When I was a lad Tennessee Williams had a reputation as a truly great playwright, a genius. Hollywood seemingly clamoured to put every last word into a film, despite very few of the adaptations ever making any money. Yet, thirty odd years after his death, does anyone really bother with him anymore? And doesn’t the majority of his work seem ridiculous nowadays: overblown; overwrought; over-written; over-rated?
Case in point: ‘Suddenly Last Summer’ (even the title sounds like an amateur writers idea of ‘the dramatic’). The original play was a big success on Broadway and, inevitably, a film followed shortly afterwards. But this was no ordinary film. It was directed by Joseph L Mankiewicz, and starred Elizabeth Taylor (then the biggest star in the world), Montgomery Clift and Katherine Hepburn, i.e. it was a very big deal, which is remarkable bearing in mind its subjects are lunacy, paedophilia, homosexuality and cannibalism.
|Monty Clift's under the mask.|
|Liz kicks off.|
|'Why can't I have a massive wimple?'|
I can see why actors loved Williams, as he gives them lots of long, hysterical speeches and arch pronouncements to make, i.e. the opportunity to show off and take centre stage (the original play of S, LS' is basically two long monologues). But, like Oscar Wilde, all the characters only ever have one voice, those of the author, and although that might make for good theatre, it doesn’t always make for good art. On screen, even the most passionate dialogue comes across as hollow and contrived and, fatally, you never lose sight of the fact that you are watching someone acting, not a living, breathing character.
|...and gets herself all het up.|
Despite its drawbacks, ‘Suddenly Last Summer’ is a fascinating film, however, from its main set in a ‘prehistoric’ tropical garden (it always has to be hot in Williams’ plays) to the atmospheric but woefully lax asylum that Catherine (Liz) is sent to for a lobotomy. The story, about a girl who goes on holiday with her creepy poet cousin and finds out she's there to attract the teenage boys he likes to pay for sex is a fairly novel one, especially when the boys turn on him and 'devour' him - literally, we're in Williams' world now (this is all told in soft focus flash back). There’s nothing wrong with the performances, either, they all do their best with what they have to make it seem believable despite the myriad of false notes in the dialogue and characterisation. On a very M & C related note, I also have to report that the famous Taylor tits are on top form here, very much a standout in the supporting cast.
|Taylor in 'immodest' bathing costume. But it's not for her benefit, it's...|
I first saw this film when I was about fourteen - it's intensity gripped me: I'd never seen anything so oppressively dramatic. Having recently watched it again as an adult, I found it so self-consciously important as to be comedic, and the final ‘shocking’ revelations simply hilarious. It's shit being grown up. At times resembling a parody of its own author, ‘Suddenly Last Summer’ is one of the weirdest, campest, over worked films of its era, only one of about a dozen big screen flops based on the southern master’s work. We'll come back to some of the others, I promise.