, Last Summer

How could you not love a movie like Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)? It's a delightfully over-the-top Southern family drama from the mind of Tennessee Williams, in which Elizabeth Taylor plays a troubled woman whose dotty millionaire aunt (Katharine Hepburn) wants a prominent surgeon (Montgomery Clift) to perform a lobotomy on her. (Tennessee Williams's sister Rose was lobotomized and it was naturally a tragic moment in the life of the playwright, one which he fixates on in Suddenly, Last Summer.)

Aunt Violet (Hepburn) wants to put certain memories of her niece's to rest, particularly those about Violet's late son Sebastian, an eccentric poet with whom his mother had a bizarre, unhealthy, emotionally incestuous relationship. Sebastian's sexuality is the great big not-so-secret here: he used his mother and his cousin to procure young men for him. The film is of course somewhat coy about this, but only enough to avoid the moralistic but naturally insipid eyes of the Production Code that expurgated all of the Tennessee Williams adaptions at the time. (In Violet's house, we see lots of statues and portraits of muscly nude men in the background. And yet she was in complete denial!)

It's a satisfying bit of glossy trash that pushes all the right buttons, and once again proves how wonderful Taylor was at being campy but sympathetic. And of course, Hepburn flits around like an addle-headed butterfly, spouting her self-deceived monologues about her son as though we're supposed to believe she's the sane one. (But she is the one with the money, and she lures Clift's boss with a million-dollar-check, provided he can deliver the unpleasant surgical procedure.) Montgomery Clift gives a wooden performance, but he's not given much of a character here. His surgeon is just a device used to bring out the madness in the film's stronger characters. There's also cannibalism, and family quibbling, and a wonderful example of Hollywood's obsession with insane asylums. Madness never seemed so glamorous then with the raven-haired Elizabeth Taylor. Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. With Mercedes McCambridge, Albert Dekker, and Gary Raymond. 114 min.

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