Suddenly, Last Summer

The family that preys together
Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Elizabeth Taylor, Katharine Hepburn, Montgomery Clift. Mercedes McCambridge
The Setup: 
Matriarch wants her daughter-in-law lobotomized before she remembers unpleasant realities about her son.

This has been on my radar to watch forever because it's Tennessee Williams, okay, fine, but also because it is supposed to have a big homo element. It was fine, and interesting, but what it put me most in mind of is how all of this stuff--the dialogue, the release of character details, the psychology, the structure, the foreshadowing, etc.--have all been so fully integrated into the drama (including TV and movies) that came after it, you now look at this and it seems a bit stale and rote. One can see EXACTLY where it is going. One can see EXACTLY what's really going on with these characters. Which is not to say it isn't still intriguing and vaguely entertaining, just that one might regard it as more of a relic than a vital and alive work of art.

Okay, it is 1937 (the play was written in 1958, this movie was released in 1959), and we are at an Atlanta asylum, where the first lobotomies in the state are being performed by Montgomery Clift as John Cukrowicz. One might wonder if Clift had had a face-lift or what, since he looks so different than he had in previous roles, but apparently he had a big car crash and this is his post-crash face. John is fed up with the primitive conditions of his hospital! But the hospital needs funds--desperately! Then he is summoned to the home of Mrs. Venable (sounds a little like venal), played by Katharine Hepburn, who descends from the ceiling in what is essentially a throne, and rules those around her through a perfectly pleasant but iron-willed Southern "charm" that cuts off conversational detours she doesn't want to take and makes smiley-faced but menacing threats. Basically she is an outwardly charming woman who totally controls everyone around her--a figure by now quite cliche. But one must put oneself in the mindset of those who hadn't become totally inured tot his kind of thing, and it might be a revelation to consider such a smiling and generous charmer as hiding a total snake. And like I said, the second she comes on, you know the whole story, and this is BEFORE she's shown us the highly-thematically-charged carnivorous plants or casually stood in front of the extremely symbolic grim reaper figure.

So Venable says that she and her son, Sebastian, used to travel extensively together and were "a famous couple," which should raise some red flags in even the least psychological of viewers. If it doesn't, don't worry, the fact that mom and son were inappropriately romantic will be pounded over your head with a sledgehammer on numerous further occasions. Anyway, Venable's niece, and daughter-in-law, Catherine, has gone crazy since Sebastian died, last summer, and has been "babbling obscene things." Then we have a long speech about how mom and son were in this tropical vacation spot where baby sea turtles were hatching and sea birds we swooping down and gobbling them up, which was all traumatic and helped mom see the true nastiness of nature, etc. Anyway, John is charged with evaluating Catherine, determining that she is crazy and getting her a lobotomy as soon as possible.

But when he meets her, surprise, she is not crazy! She's just being driven crazy by the truth being denied and her being locked in the loony bin to shut her up. Catherine is all arch and untrusting, and says Sebastian saw himself as a god, and also saw himself as a sacrifice. But she can't remember what happened on the day he died--that terrible day, suddenly, last summer! Actually, you might be amazed how many times the phrase "Suddenly, last summer" comes up in these people's conversation.

John soon finds that Venable has agreed to donate a million dollars so that the hospital can undergo a much-needed transformation, with the heavy implication that this gift is highly dependent on John lobotomizing Catherine. Even the director of the hospital wants her frontal lobe out, pronto. We soon meet Mercedes McCambridge as Catherine's mother, a real bubblehead blabbermouth with the moral fiber of Jello. We find out that Venable will allow mom and Catherine's brother to inherit a nice chunk of change--IF Catherine gets lobotomized. One of the touches he that remains potent is mom and brother's enthusiasm to take Catherine's brain out and claim the cash.

We have the scenes in which Catherine thinks she can't trust John and acts a little crazy, only supporting the case against her. She escapes into the men's ward, where all the guys grope at her, bringing up horrible hidden memories. We find out that Sebastian asked Catherine to go to a tropical resort last summer, the first year he had gone with anyone but his mother. Venable says that she was the only woman that could meet Sebastian's standards, and that he was wholly chaste. Catherine says Sebastian "talked about people as if they were on a menu." Venable starts getting more assertive that she wants the lobotomy, NOW.

John arranges all the parties together so we can have a big, psychological Agatha Christie-type ending. And finally Catherine is able to recount what happened. Basically, Sebastian had a taste for the poor tropical boys, and would use his mother to attract them, then switch out for himself. Mom liked this arrangement, as it kept her bond with her son and also reinforced her feeling of being an attractive beauty. Then Sebastian dumped his mother in favor of Catherine, and started using her, which she found a bit of a surprise. He made her wear a white bathing suit, then dragged her into the water, so it became transparent and drove the boys wild. They came in force, and became a vicious crowd, wanting money from Sebastian. They chased him up a hill, and in a mania for his cash, ended up literally ripping him apart. We know that Venable's memory of the vicious diving birds is a gloss for this moment. You'll also note, as we are shown the flashback, that Sebastian passes a peasant woman with a skull face. When Catherine passes a moment later, it's just a regular peasant woman. Same thing happens with a grim reaper figure.

Anyway, the truth is out, everyone realizes Catherine is sane, just traumatized, and now--Venable has lost her mind! She is lost to the weird insane memories that cloud her mind! Hopefully she can still sign checks.

It's good. It's involving. It has big stars giving good performances. The only thing is that you'll be eighteen steps ahead of it the whole way. No fault of the material--it was works like this that were so influential and successful that they were widely copied and now seem a bit tired. At one time it might have taken a while to recognize that Venable is a rose-scented monster, and the intimations of this twisted sexual relationship with her son might have been a revelation. But by now you get it within her first five minutes. The whole repressed memory angle might once have been an intriguing psychological puzzle, but here again, you know it's just a matter of time before the truth comes out and Catherine is vindicated. So a modern viewer kind of has to look at this whole thing as a historical artifact, and enjoy it for its place in the development of drama and the moving of Freudian psychology into the mainstream. Which is fine, unless you were looking for a gripping movie that will involve you and unfold in unexpected ways.

One does, however, have to admire the nastiness of the material, with its intimations that mothers do not necessarily have the best intentions for their children, and the movies' casting of Sebastian's homosexuality in not a sanitized, wholly positive light. It's deep and dark and nasty, and certainly an important work of writing. Just one you've seen before, even if you've never seen it before.

Should you watch it: 

Purely Optional.