Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Elizabeth Taylor faces lobotomy in a Tennessee Williams adaptation

Illustration for article titled Elizabeth Taylor faces lobotomy in a Tennessee Williams adaptation

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: While Ryan Reynolds wrestles with insanity (and talking pets) in The Voices, we recommend other films about mental illness.

Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)

Dr. John Cukrowicz (Montgomery Clift) is introduced performing a lobotomy on a schizophrenic young woman in a creaky state hospital, and while Suddenly, Last Summer doesn’t directly critique lobotomies as treatment for mental illness, it does make the practice look unsettling and fraught from the start. It only appears worse when Cukrowicz’s skill with the procedure attracts the attention of Violet Venable (Katharine Hepburn), who wants a lobotomy for her niece Catherine (Elizabeth Taylor). Catherine has been institutionalized with a catch-all diagnosis of “dementria precox” since her witness to the death of Violet’s son Sebastian. She remembers nothing about the incident, and Violet, it seems, would prefer to keep it that way, by silencing her “dreadful, obscene babbling.”


Expanded from a Tennessee Williams one-act by adapter Gore Vidal and director Joseph Mankiewicz, the film version of Suddenly, Last Summer adds connective moments between the real showpieces: Extended scenes center on monologues filling in the stories of Violet, Catherine, and the unseen Sebastian. These sequences, full of long-ish takes, become endurance challenges for Hepburn and Taylor. Hepburn has the showier role, or at least the one better-suited to showing off affectations and odd pronunciations (“obscenely” becomes “ahb-scenely”; “debris” becomes phonetic). She does especially strong work early in the film, when upon her entrance Clift calls attention to her relatively young age (for a widow) and Hepburn proceeds to make herself seem older and older as she continues their conversation.

Taylor also acquits herself well, though the movie relies as much on her youth and beauty as her talent; her climactic monologue plays out with her face in close-up superimposed next to images from the story she tells. This is the movie’s first use of visual flashbacks, but it makes subtle preparations for their appearance with some of its lighting cues, captured in beautiful, imposing black and white. Mankiewicz’s Summer (Williams received co-writing credit but distanced himself from the final film) isn’t really about the nuances of mental illness—Catherine’s traumatic memory loss and potential treatment are both perfectly heightened for melodrama—but rather the presumption of it, and how perceived mental acuity becomes a method of control. Though Catherine’s mental problems rarely seem authentic in a modern sense, insanity looms over the whole film like its many shadows.

Availability: Suddenly, Last Summer is available on DVD, which can be obtained from Netflix or your local video store/library, and for purchase from the major digital services.

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