Sunday, March 26, 2023

Junk Cinema Serves Up Another Heapin' Helpin' Of Southern Fried Cinema, New Orleans Style!


The remarkably restrained publicity poster for "Suddenly, Last Summer" (1958). 

Welcome, movie lovers. How y'all doin'?

Was last year's summer vacation a dud? Was your hotel a dump? Did it rain everyday? Did your kids bitch and fight? Did you get sick, have car trouble or run out of money?

However awful last summer might've been for you, trust me, Catherine Holly's (Elizabeth Taylor) summer was much, much worse.

What was so awful, you ask?

How about watching someone get devoured by a street gang.

"Are we having fun yet?": If your last vacation was bad, Catherine Holly's (Liz Taylor) was even worse. Much, much worse.

Released in 1959, "Suddenly, Last Summer" is a deep, dark dive into the fetid swamp waters of Southern Fried Cinema, courtesy of Tennessee Williams. 

Although Tennessee is one of  America's greatest playwrights, not everything he wrote rose to the level of A Streetcar Named Desire or The Glass Menagerie. Once in a while, Tennessee went a wee bit over the top and the end result was less Southern Gothic poetry and more like "The Bold and the Beautiful" with southern accents on acid.

Based on Williams' one-act play, "Suddenly, Last Summer" uses the mysterious death of a man named Sebastian to explore the nature of madness, obsession, incest, guilt, repression, sexual abuse, rich dowagers, greedy relatives, aging, death, violence, transparent bathing suits, sea turtles, treatment of the mentally ill, flesh eating birds, lobotomies and cannibalism. 

Something for everyone!

Despite its ambitious subject matter and Tennessee's signature prose, "Suddenly, Last Summer" is the cinematic equivalent of an over-stuffed Muffuletta sandwich*. While the script (by Gore Vidal) gives its all-star cast plenty to chew on, it also gives them plenty to choke on.

The deep fried theatrics begin by introducing us to Violet Venable (Katherine Hepburn), the richest woman in New Orleans, circa 1938. She's summoned mild mannered Dr. Cukrowicz (Montgomery Clift), a pioneering neurosurgeon, to her home to discuss the welfare of her niece, Catherine (Taylor). As befitting a mega rich grande dame, Violet's residence is no new-money McMansion. Instead, it features antique furnishings, an elevator and an elaborate garden that resembles the Amazon Rain Forest. That's where Mrs. Venable keeps her pet Venus Flytrap (nicknamed "My Lady"), who snacks on flies delivered via air mail.

"Open wide!": Violet Venable (K. Hepburn) feeds her Venus Flytrap only the best flies.

Violet is mourning the death of her only child, Sebastian. Catherine was on vacation last summer with Sebastian when he suddenly died. Hepburn insists her son died "of a heart attack", but the traumatized Catherine details a more gruesome story. Horrified by her niece's "hysterical babbling", Violet has Catherine locked up in a mental hospital. She believes the poor girl is beyond help and wants Dr. Cukrowicz to perform a lobotomy so Catherine can "be peaceful."

As this is an unusual request, Dr. Cukrowicz wants to interview Catherine himself. Everybody thinks that's a waste of time. The urgency to operate comes not only from Violet (who offers to pay for everything), but also from Clift's superior Dr. Hockstader (Albert Dekker). He wants the doc to operate because Mrs. Venable has promised to throw a million dollar donation their way. Hockstader reminds Clift every chance he gets that Mrs. Venable's financial gift will help improve conditions at the their hospital (which is funded--just barely--by the state). Catherine's flighty, annoying mother Grace (Mercedes McCambridge) and her himbo brother George (Gary Raymond) think the operation is a good idea, too; in reality, they're more interested in collecting the $100,000 thousand dollars Sebastian left the Hollys in his will--which is languishing in probate, thanks to Aunt Vi. Hepburn promises to fix that state of affairs, too, if the Hollys agree Catherine needs a lobotomy.

Naturally, Catherine isn't happy about any of this. However, mom and bro remind her they lost all their money in 1929. What's more, George insists a lobotomy is no different "than having your tonsils taken out!"--so why is she being so difficult?

Catherine lashes out that everybody wants her lobotomized because they don't want her telling people "the truth" about Sebastian, that he used her and Aunt Vi as "bait".

"We were procuring for him!" Taylor wails. "And when she (meaning Violet) became too old, he used me to get the bigger fish.!

