I wonder if it’s for the best that the trilogy of acclaimed Tennessee Williams plays of the 1950s were all directed by different people, lest their power with themes of the repressed queer, simmering madness, and familial tensions be put into a lone director’s wheelhouse and criticized for repetitiveness. Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz brought to Suddenly, Last Summer the most overtly camp and over-the-top sensibility of the three in what is actually also my favourite of three. I like how he doesn’t try to plaster over the inherent goofiness of the story – Homosexuals! Cannibals! Incest! Lobotomy! Peadophilia! – but rather finds wildly expressive ways to show it while keeping the story true to its relatively confined minimalist structure (Williams’ play was a one-act play consisting of two monologues).
That Suddenly, Last Summer got made at all so soon after its original production in 1958 is a testament to Williams’ material and his stature. That they were able to get an Oscar-winning director (for All About Eve) and three of the best actors to have ever lived (Katharine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor – both Oscar nominated for Best Actress for their performances, although Hepburn would surely be “supporting” in today’s world – and Montgomery Clift) is even crazier to consider. “These are powers and passions without precedent in motion pictures” exclaimed the deliciously salacious poster, and it’s hard to argue.
As always when it comes to doing this feature, and especially so when it involves one of my absolute all-time favourite films, I had to whittle it down from several.
Perhaps the obvious choice, but a worthy one. With Katharine Hepburn’s familiar voice, fragile and shaking and yet regal, having been heard off-screen for mere seconds already makes so many images appear in one’s mind that seeing her actual face for the first time nine minutes into the picture is almost calming. The framing of cinematographer Jack Hildyard (who won an Oscar for The Bridge on the River Kwai just two years prior) is really sublime in this shot as Hepburn’s Violet “Aunt Vi” Venebal descends into view and into the world of the audience and Clift’s Dr Cukrowicz never to be forgotten. Camera tilted slightly upwards, Clift’s body taking up the left third of the screen because Hepburn needs that make space to make her entrance. It’s a shot worthy of an entry for both an actor and a character of this esteem.
Then there is this shot, which I adore for the way it not only signals the claustrophobia of Violet Venebal’s home, but alludes to the symbolic savagery of the jungle that she nor her family could escape. “It’s a jungle out there”, or so they say. Mrs Venebal brought the jungle to her, to fight it and control it, but it wasn’t to be.
For the sheer beauty of this shot, moments after meeting Elizabeth Taylor’s asylum patient Catherine Holly. The shadow and light that bounces around the deceptively intricate production design (rightfully and surprisingly the film’s third of three nominations in 1959) is mirrored wonderfully with the idea of Hell not being something you sink into, but rather rise toward on a staircase. Entering a world where doctors poke (literally, into her brain) and prod at the secrets she has hidden inside.
Once again the body taking up the left third of the screen while a seemingly all-consuming force occupies the rest. This time it is the rabble of the asylum, that all too familiar sight of a pack of madness, echoing the vivid memories in her mind waiting to be unlocked.
I like this shot because I enjoy the juxtaposition between Catherine being given the “truth syrum” and the real story potentially about to come crashing out and the way the angle is angled to imply a wickedness, perhaps an uncertainness that should be questioned.
My favourite shot, however, comes during Taylor’s big final monologue as she finally recalls the truth behind what happened to her cousin Sebastian in Cabeza de Lobo. The frame switching between gorgeous close-ups of Taylor and shimmering Mediterranean flashbacks that take on the effect of a midday’s sun beaming down on the ocean, the two frequently becoming interlaced – two distinct moments in time crashing together. The boys of summer.
The lecherous lasciviousness is so overwhelmingly palpable in this shot as Taylor’s Catherine recalls the looks of lust from the local boys on the free beach as she emerged out of the sea in her transparent white one-piece bathing suit. It’s a shot that speaks to the film’s sublimely ridiculous sensibilities yet permeates with the seething sexuality and danger that the story cannot avoid. Taylor’s eyes as she peers back into her own memory at the images that have haunted the recesses of her mind looking like a cluttered closet of memories that are hard to make sense of and yet when put into context make all the sense in the world. This is the image of Catherine’s torment and she’s staring it directly in the face, attempting to emerge out onto the other side.