A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Suddenly, Last Summer (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1960)

Suddenly, Last Summer is a film with a rare distinction: Both Katharine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor received Oscar nominations as best actress for their performances in it. Only two other movies have that distinction: Bette Davis and Anne Baxter were nominated as best actress for All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950) and Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine for The Turning Point (Herbert Ross, 1977). That none of the six won may suggest that they split the votes: In the case of Hepburn and Taylor, the winner was Simone Signoret for Room at the Top (Jack Clayton). Pardon this excursion into Oscar trivia, but I think it says something about the film that these two performances are the most memorable thing about it -- and not always for the right reasons. The only other nomination it received was for the art direction and set decoration of Oliver Messel, William Kellner, and Scott Slimon. There were none for Joseph L. Mankiewicz's direction or for the screenplay credited to Gore Vidal and Tennessee Williams. In fact, Williams had nothing to do with the film, and according to John Lahr's fine biography, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, he later called it "an abortion." It was Vidal, then, who accomplished the task of expanding Williams's one-act play into a two-hour film. What Vidal and Mankiewicz actually accomplish is a kind of parody of Williams's style at its most florid. They take the film beyond the play's single setting in the jungle-like hothouse and dilute and dissipate the intensity of the play's great scenes for Catherine and Mrs. Venable (Hepburn). Vidal himself regretted the decision to film the attack on Sebastian, which in the play is only described by Catherine, but it's likely that producer Sam Spiegel insisted on showing Taylor in her revealing white bathing suit.  Hepburn at this point in her career couldn't help being a collection of familiar mannerisms -- the haughty head-tilt, the reedy vocal production -- but she holds the screen like no other actress. Taylor, however, fails to evoke Catherine's vulnerability and she begins her great final narrative on too high a pitch, then has to sustain it to the point of shrillness. Montgomery Clift, as the doctor who tries to resist Mrs. Venable's attempt to eradicate Catherine's memories with a lobotomy, is clearly a damaged man, suffering the effects of alcohol and drugs after his near-fatal car crash in 1956, but Taylor was insistent on casting him, over Mankiewicz's objections, which continued well into filming. Taylor and Hepburn both mothered him, and they resented Mankiewicz's sometimes harsh treatment, to the point that, according to several accounts, when Hepburn finished her final scene she spat at the director. For a glimpse at what Suddenly, Last Summer can be in other hands, check out the 1993 BBC version of the play with Maggie Smith (an actress with her own distinct mannerisms who knows how to use them in service of the character) and an astonishing performance by Natasha Richardson.