Kate, "I can act up a storm!"  Liz, "Oh, yeah? Well, I can act up a bigger storm!": Hepburn and Taylor argue over who can go more over the top--while Montgomery Clift wisely stays out of it.

The Motion Picture Production Code in 1959 would not allow Catherine to say Sebastian used his mom and cousin to attract men, who he would then seduce and discard. Instead, "Suddenly, Last Summer" has its characters inch close, closer to this revelation...and then be stopped by someone yelling at them. This happens a lot. No wonder doctors Cukrowicz and Hockstader think Catherine is talking about fishing for real fish and not picking up guys.

Dr. Cukrowicz later visits Violet at her estate. It's there, in her mini-rain forest, that Hepburn recounts a trip she and Sebastian took to the Encantadas. It was there, on a hot day, that Sebastian watched the hatching of baby sea turtles. Once the critters were out of their shells, they made a mad dash to the sea. Unfortunately, a flock of flesh eating birds arrived and began attacking the baby sea turtles, flipping them over and taking bites of their flesh. This sight horrified Violet, but transfixed Sebastian, who became convinced that in this spectacle "he had seen the face of God".

"Nature is not created in the image of man's compassion," Clift replies (and, frankly, neither is this movie).

"Nature is cruel!" Violet snaps.

At first, however, she says she didn't think that. However, upon reflection, Violet began to believe that Sebastian was right. We're all trapped, she explains, in this "devouring contraption" called "life." After the death of Sebastian last summer, Violet became even more convinced this was true.

Is it just me, or is the skeleton in this scene flipping the bird?

Realizing this is clan is nuttier than 20 fruit cakes lined up in a row, Dr. Cukrowicz assembles everybody at Violet's in order to straighten things out. He gives Catherine a shot of Sodium Pentothal and guides her in recalling her time with Sebastian last summer. In fits and starts, Liz remembers Sebastian took her to Spain. He later forced her to wear a swim suit that turned transparent when wet. Naturally, this attracted a crowd of eager men and an even bigger crowd of teenage street kids. While the cousins were having lunch, the street gang formed a band with homemade metal instruments and began harassing the duo. Rather than getting a taxi and leaving for their hotel, Sebastian instead yelled at the gang and pitched a fit, which only made them more aggressive. To escape, Sebastian ran up the steep steps of a nearby twisting road. The gang gave chase; Catherine followed them. At the end of the road, Catherine saw the street kids en masse set upon Sebastian, cutting, punching, biting and even eating bits of him.

Catherine gave out a blood curdling scream (not really; Taylor is an awful screamer) and ran back to the village, talking hysterically about what she had seen. The locals assumed she'd had some kind of breakdown and called the police, who sent her back to the states.

As Catherine recalls Sebastian's final moments, Violet, sitting near-by, must finally face the truth about how Sebastian died. However, doing so makes her go insane. You know this because 1) after her niece finishes recounting the whole ugly ordeal, Violet's head is bowed and 2) when Dr. Cuktowicz approaches her, Violet looks up and calls him "Sebastian". Convinced she's on a yacht with her son, Mrs. Venable says, "Oh, I thought you were still on deck. And where's your hat? Oh, dear..."

Dr. Cukowicz gives Violet his arm as she continues to prattle away.

"Of course God is cruel, " Violet says. "We didn't need to come to the Encantadas and look at those turtles to find that out, did we?"

One of the luckier baby sea turtles Sebastian saw at the Encantadas.

When Violet reaches her Art Deco elevator, she turns to Clift and says, "I'm going up to see the captain now and tell him to change our course for home. Oh, Sebastian," Violet trills. "What a lovely summer it's been! Just the two of us! Sebastian and Violet. Violet and Sebastian..."

As her elevator floats upstairs, Violet tells the astonished Dr. Cukowicz, "Oh, we are lucky, my darling, to have one another and need no one else, ever..."


It's pretty obvious Sebastian and Violet were even closer than that other mother/son fun couple, Norman Bates and Mother. Of all the female characters Williams created over the years, Violet Venable is his Mommie Dearest.

Now, about the movie...

 Liz Taylor reacts in horror when she realizes her marriage to Eddie Fisher is real.

As the saying goes, good movies are all alike. However, bad movies are bad in their own unique ways. This is especially true for "Suddenly, Last Summer." 

