In honor of the thick, physical, downpouring heat of the August Summer nights upon us, the sorts of nights where (quoting Thelma Ritter) rain doesn’t cool anything down, but simply makes the heat wet, I decided to tackle two films from the all time literary master of making the heat feel so wet you can drown in it: Tennessee Williams.
Suddenly, Last Summer is by no means the most famous Tennessee Williams play adaptation, but no filmic version of the writer’s work is more convincing. While Elia Kazan proved a moderately persuasive choice for A Streetcar Named Desire, that film was limited by its inability to fully deluge itself with playfully sweaty, torrid visuals to strangle and suffocate its characters. It danced with danger, but it was ultimately a film of “good taste”, something director Joseph Mankiewicz clearly has no qualms about. Which is for the best; Williams’ plays are not plays for the good or the tasteful, but devilishly naughty backwoods moonshine tales of slippery Southern décor and the often grotesque humans who reside there. How do you translate this sort of high-melodrama to the film whilst retaining a sense of “good taste”?
You don’t in fact. You give in to your impulses and direct not to good sense, but to the five senses. You emphasize rawness and titillating emotion and experiential, sensory feeling above all else; you move away from the page and locate a visual dialect for the essence of a Williams’ play, and you pay no heed to lowering the temperature of the material. You have a little fun locking your characters in a Southern swamp, surrounding them with mise en scene and emphasizing the interrelationship between location, weather, and characters as they stew about getting more conflicted, more hot and bothered as a good Southern might say. You imbue the architecture of blocking and framing with the characters’ psychology, emphasizing the lack of negative space between objects and characters, how everything almost seems to cover up and push against everything else in a claustrophobic, tactile, physical heat. You induce a parade of garish, noirish lighting gestures to play with the imagination of Southern Gothic literature and emphasize the material as a sort of “American South of the mind” rather than the real thing. You explore the lustfully performative nature of the piece, the way the Southern gentility is stomped on and paraded over by the brash young heat and muggy sunlight of the day, raising temperatures to a boil and taking people’s inner faculties and sense of propriety with them. You make the South a place to feel.
Phenomenal but not especially famous cinematographer Jack Hildyard does the lion’s share of the heavy lifting making Suddenly, Last Summer the epitome of visual Tennessee Williams: palpably, scintillatingly erotic and hot before doing the work of making the scintillating, hot eroticism grow muggy and tired with dripping sweat before long. This is a heat that raises the pulse to lustful levels, and then mistakes the lust for anger, before curdling the anger into malaise. This is a New Orleans where passions overflow and can’t be contained; the heat serves as a tempter, drawing out conflicting libidos, but the humidity, oh the humidity, makes the sweaty sexual bite of the air turn stifling and cautiously sleepy before long. It is the sort of place, the sort of atmosphere, that provokes and promotes libidinous human contact and then lashes out at those humans for their lecherousness. Have sex, it says, and sweat, but the sex will only make you more tired, more cramped in a jungle of human motion, and more quartered by the strangling odor of other people filling the air. It draws you toward others as a respite from loneliness, and it cruelly makes that closeness, that stultifying smell and humidity of close human contact on a long summer day, as wet and as swampily boggy as you could imagine.
You get stuck in the lust, the fear, the perversity, in other words, and that is exactly what happens for the trio (why always a trio with Tennessee Williams?) of Violet Venable (Katharine Hepburn), her niece Catherine Holly (Elizabeth Taylor), and Dr. Cukrowicz (Montgomery Clift), who is hired by Violet to perform a lobotomy on Catherine for reasons that increasingly shift from dubious to diabolical. The film is a mystery, so spoiling would be unfair, but everything revolves around Violet’s deceased son Sebastian. Totally lurid, totally sensationalistic, and totally venomous, as all the best whiskey-soaked Williams plays should be. It is also totally sincere and honest with the way it plays with our hearts, never once pretending to be anything other than a histrionic, overwrought melodrama that matches leery eyes with haughty, catlike, absolutely primordial dialogue of Mankiewicz’s forte (although the script was adapted by Gore Vidal, and not Mankiewicz, the venerable writer-director probably influenced the diction of the piece).
Any Mankiewicz film is a boon to a performer, and Suddenly features three luminously unmodulated, grotesque works of wonderfully overbaked shadowplay. Hepburn steals the show, naturally. First with an aura, and then with a voice, speaking to us as if an all-seeing goddess with a purr as sultry as it is devouring and cruel. Even before we see her, she overpowers the film, roiling around it and turning all other factors into adjectives to be attached to her, using her Cubist face and Dadaist warble of a voice to sell Williams’ quintessentially heated, loopy metaphors with a feverish commitment to this old Southern widow as a feline murderers’ row of watching eyes, breathily nasty line deliveries, and enough physical malformations of the human form to essay a live-action Disney villainess with a viciously omnivorous need to control.
When she descends down to meet Clift’s character, seated on a throne and always looking down, Mankiewicz visualizes her as a Bond villain accidentally given to cinema a few years too early. Clearly, Hepburn understands who this character is and how to play a person whose humanity has been warped beyond sympathy, a puppetmaster whose pitiful humanity is revealed in how she is unable to confront a world where she has no power, where her old Southern throne has been demoted to a human playing field. She is a phenomenally ghoulish Southern aristocrat, charismatic and well-mannered and hospitable on the surface, but knowing all these words only so that she can turn them cruel and power-crazed and violent with her eyes and words. Hepburn manages all of this, drawing us in with poison lips. Then, and only then, does she invoke the heartbreak at the core of a character who is, functionally, a mother looking out for her son’s reputation, and by proxy, looking out for her own sanity. She dares us to hate her, only to realize that, in the end, she is the frailest person of all, and the one the most in need of love.
