(Mankiewitz 1959) Suddenly, Last Summer

18-06-30 VIEW (Mankiewitz 1959) Suddenly, Last SummerIt’s fas­ci­nat­ing to see the twist­ing and turn­ing in this film adap­ta­tion of Ten­nessee Williams’ play. In the 1950’s, Amer­i­can film was sub­ject to gov­ern­ment cen­sor­ship under the noto­ri­ous Hays Act, and to even more dis­gust­ing self-imposed cen­sor­ship under the stu­dios’ “vol­un­tary code”. “It was like writ­ing for Pravda,” said Gore Vidal, who scripted the film. In a won­der­ful doc­u­men­tary called The Cel­lu­loid Closet, he describes his repeated meet­ings with a Jesuit priest who, appar­ently, had life-and-death pow­ers over any film pro­duc­tion. Appar­ently, the very con­cept of homo­sex­u­al­ity could not be allowed to appear on film. Since this was the cen­tral ele­ment of the plot, the result is a strange, almost hal­lu­ci­na­tory atmos­phere in which char­ac­ters talk for ten minute stretches of oblique hints and enig­matic gri­maces, merely to avoid men­tion­ing that an absent char­ac­ter (who is dead) was gay! All this riga­ma­role is being done by Eliz­a­beth Tay­lor dur­ing the period when she was a bril­liant actress, Kather­ine Hep­burn (who was always a bril­liant actress), and Mont­gomery Clift. Clift was also a gifted actor, but at the time, he was recov­er­ing from a car acci­dent that had dis­fig­ured his face, and was sat­u­rated with pain killers. He was also a clos­eted gay, him­self. The scenes when all three of them are together are so filled with repres­sion and ten­sion that they count among the most bizarre and intense in film his­tory. A viewer who is under twenty-five will prob­a­bly find the whole thing incom­pre­hen­si­ble. “What the hell are these peo­ple talk­ing about, or more pre­cisely, why are they not talk­ing about it, what is every­body upset about it, and what on earth is going on?” was the response of one younger friend of mine. The whole thing was so alien to his expe­ri­ence and sen­si­bil­i­ties that he could make no sense of it. And I couldn’t have explained it with­out under­tak­ing a five hour dis­course on the trans­for­ma­tions in North Amer­i­can soci­ety in the lasty fifty years.

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