Take the acting, for example. Katherine Hepburn, in one of her few unsympathetic roles, is excellent as evil puppet master Violet. Yes, she walks around as if she swallowed a yard stick, but it fits her character perfectly; after all, Mrs. Venable is rich, imperious and used to getting exactly what she wants. What's more, Tennessee's signature dialog suits her to a "T". When she says stuff like, "My son, Sebastian and I, constructed our days. Each day we would carve like a piece of sculpture, leaving behind us a trail of days like a gallery", you don't flinch or roll your eyes. This is exactly what a woman like her would say. Meanwhile, Montgomery Clift is warm and sympathetic as Dr. Cukowicz. His achievement is even more impressive considering Clift was suffering from the effects of severe drug and alcohol addiction during the filming. And Mercedes McCambridge is note perfect as Grace, Catherine's greedy, annoying, blabbermouth ma.

Then there is Liz Taylor. 

As the traumatized Catherine, Liz should be the film's strongest element; instead, she's it's weakest link. Yes, Taylor was a fine actress. However, she just didn't have the stuff to pull off this particular role--unlike Maggie in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof". This time around, Taylor wasn't able to get a grip on Williams' demanding dialog. When Liz launches into one of Tennessee's signature speeches, Taylor appears awkward, as if she had no idea what she's saying or what it means--she's just repeating the lines she's been given. This reminded me of what happens every time Trump tries to read a prepared speech: he sounds flat, insincere and fake. He only comes alive as a speaker when he launches into one of his crazy, off-the-cuff rants, like when he said ingesting Clorox could cure COVID-19.

Incidentally, Williams shared my view that Taylor was miscast. "It stretched credulity to believe that such a hip doll as our Liz wouldn't know she was being used for evil," Tennessee groused. "I think Liz would have dragged Sebastian home by his ears and so saved them from considerable embarrassment." 

Esteemed playwright Tennessee Williams reacting to the film version of his play Suddenly, Last Summer.

Although Taylor received an Oscar nomination for her performance, Tennessee thought her celebrity caused critics to over-rate her acting. Of course, it was no secret the play write didn't like the Hollywood version of "Suddenly, Last Summer" at all. When asked what he thought about the flick, Williams replied, "It made me throw up." John Wayne couldn't have agreed more. "The subject matter is too distasteful to be put on a screen designed to entertain a family--or any member of a decent family," he sniffed.


Still, "Suddenly, Last Summer" was a hit and made buckets of money. Although well acted in parts and starkly powerful at times, the movie remains an under-rated Junk Cinema classic. Watching Liz Taylor wander into the men's ward at the mental hospital and scream "Hellllp! only to wander into the women's ward and yell "Helllp!" like, two seconds later, is an unexpected hoot. Also look out for Taylor's southern accent to come and go at will. Both Taylor and Hepburn wear up-to-date '50's clothes, while McCambridge is dressed in frilly 30's dresses. Finally, director Joseph L. Mankiewicz couldn't stop himself from laying on the symbolism real thick: the Venus Fly Trap, the devouring birds, the street gang setting upon Sebastian, the skeletons everywhere--death, death, death, death, death. The contrasting of Violet and Catherine (old and young, beauty as a decoy, men using women), rich people using money to be mean to poor people (Violet), mothers who obsessively coddle and/or favor one child over another (greedy Grace and smothering Violet), mental illness equals ugliness, etc., etc. Talk about heavy handedness; "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" was more subtle.

"Suddenly, Last Summer" proves yet again that bad movies are not just made by struggling hacks who have no money, no real actors, no decent sound equipment and no money...but it helps! Talented, famous, A-list film makers, given enough time and money, can create the cinematic equivalent of Lester's Bacon Soda* and leave people like Harold P. Warren in the dust.

So movie lovers, please always remember, and never forget, bad flicks can come in fancy packages and help me SAVE THE MOVIES.

"The Land of the Lost"? Nope. It's Violet Venable's backyard in "Suddenly, Last Summer."

*Oh, and by the way...

*A Muffuletta sandwich is a New Orleans classic, called "an Italian sub on steroids." It's made with with large, round bread, marinated olive salad, cheese and charcuterie.

*Lester's Bacon Soda is a real product! You can get a 3-pack on My brother would've loved it.

*I don't recommend eating a Muffuletta sandwich and washing it down with Lester's Bacon Soda. But if you'll eat anything, give it a shot! Just take small bites, please.