It is easy to lose oneself in the thickets of Hepburn’s performance, but Clift and Taylor play their characters with all the effortless intoxication necessary to convey the gravity of the material without underselling its fundamentally overbaked nature. Clift’s early line reading of the word “primitive” when describing the conditions of a lobotomy he performs in the film is delivered with exactly the superior cruelty it requires as he comes to witness the world running toward him and begging him to lobotomize all of its problems, turning the bandage of lobotomy into a first and last line of defense so as to not have to posit more humane solutions. Taylor, meanwhile, nearly matches Hepburn for sheer oppressive human passion, although she even trumps Hepburn at breaking through the psychosis and revealing the abused human underneath.
Williams is not often accused of charitable readings of women. But he certainly knew how to feed his best lines to women, to give them the most powerful, active, assertive characters who defied female domesticity and passivity. He certainly knew how to let these women loose on the world, even to convey that the only difference between women and men was that his women were honest about their cruelty. The men were just lying about themselves, pretending they, unlike the women, were honest, innocent people when they weren’t. Even in her victimhood, Taylor asserts herself, exposing her capacity to take agency even when being abused, reacting against a society quick to destroy the brain in an attempt to curb supposed mental problems. Hepburn is given less sympathy, and like all noir females, she revels in the demented sexual energy of Williams’ writing, accepting it and having fun with it. Not exactly progressive, but a pointed statement of empowerment to be menacing that makes women, if not better than Williams’ equally unsympathetic male characters, at least more honest about their skeletons. His women do what they have to do, and we understand them even if we don’t necessarily like them (“liking” anyone in a Williams play is a big no-no).
Kazan’s Streetcar sometimes threatened to be all performance, and here the performances are sublime and pulsingly physical, but they are fodder for a more holistic warped Southern imagination. Take Hepburn’s early monologue about nature and Venus flytraps. Hepburn is a masterclass in showmanship and public pageantry, but the real standout is Mankiewicz and Hildyard who casually introduce us to the overhanging topiary of Hepburn’s backyard, a twisted malformation of the Southern backwoods turned inward onto the Southern elite. The yard, all husky and violently arranged and densely fractured with vines and veins running every which way, is not only a metaphor for the film’s depiction of human nature (and especially Southern nature), but a visual summation of the world of the Southern Gothic: humanity thinking it can transplant and control the nature around them, flaunting their control of it at all costs, and not noticing that the nature is slowly seeking its revenge, malforming that human ego into a pitiful, gross sketch of the human form only tangentially related to the round, gentle human body.
Even when they aim for pure social commentary, such as in their explicit critique of lobotomies (extremely confrontational in the late ’50s), Mankiewicz and Hildyard exhibit a muckraker’s sense of scandal and sensation. For instance, a sequence depicts a recreational area of lobotomized male patients as a prison of hungry, delirious lions without any semblance of control or humanity left in their brains. A similar sequence with female victims devours those once-people in a cackling sound mixture of rocking-chair rickets and shrill hyena-laughs. Elsewhere, the film perversely and unapologetically pursues the erotic undercurrent inherent in the baiting rituals of capitalist business, sexual intercourse, the devouring of meat, and the practicing of warped scientific methodology. Near the end, it evolves into a percussive flurry of histrionic narration and avant-garde superimposition that is positioned halfway between seizure and orgasm (in a scene that admittedly plays on the fear of the non-white exotic, even if the exotic characters are all white-skinned here). It is, let us say, the most carnally “B-picture” like of all the Williams film adaptations, and thus the most honest about the nature of those plays. I won’t quite call it “expressionist”, but of all the Williams adaptations, Suddenly, Last Summer best understands a visual patois for interpreting Southern Gothic literature. It has the most to say about how to adapt the Southern Gothic as cinema, largely because it is certifiably the least sane of all the films adapted from the Williams canon.
Suddenly, Last Summer is the most playful of all Williams films, released almost a decade after Streetcar and more knowledgeable about the underground masterworks of genre-friend American ’50s cinema from the likes of Nicholas Ray and Samuel Fuller. Suddenly steals from the best then, moving the camera like a carnival and facing forward with the harsh contrast of the cage-like black-and-white cinematography. The film’s mystery becomes a full-on potboiler where the central theme is not how to solve the mystery, but how to even care with all that heat and human discontent weighing down on everyone. More than any Williams film, Suddenly, Last Summer feels like it has experienced the South, like it has a perspective on what sitting in the muddiest regions of the South in an endless summer of punishing heat might feel like, where the only respite from the heat is to cram into a building with everyone else. Of course, in doing so, you only surround yourself with a different, more human form of heat and claustrophobia.
Suddenly gets cinema, plainly. It gets cinema as a lexicon for understanding how and why humans act as they do. With Williams, as with most Southern literature, the “why” was often thrown up in the air and given to the good, cruel Earth. There was a sense that the locale just conspired to remove the vile humans from its visage, turning people against one another even as they lived off of its sometimes good fortune. There was a sense that the location just wanted you to do bad by each other. It just makes you do the nastiest things, that heat-ridden with diseases of all varieties, both physical, mental, and emotional. For making the heat absolutely, abominably nasty and exposing the Southern environmental imagination, both otherworldly alien and plain-spokenly mundane, and for making cinema driven by a cornucopia of primal, human urges rather than arbitrary plot complication or narrative necessity, Suddenly, Last Summer just can’t be beat.