Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)
I considered posting this review on Mother's Day, because nothing says "mom" like a Southern Gothic tale about an aging matron's massive Jocasta complex. But it seemed more fitting to pick Katharine Hepburn's birthday, because her performance as Violet Venable, the mother in question, in the screen adaption of Tennessee Williams's play, Suddenly, Last Summer, is one of her best.
Mrs. Violet Venable, monied New Orleans widow, has lost her beloved only son, Sebastian, a handsome, sophisticated, low-output poet, to a freak "heart attack," while he was on vacation in Spain with his young cousin, Cathy (Elizabeth Taylor). Ever since this summer vacation, Cathy has been in residence at a psychiatric facility run by crabby nuns, having lost a number of her marbles after witnessing Sebastian's death...of a "heart attack." No one knows what really happened and Cathy's "obscene ramblings" haven't made it any clearer.
Aunt Violet is concerned that her niece's mad chatter is casting aspersions on Sebastian's reputation, so she elicits the help of a young lobotomist, Dr. Cukrowic (Montgomery Clift) to perform his specialty operation on Cathy to help her calm the hell down and shut the hell up. You see (thinks Violet), if Violet had gone traveling with Sebastian -- as they did and had done for years and years, as friends, not mother and son, companions -- none of this would have ever happened and Sebastian's summer poem would be written and done.
To sweeten the deal, Violet has offered her sister-in-law (Cathy's mother), Grace Holly (Mercedes McCambridge), some much-needed cash to grant consent to the operation and maybe even persuade Cathy to go willingly. Dr. Cukrowic, observing all these maternal maneuverings and not entirely convinced Cathy is all that nuts, would rather find out what the girl witnessed and perhaps help her past the trauma with therapy, rather than cutting out bits of her frontal cortex; indeed, he seems to be the only one who finds that solution extreme.
In spite of the intense pressure -- from Mrs. Venable and the hospital administrator who has also been promised money if the operation goes through -- Dr. Cukrowic puts Cathy in a hypnotic state to get to the truth. And the truth is that Sebastian was a (barely) closeted homosexual, who used his beautiful mother and later his stunning cousin, to attract pretty young men on their travels to have sexual relations with him. In Sebastian's opinion, Violet had become too old to be of any use to him in that endeavor, so he asked young Cathy to be his summer companion instead. Cathy eventually figured out what he was up to, but before she could beg off, the Terrible Thing happened and suddenly, last summer, Sebastian died. And Violet never forgave Cathy her youth and usefulness to Sebastian.
I am not going to reveal how Sebastian died, because it is worth all the strange late 1950s ideas of mental illness (particularly that experienced by the ladies) and pointless references to this all happening in 1937, to watch it unfold. The screenplay was written by Gore Vidal, so it's crackling with just the right amount of mean, and the set design is other-worldly. You've got teeming, jungly, lush New Orleans (and that's just the interiors) set against white hot beaches of coastal Spain.
Elizabeth Taylor is OK in the role of Cathy, but her best contribution to the picture was in lobbying director Joseph L. Mankiewicz to hire her friend Monty Clift in the role of the lobotomizer. Suddenly, Last Summer was shot just two years after the terrible car accident that left Clift with painful, disfiguring injuries to his face. He had since become addicted to painkillers and had been self-medicating with alcohol, making him unreliable and all but unhireable as a performer. Mankiewicz apparently made Clift's life miserable on set, which upset everyone, especially Katharine Hepburn, who had theretofore respected and liked Mankiewicz.
The film is strange, but very much worth seeing. It's streaming on you-know-what-largest-South-American-river for a nominal rental fee. If ever I held a Hollywood Mental Illness Film Festival (and one of these days...), this would be right up there with The Snake Pit (1948).
Just Because, But Mostly for Hayes's Hepburn Impersonation
This post is my contribution to The Great Katharine Hepburn Blogathon, sponsored by the great Margaret Perry.
Please take a moment to read through the other entries, and wish Miss Hepburn a very happy 108th while you're at it.
I'll do just about anything a movie tells me to do. Unless it tells me wrong...
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