Friday, November 3, 2023

Suddenly, Last Summer, Elizabeth Taylor Goes Crazy (Or Does She?)

I well remember an early ad campaign, featuring a drawing of a young, svelte, and very beautiful Elizabeth Taylor, kneeling in a white bathing suit. She looks anxious, and the words of the ad make it clear why: “Suddenly, last summer . . .  Cathy knew she was being used for something evil.”  This was how Hollywood tried to sell an expanded film version of a lurid but poetic Tennessee Williams one-act play dealing with insanity, homosexuality, and (yes) cannibalism.

 Williams, who’d opened the play on Broadway in 1957, had no say in the making of the film. It was directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz (whose credits included All About Eve) from a Gore Vidal screenplay. The central trio of actors included Elizabeth Taylor—then at the height of her dramatic powers and personal notoriety—as well as a fifty-year-old Katharine Hepburn and a very troubled Montgomery Clift. The actor was barely recovered from a serious auto crash that mangled his face and left him dependent on pills and alcohol, but Taylor, who was a close friend, insisted he keep the role. As it turns out, Clift is both the least convincing and the least interesting of the three central characters.

 The best word for the basic style of this film is “histrionic,” but I mean this as a compliment. Though there’s nothing remotely realistic about the situation at hand, there’s something gorgeously stylized about the world of this movie and its characters. Settings include a lurid  insane asylum and a Deep Southern mansion surrounded by acres of tropical plants, some of them deadly. The film opens on a lobotomy performed by Dr. John Cukrowicz (Clift), a pioneer in the field of psychosurgery who cures mental patients of what ails them by removing part of their brains. He’s summoned by a wealthy and imperious widow named Violet Venable (Hepburn), who wants to fund a major expansion of his hospital as a monument to the memory of her dead son, Sebastian. The only catch: he must first lobotomize her troubled niece (Taylor), who has been saying disturbing things ever since witnessing Sebastian’s death in a Spanish seaside town with the ominous name of Cabeza de Lobo. 

 In true Tennessee Williams style, the two female characters express themselves in long soaring monologues. Mrs. Venable talks at length about her special closeness to Sebastian, a young man of talent, strong emotions, and a disdain for anything he considers common or ugly. Given the public mores of the 1950s, there’s something the film cannot acknowledge frankly: that Sebastian was destroyed while on the prowl for homosexual love. Still, you can hardly miss the subtext. It is Taylor’s own powerful monologue, late in the film, that makes clear how his violent and intensely symbolic death came to be.

 I watched this film after reading (and blurbing) an advance copy of my colleague Matthew Kennedy’s Elizabeth Taylor: An Opinionated Guide, an upcoming publication from Oxford University Press. Kennedy quotes director Mankiewicz as calling Taylor’s performance here “one of the finest pieces of acting in any motion picture ever made.” Speaking of that climactic monologue, Mankiewicz described it as “an aria from a tragic opera of madness and death.” Though Kennedy himself seems slightly less enthusiastic about this particular Taylor film role, he does praise her work in the lengthy monologue as “a wonderment of technique” by a performer who is “inherently cinematic.”  

 One of the plants in Violet Venable’s garden is a Venus flytrap, which must be fed flies on a regular schedule. What a multi-pronged visual metaphor for this exotic, unnerving film!  




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