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Wednesday
Aug132014

A Year with Kate: Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)

Episode 33 of 52: In which Katharine Hepburn is like the Goddess from the Machine.

I want to write about Katharine Hepburn, but the movie keeps getting in the way! Reading last night’s contributions to Hit Me With Your Best Shot, I was struck by how many bloggers described Suddenly, Last Summer as “camp,” “wildly expressive,” or “absolutely batshit gonzo crazy.” This is a film that will not be ignored. It’s garish and shocking. The psycho-babble hasn’t aged well--as Nathaniel points out, such things rarely do. The themes of cannibalism, sexual deviance, and monstrous madness creep like kudzu vines hanging in Violet Venable’s garden, blocking the light and threatening to squeeze the resistance out of unwary viewers who venture into the film unwarned.

This unsettling excess had been, up to that point, unusual for director Joseph L. Mankiewicz--best known for character dramas--but can be easily traced to his collaborators. Gore Vidal adapted Tennessee Williams’s short lyric play about a rich widow’s attempts to hide her dead sons secrets by lobotomizing her niece into a Southern Gothic by way of Freaks. There are scenes with sanitariums and gardens, and many things are said. In fact, you might overlook how talkative the film is thanks to Jack Hilyard’s beautiful black and white cinematography. Elizabeth Taylor and Katharine Hepburn (both Oscar nominated) battle over and between Montgomery Clift against the lurid Louisiana locations created by Oliver Messel and William Kellner (also nominated). In short, this film is sensory overload.

But I digress. This series is about Katharine Hepburn, not censorship or deviance or strong production design. One shot stands out to me as the definitive Best Shot when discussing Kate’s turn as Violet Venable: an empty chasm in the ceiling into which Dr. Cukrowicz gazes as the elevator whirs to life. You hear Violet Venable before you see her...

Best Shot

In a moment, Violet will descend in an open elevator, making arguably one of the best entrances in Hollywood history. But it’s not about what you see. It’s about what you hear. Violet's voice, commanding and charismatic, floats down even before she appears in her angelic white dress. This isn't the first time Kate's voice has preceded her in a film--a similar trick was used in Woman of the Year. However, the lilting playful growl Kate employs is totally new. It’s an entrance that demands that attention be paid. Watch (or rather listen) to Violet's entrance.  

Though he hated the movie, Tennessee Williams had this to say about Kate's performance:


“Kate is a playwright’s dream actress. She makes dialogue sound better than it is by a matchless beauty and clarity of diction, and by a fineness of intelligence and sensibility that illuminates every shade of meaning in every line she speaks.”

 

That’s a far cry from the critics of the past, who had declared Kate’s voice “breathless” and “offkey.” Katharine Hepburn’s peculiar Mid Atlantic dialect has always been an easy target for impressionists, but don’t ignore the evolution and technical skill she gained as she matured. By 1959, Kate been working a decade in Shakespeare, learning to appreciate language and slow down the infamous rapid fire, Bryn Mawr patter. Her guides for the first half of the 1950s were Constance Collier, a character actress who’d played Kate’s acting teacher onscreen in Stage Door, and a vocal coach named Alfred Dixon, who taught her diaphragm control. For the rest of the 1950, Kate honed her craft onstage, but she didn’t get an opportunity until 1959 to translate these skills to the screen.

As Violet Venable, Kate practically sings her lines. Gore Vidal added to Tennessee Williams’s original dialogue with monumental monologues of his own (including the Violet’s entrance), and Kate shows her appreciation for the two wordsmiths by delivering their lines with care. Depending on the situation, Kate can whip herself into a shaky frenzy over flesh-eating birds, retreat into clipped consonants when entertaining relatives, or stretch a speech about carnivorous plants and savor each syllable like molasses. At the height of her powers, Kate trails off into the predatory purr of a leopard in her lair. It is a full-voiced performance.

Unfortunately, it’s not a full-bodied performance. Kate never fully commits to Violet. Instead, she allows Violet to slip blankly into her moments of madness without inhabiting the human beneath. This fits well with the film, which demonizes mental illness. But though Kate shows true technical prowess, her theatricality comes at the expense of complexity. Ultimately, Violet is a supporting player not on par with Elizabeth Taylor's Cathy. Instead, Violet Venable is left soulless: a madwoman, a mother, and a monster.

Nevertheless, Suddenly, Last Summer represents another milestone for Kate the Great. Hepburn had spent the 1950s establishing herself as both Great Actress through her spinster roles and Great Star through her comedies. She was loveable and laudable, which is why Suddenly, Last Summer is such a shock. Not once in a quarter of a century onscreen had Katharine Hepburn ever played a villain, much less one with second billing. The risk--though not the second billing--was a sign of things to come. Suddenly, Last Summer is more comfortably grouped with her work in the 1960s, an acting streak that resulted in 4 nominations (and 2 wins) in a row. More importantly, the films of the 1960s are as much defined by their riskiness as their Oscar chances. In 1960, Kate turned 53, and the greatest era of her career was about to begin.

