Friday, 2 November 2012

Friday Night Film: Suddenly, Last Summer

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.

Hepburn talks...

...and emotes...

...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...

Boy Bait.

Hungry eyes.

Taylor emotes...

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.


  1. "although that might make for good theatre, it doesn’t always make for good art."

    Not a fan of the theatre?

    Yes, people do still bother with Tennessee Williams, and no, the majority of his work doesn't seem ridiculous nowadays.

    Glad I could clear that up for you!

  2. Those are MY reasons for not rating much of TW's work. There's a debate there, obviously, but you'll have to throw a bit more my way that just saying 'you're wrong, end of'!

  3. You're quite right, of course.

    But your opening gambit seemed to suggest that TW has fallen out of favour in general, not just for you.

    It was with that that I took issue. My appreciation is neither here nor there, but that his plays are still taught as part of A-Level English Literature and A-Level Theatre Studies alone suggests that, yes, people do still "bother" with Tennessee Williams.

    And then there's the fact that his work is still performed. I'm afraid I can't give you anything in the way of statistics, but in the past five years I've lived variously in Liverpool, Manchester and Derby. On at least one occasion in each city I've regretted deeply not having attended a performance of Streetcar or The Glass Menagerie.

    But that's the theatre. I might be wrong, but I got the impression that you're not too keen on the theatre when you hinted that it doesn't make for good art.

    But even beyond the theatre, A Streetcar Named Desire still sits proudly in the IMDB top 250. Whilst that doesn't necessarily "prove" its quality, films are placed on that list according to the frequency of positive reviews they get.

    If a film is rated once, it doesn't exactly transpire that it will always be rated as such. In order for a film to achieve and retain a place, it's necessary for it to be rated highly again and again. The list is for enduring favourites, not flashes in the pan. So that TW's arguable masterpiece is still holding sway amongst all the Godfathers and Hobbits again suggests that, again, his appeal is enduring.

    Of course, you could argue that what's being rated there is Brando, not TW. But still, if even on a purely theatrical level, Tennessee Williams still seems to be considered every bit the genius.

    It's all in the monologues. Even if they are written in but one voice, they're incandescently beautiful. Listen to Lou Reed introduce Street Hassle on his 2004 Animal Serenade live album. He says that the song was an attempt to capture the spirit of a TW monologue in music.

    For me, at least, praise simply doesn't come higher.

    1. Too many "agains" in that rant, my apologies.

  4. Well, okay, my question is answered: people 'do' still bother with Tennessee Williams - but only with the good stuff!

    I was basing my comments on recent viewings of 'This Property Is Condemned', 'Summer & Smoke', 'The Roman Spring Of Mrs Stone', 'The Fugitive Kind', 'Boom!' and 'S,LS', i.e the plays that form the majority of TW's work that is ignored outside of the acceptable canon of masterworks. I didn't have a pop at 'Streetcar' because it's a classic, same with 'Cat On A Hot Tin Roof'. I've never seen 'The Glass Menagerie', so I can't comment. TW was a very productive author, and i was looking at his CV recently and worked out that about 80% of his work seems to have disappeared from public view.

    I don't dislike the theatre, either, I just think it is such an interactive 'real time' experience that it has slightly different rules and tolerances. I can imagine that a well performed TW monologue in the theatre could be mesmerising, but that doesn't necessarily mean it will be so on screen or on the page. &, yes, of course, that's the point, as TW was writing for the theatre (although his screenplays aren't significantly different).

    I don't despise TW, nor do I dismiss him. I was just interested in the way that his appeal (for me) has completely waned and wondered if that was a common experience. It is and isn't, I suppose. His best work is eternal, the rest has faded away. As the best is already covered, I'll keep poking around at the faded away stuff!

    Thanks for your response. Interesting reading.

  5. Though without question it works best in the theatre, his work also READS beautifully.

    If you can't track down a film or a performance, I would heartily recommend that you try reading the text of The Glass Menagerie. It's devastating.

    I fear, though, that you might feel vindicated in describing aspects of him as "overblown; overwrought". One of the characters is an invisible omniscient narrator who openly introduces himself as a soul.

    Oh well. Horses for courses.

    Many thanks for replying, though, and apologies if my initial comment came across as snark.