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« Visual Index ~ Suddenly Last Summer (1959) | Main | Beauty vs Beast: All About the Blonde »

Elizabeth Taylor in "Suddenly Last Summer". Oh how that star burned.

This is an episode of Hit Me With Your Best Shot

"Suddenly... last summer" is spoken so often in Suddenly Last Summer (1959), Joseph L Mankiewicz & Gore Vidal's adaptation of Tennessee Williams play, that it starts to take on a kind of trancy grandeur. The actresses retreat inward, psychologically, in the thrall of their own theatricality, the overheated jungles of art direction around them, and surely their good fortune to be playing Tennessee Williams characters.

my favorite scene in the film

To a minor degree the repetition of "suddenly...last summer" is not unlike the effect of Rita whispering "Mulholland Drive" like an incantation in Mulholland Dr. The comparison seems apt since both films are batshit crazy sexually charged nightmares in which a beautiful brunette has selective amnesia issues.  But let's not drift away to 2001. We stay in 1959. And two beautiful brunettes is exactly what I want to talk about since Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor loom large in my own movie fantasies, as two of my all time favorite actors. 

Suddenly Last Summer might seem dated in some respects as psychological films often do as science progresses but Elizabeth Taylor's star power hasn't aged a day. She's impossible to look away from and aces the tricky role of Catherine Holly, a woman who is fully sane but goes a little mad sometimes... and not just from the PTSD she's clearly suffering. Taylor is a smart enough actress to go for gray shadings in both Catherine's sexuality and psychology even when the gorgeous lighting by the Oscar-winning cinematographer Jack Hildyard (The Bridge on the River Kwai) is so high contrast and her monologues go so extremely black (the absence of memory) or white (the blazing white beach where her trauma began).

more after the jump

best shot

The beach was very white. Oh how the sun burned. It was like the eye of God watching us, burning, burning. There was no air that day. The sun had burned up all the air. Outside it was like inside a furnace.

And then they came...

This image seizes me. Elizabeth in the sun; Monty eclipsed. 

Which you might say is true of the movie. Both Actresses were Oscar nominated but Monty is constantly overshadowed. I'd argue that his is this adaptation's most difficult role because there's so much less to work with that it's easy to disappear as the surgeon ricochet's between two madwomen. He's best in this, his first scene with Liz; they loved each other dearly offscreen and their chemistry always blazed. It's a long duet in which he coaxes her towards memory and they flirt and spar not a little. The structure of the scene will be somewhat mirrored in the film's climax, Catherine's memory returned.

By contrast Monty practically disappears in his scenes with Katharine Hepburn, where he goes frustratingly blank even when the role suggests so much more than he's giving, particularly in Violet's insistent refrain that he is like Sebastian, her dead (gay) son, in this way or, undoubtedly, that. 

runner up images after the jump if you're a completist or so inclined to consider more options...

the best shot of Monty in the movie - recalling his psychological games via shadows

"blondes were next on the menu" - LOVE this monologue

Great moments in cinematography AND art direction

Catherine's future? Into the snake pit. (Bronze Medal)RUNNER UP BEST SHOT. SILVER MEDAL

I could write a 1000 words on each of these images, probably. I can't shut up when it comes to Tennessee Williams plays and movies. There is SO much to say and perhaps I'll say it later if you're interested. But time is short tonight.

Now see the Best Shot Collection for other articles on this wonderfully overheated movie. Next week: Gone With the Wind (Part 1 -  just the first half)

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Reader Comments (9)

I am Groot

August 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterGroot

Lauren Bacall has died.

August 12, 2014 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

a true Legend has passed. RIP.

August 12, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterbrandz

great post, nathaniel. love that you chose one of liz and monty together since theirs is one of my favorite relationships in hollywood history. and in their scenes together you can feel the affection they had for each other. in the scene you chose as best shot, you can just feel taylor encouraging clift, as if to say i'm here, it's alright. and then when she nearly goes off the deep end in recalling sebastian's story, you can see how, although he's not exactly a pillar of strength himself, he's there to comfort her.

August 13, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterabstew

abstew -- thank you so much for commenting. I love talking about this movie but then no one commented (sigh). Absolutely agreed on that fascinating dynamic with the two of them - and every offscreen story and photo of them together i just love. I especially like the tail end of this scene where they're kind of flirting which is such a weird choice in the moment but totally works for the movie. And Monty looks so great in profile.

August 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

Of the two post-accident Clift-Taylor team-ups (Reflections in a Golden Eye would have been the third), this movie is more painful for me to watch than Raintree County, even with its before and after close-ups of Clift, because his performance in Suddenly, Last Summer is so damned reactive and tepid compared to the performances by Taylor, Hepburn and even McCambridge. And when you read Patricia Bosworth's account of the production in her Monty biography, your heart just breaks...

August 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

I read that Monty was having trouble remembering his lines, and Mankiewicz was really humiliating him in front of the cast and crew. The story is that after filming, Kate went up to Mankiewicz and after being reasurred there would be no more work on the film, she spit in his face. Gotta love Hollywood!

August 13, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

He just wasn't up to it.

August 13, 2014 | Unregistered Commentermark

I loved all movies where Liz Taylor acted. I think that she was a true genius when acting. There was also a strong intimate connection between her and the male characters. I miss so much her radiant acting style. You cannot see this nowadays, with all these plastic boobs actresses. I would name it modern cinema crisis. It is probably one of the reasons some people, especially middle age women, no longer go to movie theaters.

August 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLaura S.

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