Suddenly, Last Summer

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SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER —the Bull Meechum Tact Pin and 300 Spartans yelling “take it easy!” to the confectors of this malarial campout, festered from a one-act playlet by co-scenarist Tennessee Williams.  Gore Vidal pitched in on the script, expanded it greatly;  there are arguments about Who contributed What & How Much, along with ruminations on the role of the Catholic Legion of Decency in forcing tonal changes. Still and all, you’re left with sexual predation, greed, madness and cannibalism, so it’s a real feel-good way to endure 114 minutes of thinly disguised self-loathing.*

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Williams & Vidal could hardly be calculated to dish up The Farmer’s Daughter, but this is Blanche-with-a-mean-streak, as ‘Violet Venable’ (hard to write it without chuckling)— played full-bore like a pickled magnolia by Katherine Hepburn—plots to have babbling niece Elizabeth Taylor lobotomized. Why? Because shrink Montgomery Clift (all hail casting acumen) is getting too close to the ‘truth’ about Taylor’s frayed nerves. Being?  Being that she witnessed her cousin, Hepburn’s son ‘Sebastian’, as he was literally eaten alive by a mob of teen-aged—I believe the term is ‘rent boys’—hooligans, in an alley off a beach in Spain.  The hungry kids were paying the vile poet back— and then some.

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So, not a musical.  Taken straight, it’s both overheated and exhausting, apart from the star wattage of the three principals, and Jack Hildyard’s splendid black & white cinematography (shot in various spots about Catalonia, Spain).  The camp value is estimable, and it did help break down the doors regarding taboo subject matter.  Hepburn famously ended the shoot by spitting on the floor at director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ feet (some sources say in his face, but I wonder) because of his handling of Clift (a walking nervous breakdown for a number of directors). Since Monty-pal Liz soon fell into Cleopatra for the same taskmaster, I question the apocryphal Kate foot-stomp & spittle story.

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Hepburn and Taylor were both nominated for Best Actress of 1959 at the Academy Awards, as was the Art Direction. This was the third Taylor-in-turmoil bout with a character losing her reason, following her wingding with Clift in Raintree County and bedroom frustration with Paul Newman in another Tennessee Williams seether, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof.  She’d been nominated for both of those, too; after this she ducked out into the relative calm of hookerdom in BUtterfield 8 and they gave her the golden goodie for that.  Kate went from this bizarre creation to another lost woman role, magnificent in Long Days Journey Into Night.  They lost this year to Simone Signoret in Room At The Top—and they all should have lost to the ignored Marilyn Monroe (speaking of migraines for director’s) firing up Some Like It Hot. 

I enjoy both of these actresses, and Clift—although this is far from his best, with all the oxygen being vaporized by the gals—, but I imagine with that trio, their director and the two writers that there were enough easily bruised, constantly flattered egos on this set to make Donald Trump feel insecure.

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Controversy ushered in $7,000,000 (some sources double that) at the box office, the years seventh most successful film. With Albert Dekker, Mercedes McCambridge and Gary Raymond.  For a movie dealing at least in part with homosexuality, Irony smiles that Suddenly‘s iconic image is suntanned Liz at her sexiest in a neckline-plunged swimsuit.

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  • *Williams’ sister Rose, suffering schizophrenia, had been lobotomized at the wishes of their mother. The playwright’s life-long trauma over this, as well as conflict over his sexuality, fed into paranoia, anxiety and depression, not helped by alcohol. At least some of the harridan whipped up by Hepburn reflected his disgust with the drastic parental action that left Rose permanently impaired.
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