Previous Week: Desk Set (1957) - In which Katharine Hepburn plays a woman named Bunny who starts a battle of wits with Spencer Tracy's computer. That's actually the plot.

Next Week: Long Day's Journey Into Night (1960) - In which Katharine Hepburn enters the golden age of her career.


Make sure to check out the other entries in Hit Me With Your Best Shot to unpack more of what this dense, deliciously weird movie has to offer!

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Reader Comments (36)

You could almost get whiplash from the change in tone between this highly enjoyable but bonkers gothic nightmare and the bright and sunny Desk Set.

Kate does subdued crazy very well and her tightly coiled stance and dreamy line readings make Violet a fascinating addition to her gallery. Elizabeth Taylor has the more blatantly showy part, and she chews the scenery with the best of them, but I think Hepburn's stillness pulls your eye to her amongst all the hue and cry.

Looking forward to Long Day's Journey Into Night next week. It's the one performance that she lost the Oscar for that I thought was deserving of the prize.

August 13, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

your choice for best shot is brilliantly provocative. we almost never have a shot without an actor in it. But I totally hear you on why.

August 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

joel6 - I agree! You'd suffer whiplash going from any of Kate's 50's filmography to Suddenly, Last Summer. It's so much darker than anything she'd touched before. It's really the closest she got to the Grand Guignol of Davis and Crawford in the 60's.

August 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

WHAT AN ENTRANCE. Divinitiy. Inimitable.

August 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMargaret

Anne Marie you are so right, with a little tweaking here and there and less exalted contributors this could easily slide right into the Bette/Joan/Olivia latter day horror. It makes you almost sorry, only almost!, that she turned down Hush, Hush...Sweet Charlotte when Crawford took to her sickbed.

August 13, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

Kate may have 2nd billing to Elizabeth but it is her movie. She gets the best entrance, monologues, and even when she is not on screen she is talked about quite frequently. And oh my goodness the things she does with the language. Kate must have known a role written like this was a gift and she devours it, like the birds devoured the turtles in her first big speech. The movie is coo-coo bananas but Kate is great.

August 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTom

Thank you Anne Marie. I am loving this series and your take on the films. Someone should be Vivian Leigh next. Or Clark Gable.

August 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHenry

Also, the very first word we hear from her mouth is 'Sebastian', telling us what her mind is all about even before we see her.

That film always had a special place in my heart, bonkers as it is, and Kate's performance in it might be my favorite in her long career (although the top three contenders for that title - this one, 'Long Day's Journey' and 'Lion in Winter' - are actually too close to call).

August 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMrW

When you say that Violet is a supporting player not on par with Elizabeth Taylor's Cathy, then I hope that you mean this in terms of narrative and screentime. But unfortunately, the whole paragraph which includes this sentence reads as if you'd think that Taylor would give the superior performance in Suddenly, Last Summer which is of course nonsense. Great Kate devours La Liz in about the same way as the half-naked boys do with Sebastian. I do however concede that this isn't a fair fight of course, since - as you rightly pointed out - Hepburn has a voice to work with whereas Taylor only has the most hideous pig squeal in motion picture history (which she does use to rather great effect here, but naturally remains without a chance against someone like Kate and, for that matter, anyone who comes with the ability to speak like a human being).

I'm also somewhat surprised to see that Joel for once managed to curtail his desire to rewrite every single posting on this site, and A Year With Kate in particular. This development is even more disturbing than the movie Suddenly, Last Summer. Maybe he was lobotomized, and with useful results at that. Violet would be proud.

By the way, I've never been good at maths, but if Kate was born in 1907, then she turned 53 in 1960, not 57.

August 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterWilly

To be fair, although Kate gave one of her most memorable performances here, she hated this film! She rarely mentioned it in her bio & never wanted to discuss it. According to legend, she was pissed that Mankiewicz gave all the best scenes to Liz; set her up by removing the filter gradually to expose her freckles + aged face; & lastly, of the brutal ways he treated co-star, Monty Clift.

At the end of her last shot, she coolly asked Mankiewicz whether he needed any re-take, & when he confirmed it was perfect & no retake was required, she SPIT at him. Suffice to say, they never worked together again.

Even though she hated this movie, and can't identify w her role, Kate still delivered a superb & unforgettable performance that haunts u for years to come. Not even Dame Maggie Smith can out-do her in the 1993 TV remake.

August 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterClaran

Willy - sign me up for the utter nonsense. I too think Liz Taylor gives this film's best performance. And i think it's maybe her second greatest performance ever.

August 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I do think that's one of Hepburn's most memorable performances even though her character fades into stereotype after that gorgeous, more than 10-minute long entry. I like the film quite a lot, too. Also, nothing's better that positive feedback from the playwright himself.

Watching it again, I realised that once Katharine Hepburn opens her mouth all you can do is shut up and listen, and Monty Clift shuts up and listens.

August 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterYavor

Willy-Nice try but I'm not rising to the bait. As long as Nathaniel and Anne Marie don't object to my viewpoints on the films or site I'm going to continue to contribute them, short or long. If they bother you don't read them.

