|SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER (1959)|
Joseph L. Mankiewicz
|Time: 114 mins.|
Rating: Not Rated
Academy Award nominations for Best Actress (Hepburn & Taylor) and Best Art Direction.
Never one to pass up a film starring the grand Ms. Hepburn, I was equally excited to view this flick to finally see what the fuss about Les Liz is all about. I find it hard to believe myself that I have never seen one of the grand dame's film's all the way through. I was more impressed with Clift's performance in THE MISFITS, than in his turn here, but that's no real surprise. With two such powerful female co-stars all he needs to do is remember his lines and get out of the way. Though their acting styles are incredibly different, it's a true contest to see who gives the better performance in this family drama about betrayal, revenge and insanity. Directed by the man who brought us Bette Davis's best performance in ALL ABOUT EVE and adapted from the play by Tennessee Williams, I knew the minute the credits started rolling I was in for a real treat. As the story evolves and we dig deeper and deeper into the mystery surrounding Sebastian's death a character we never meet but get to know very well it becomes clear we're in for a bumpy ride.
The film opens with Clift, who plays Dr. John Cukrowicz, performing a lobotomy in a very primitive surgical suite in New Orleans. He's a young physician who's making a name for himself around the country as a ground breaking surgeon, who helps the insane become "normal" again. Disgusted with the hospital's current condition, he threatens to leave is something isn't done. Enter the miracle, Mrs. Violet Venable (Hepburn), a widow with more money than God and a need for the doc's services. It's a simple trade: he operates on her niece to remove the violent and disgraceful behavior she's been exhibiting since a trip to Europe last summer during which her beloved son died and she gives the hospital $1 million to build a new facility for the study of the brain. Seeing his dream within his grasp, he agrees to meet both women before he agrees to anything. Mrs. Venable is your classic Southern matriarch: arrogant, intelligent, secretive, obsessed with her son and slightly loony. All she talks about is her brilliant poet son Sebastian and how devastated she's been since his death. Dr. Cukrowicz doesn't know quite what to make of her, but believes her heart is in the right place in regards to her niece, the troubled Catherine (Taylor).
That is until he meets Catherine. Trapped in a convent run mental hospital since her return from Europe, Catherine is more than a little convinced of her craziness. She's a beautiful, tortured, confident, sexy, vulnerable creature who doesn't quite know what to make of this young, attractive doctor. The feeling is mutual. After hearing part of her story, he's not fully convinced of her lunacy. She's definitely got some serious issues, but they seem to be curable to Dr. Cukrowicz without the use of surgery. Things don't exactly go smoothly when he moves her to his hospital, but it becomes more clear to him that Mrs. Venable doesn't exactly have Catherine's best interests at heart. She's trying to use him to stop Catherine from telling everyone about Sebastian's dirty little secret and the manner in which he died. Catherine has suppressed the horror of those memories, but Dr. Cukrowicz is determined to unearth them, no matter what happens to his career. In a final show down, the ugly truth is revealed saving Catherine's mental health for the most part and destroying Mrs. Venable's. You win some, you lose some.
What makes this film better than most melodramas of the time is the acting, cinematography and art direction. The story's not half-bad either, but the ending wasn't really worth all the build-up. I guess they had problems with the censors at the time, so they had to allude to all the lurid details, which kind of takes away from the power of the tale. Sure you understand what they're talking about, but all the pussy-footing around left me feeling a bit frustrated. As far as the performances by Hepburn and Taylor are concerned, all I can say is "wow!" Their talent and power just pours off the screen entangling you in their mental tug-of-war. They are both fighting for their very survival and it's a dream to watch. Both of their introduction scenes are a marvel of acting and directing. They each go on for at least 10-15 minutes with each woman talking almost non-stop. I can't believe that anyone could remember so much dialogue and make it seem so easy. These sequences are the film's show stoppers with both women making the most of her moment in the sun.
I've never seen Hepburn be so cold and calculating. It was a revelation to a whole new side of her talent I was not party to before. Liz is exactly what I expected, extremely sexy and a powerhouse to watch. Even in B&W her eyes just draw you in, making you feel their exquisite pain. I knew she didn't become a big star on her looks alone, but I was unprepared for the shear magnitude of her gift. I am definitely looking forward to enjoying some of her other performances. As I stated earlier, Clift is good, but he's merely a pawn in this game, which doesn't give him much to do except stand around, ask the right questions and look gorgeous doing it. I don't mean to imply that he isn't talented, his just isn't the showcase role here. If you want to see a better display of his acting prowess, check out THE MISFITS, where he practically steals the show from Monroe and Gable. I'm surprised Mankiewicz didn't get a Best Director nod for this piece. It could've been average, but by using certain lighting and camera angles, he gives this film a dark, dangerous and mysterious look. The visuals are practically a character of their own.
I know films about insane Southern women may not be high up on your list of must-sees, but I urge you to take a gander at this classic tale. Rarely do you see films of this caliber with acting by two of the cinema's best performers ever. It's pretty clear where this film is headed, but the road will keep you strapped to your seat.