And the award for most misleading poster and tagline goes to...
I have to apologise in advance that this post is a bit rushed and the photos are haphazard and numerous. This is part review, part picspam, part costume design study, so please bear with me.
Suddenly, Last Summer is a typical Tennesse Williams potboiler with a gruesome twist. It features Katharine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift. While I find Monty lacking in this film (more on that later), Elizabeth and Katharine do a really outstanding job.
Dr. Cukrowicz (Montgomery Clift) works for a dilapidated state asylum in New Orleans where he performs lobotomies. Yes, it's that kind of film. Doctor tells us that "Cukrowicz" is apparently a Polish word for sugar, but that isn't very important. He throws a strop about the conditions he works in and is about to run back to Chicago when his boss tells him about a rich widow called Violet Venable (Katharine Hepburn). She is fascinated by an article about the Doctor's work, and might give them some financial support which would allow for necessary modernisation to the hospital. Monty shoots off to visit Violet, who has interesting taste in interior design and a dislike for herbaceous borders. Her garden, which was designed by her son, is "like the dawn of creation", otherwise known as a jungle with Venus Flytraps which are hand fed with specially imported flies.
Her son, Sebastian, a poet who liked cruises (and cruising), died the previous summer in the company of his cousin, Catherine (Elizabeth Taylor), who has since gone absolutely bonkers. It becomes clear that Violet wants Dr. Cukrowicz to give Catherine a lobotomy in exchange for great wodges of cash for his hospital.
Dr. Cukrowicz: Mrs. Venable, loving your neice as you do, you must know there's great risk in this operation. Whenever you enter the brain with a foreign object... even a needle thin knife in the hands of the most skilled surgeon there is a great deal of risk.
Violet: But it does pacify them, I've read that, it quiets them down. It suddenly makes them peaceful.
Dr. Cukrowicz: Yes that that it does do, but...
Violet: But what?
Dr. Cukrowicz: Well it will be years before we know if the immediate benefits of the operation are lasting or maybe just passing or perhaps... there's a strong possibility that the patient will always be limited. Relieved of acute anxiety yes, but limited.
Violet: But what a blessing Dr. to be just peaceful. To be just suddenly peaceful. After all that horror. After those nightmares. Just to be able to lift up their eyes to a sky not black with savage devouring birds.
He visits Catherine and realises quite quickly that she's not she insane at all. Catherine's mother (played by Mercedes McCambridge, who incidentally dubbed the voice of the demonically possessed Linda Blair in The Exorcist) and her dopey brother have been offered money by Violet if they'll agree to Catherine's lobotomy. As they are greedy little sods, they try to convince Catherine into lying down while thinking of the Confederacy, and let the nice Doctor put a hole in her head. Catherine doesn't really like that idea, strangely enough, and runs amok through the asylum making all the crazies crazier.
Dr Cukrowicz is sure that Catherine is hiding a secret about the death of Sebastian, and forces the family into a confrontation in which Catherine reveals what really happened last summer - and it isn't very pleasant. Violet gets into her cage (some kind of early Stannah stairlift) and ascends to loonyland while Catherine and Dr Cukrowicz gaze into each other's eyes.
Thar she blows!
Highlight below for spoilers:
...................................................................................................................It turns out, that Sebastian used Catherine to "procure" boys for him on their travels, as he had previously used his mother until she grew too old. In a place called Cabeza de Lobo, Sebastian was killed and cannibalised by street urchins at the ruins of an ancient temple. No one was expecting that.
Suddenly, Last Summer is sometimes criticised for being a bit heavy on Freudian symbolism. Personally, I like it. It might be a bit clunky but there are some very witty lines amid the bleakness. I remember this film as being one that my grandmother would not allow me to watch, although at that age I think that I probably would have mistaken the flashback of the death scene for a rugby tackle and remained psychologically unscathed. Having said that, the scenes in the asylum are quite unnerving and there's a disturbing tone throughout the film. It's very well directed, and the screenplay and acting is wonderful. My one criticism would be that neither Katharine Hepburn or Elizabeth Taylor attempt to put on a Southern accent, when lesser characters do. Elizabeth says "beginning" with an accent once, but that's pretty much it. It's not as if she couldn't put on an accent, as she did a Southern accent in Raintree County for example, so I'm a bit confused. Still, it's a minor gripe.
As I said, I found Montgomery Clift was a little... not wooden, but certainly not his normal, amazing self. He looks dazed and his hands noticeably shake in his first scene, so it's quite sad to see him that way. This film was made three years after the car crash in which he suffered terrible injuries and led to his addiction to drugs and alcohol. Monty found the filming exhausting, particularly the long takes. The director, Joseph Mankiewicz, found it frustrating that he had to shoot Monty's longer scenes in multiple takes, and wanted him replaced. Katharine Hepburn was especially resentful of the treatment Clift received. As soon as Mankiewicz called the final "cut" of the film, she asked him to confirm that her services were no longer required, when he did, she spat in his face.
Elizabeth Taylor's truly wonderful performance when she describes Sebastian's death was the result of Method acting. After filming, she could not be consoled, having drawn from her grief over the death of her husband Mike Todd, the previous year. - Liz fan, Ramon H., disputes this and says that Liz did not use method acting. Please read his comment below for his fascinating insights. The theory that Liz used method for this scene is from a Montgomery Clift biography, so it's obviously not the best source for information on Liz and is perhaps a little biased in favour of method acting.
Now for the costumes. The film is set in 1937, although you wouldn't know if you hadn't been told at the beginning of the film. Little effort was made to make the costumes seem late 30s really, but never mind.
First, Katharine Hepburn.
Katharine on set. I love her dress!
Katharine in her costumed coat and hat, but with her own clothes underneath. :D
Katharine (not in costume) and Monty on set.
When we first see Elizabeth Taylor, she's wearing a truly hideous dress and she's not happy about it.
Elizabeth with Mankiewicz on set
Now, the black dress Elizabeth Taylor wears is really beautiful. I took a lot of screencaptures, and then drew on some of them (very badly - sorry) to figure out the construction of it.
Ignore my doodling about the lapel seam. I found this photo below which shows that it's a dart that curves about halfway down to shape the collar. You can even see where the neckline has been interfaced. The shoulder seam isn't straight out from the neck to the armsyce as is the norm - it curves back from the neck, meeting the armsyce across the shoulders. There's a zip at the centre back, two tucks in the sleeve cap which square off the sleeves. I think I make have a go at drafting this dress for myself. If and when I do, I'll blog about it.
Here are some random screencaptures I took. Click for higher resolution.
This is the blouse and skirt she wears in the final confession scene. Pleats everywhere. You can't tell from these photos, but the skirt is pleated also.
The racy swimsuit that Sebastian made her wear.
The dress and hat she wore in the cafe and a lovely portrait.
The dress she wore when Sebastian died. It's lovely to have some colour photos of these costumes. Also, the photo below shows the construction lines of the bodice very clearly and the skirt had lots of gores to make it flare out like that. Her waist was so tiny!
Elizabeth with Eddie Fisher, who played a "street urchin" *tries not to laugh*
And that's it! I'll sign off with this photo of everyone having a fight. Take care! xxx