Thursday, June 13, 2013

A Southern Gothic Summer

Ever wonder what lies behind the elaborate wrought iron gates and well-manicured lawns of New Orleans’s sedate and genteel Garden District? Ask Tennessee Williams, and he’ll show you. Suddenly Last Summer (1959) is a seamy stew of neurotic revelation bubbling forth from the psyche of a master Gothic storyteller.

In lieu of dirty rice and crawfish étouffé, director Joseph L. Mankiewicz serves up Williams’s unsavory concoction of homosexuality, cannibalism, madness and malice with unrestrained guignol, peppering it with piquant performances by a star-studded cast, including Katharine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Mercedes McCambridge and Montgomery Clift. Gore Vidal’s skillful adaptation of the original Williams one-act play conveys the tale’s hidden meanings cleverly without completely sanitizing its taboo subject matter—quite a feat in the straightlaced ’50s. At the time of its release, the film shocked audiences and earned a condemnation from the Catholic League of Decency.

The story is simple. Wealthy Violet Venable wants to silence her niece Catherine’s “insane babblings” about the recent death of Violet’s son Sebastian, a confirmed bachelor and adventurer. (You see, Catherine was there, and she saw it all.) Mrs. Venable enlists the aid of brooding Dr. Cukrowicz to perform a lobotomy on the girl and “cut that awful story out of her brain.” 

Fans of florid Tennessee Williams monologues will devour this picture with gusto, thanks to the performances of the two powerhouse lead actresses. Highlights are Hepburn’s edgy recounting of a harrowing boat trip to the Encantadas, where her son “saw the face of God,” and Taylor’s hypnotic account of the days leading up to Sebastian’s death...building to a horrifying climax.

Troubled actor Montgomery Clift adds unwitting subtext to his own role as the doctor. You can’t miss Monty’s trembling alcoholic hands as he attempts to perform delicate brain surgery in a rickety operating theater. Clift (a closeted homosexual in real life) also serves as surrogate for the dead, unseen Sebastian, as both the Venable women vie for his trust and attention.  

Take in this richly layered movie classic on a hot, sultry summer night, and expect to be absorbed by its intricate language, dark imagery and feverish intensity.

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