August 14, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

Excellent write up as always Anne-Marie, you have summarized this strange film better than I could have imagined. I always think of it as crazy Southern Gothic, and that's an understatement! It was always too bonkers for me.

It was a shock to see Hepburn in this type of movie, and while I appreciate her great entrance in the elevator as well as her diction, I feel no love for this film.
Elizabeth Taylor is a power house in this movie, and her voluptuous sensuality is the most lasting impression I'm left with. Not a great film but only Taylor and Hepburn could make me sit through it. I am keen to move on to next week.

August 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

Willy - Thanks for checking my math. Fixed!

Claran - According to some biographies, Kate spit at producer Sam Spiegel too! Such a shame that this movie caused so much pain for its cast and crew, since like you say it's so unforgettable.

August 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

Regarding Elizabeth Taylor: I do think her acting is an acquired taste, but I like what she does in this movie. (I've never been a big fan of her other Tennessee Williams performance.) She always needed good direction and/or co-stars to be more than just a gorgeous shrieker.

My top 5:

1. A Place in the Sun (Stevens, Clift)
2. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (Nichols, Burton, Segal, Dennis)
3. Giant (Stevens, Hudson, Dean, McCambridge, Hopper)
4. Suddenly, Last Summer (Mankiewicz*,Hepburn, Clift, McCambridge)
5. Father of the Bride (Minnelli, Tracy, Bennett)

(*There's no way she pulled that off without direction.)

August 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

Paul -- hmmm. i'll play

LIZ's best work
tier one - the genuine greats
1. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf
2. Suddenly Last Summer
3. A Place in the Sun
tier two - also very good
4. Giant
tier three - hmmm. this one's a toss up. She did a lot of good work some of it underrated (i'm sorry but she's kinda perfect in BUtterfield 8 though i know people hate the movie) and some of it overrated (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) but always so damn watchable because she was a true MOVIE STAR in all caps

August 14, 2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I don't always post ( because Joel6 often summarizes my thoughts). This is a great community for the classic films and I like the studied comments.
And Paul, your list is dead on.

August 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLeslie19

Paul & Nathaniel-Good lists.

I'd say those are her top performances but I've always enjoyed her in Elephant Walk and The V.I.P.S not great movies or amazing work but she's breathtaking in the first and so glamorously anguished in the second. She was also well cast in The Taming of the Shrew.

August 14, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

"I, along with the critics, have never taken myself very seriously."

Taylor was always self-deprecating about her talent and generous in praising the co-stars she considered her acting mentors (Clift, Burton).

"I think every actress in the world looked up to her with a kind of reverence and a sense of, 'Oh boy, if only I could be like her.' " (Taylor on Hepburn)

August 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

When you view Suddenly Last Summer with it's mate Far Rockaway which were both performed in tandem on Broadway - you do get information on Williams mind set. Suddenly Last Summer is Williams schizophrenia about his homosexuality. All three main characters are Williams working out his life fear of societies cannibalism. Hepburn is the parent judgment. Clift is the adult judgment, and Taylor is the child. All three working out the hidden homosexual problem in 1950's America.

August 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterrobertL

Correction to above not Far Rockaway as part of double bill but Something Unspoken.

August 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterrobertL

Paul & Nathaniel & joel6 - This is where I shamefully confess that I've never seen A Place In The Sun, so I can't really discuss a Top 5 List for Liz. It's not a purposeful snub; the opportunity to see it has just never arisen. That said, I love her in Taming of the Shrew and don't understand why most folks seem to dislike it.

August 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

Liz was the perfect movie star, but I don't like her at all as an actress. I think she's fine when she doesn't try to ACT. I never said this because I instantly feel bad when I think of how amazing she was during the AIDS crisis.

August 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

anne marie -WHAT?!? that's one of my all time favorite movies. like in the top 50

August 14, 2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Anne Marie! That is my favorite American film of all time, right up there with Dog Day Afternoon, Vertigo and All About Eve.

August 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

Paul & Nathaniel - Okay, three people have called me out on this in the last hour, so clearly I need to rectify this sooner rather than later. Especially since it's so high on both of your lists. Consider me appropriately chastised. I'll watch it this weekend after I finish Long Day's Journey Into Night.

August 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

The topic is Suddenly Last Summer. It's so nice when the web barons talk among themselves.

August 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterrobertL

This whole movie plays like a fever dream--it's the surreal landing in your lap. The poetry of Williams' language lulls you into a trance. I agree with all who said Liz's performance really makes this film memorable, but Kate is a close second. For me, Liz finds the truth in her character, whereas Kate elevates the cliche.

August 14, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Great Actress Kate vs Movie Star Liz, how often do u have that? Its about as surreal as the movie itself...LOL. I agreed w brookesboy, Liz gives her all, while Kate elevates (all pun intended) the sinsterness to a new level. Both are marvellous & its hard to really pinpoint who is betta

I agreed w many of the comments that this is one of Liz's best performances (I like it betta than Virginia Woolf). She herself was mighty proud of this performance & was confident that she was gonna win the Oscar (She had won the Golden Globe), and was sorely disappointed when they gave it to Signoret for Room at the Top. "I was a bad girl then", she said, havin just "stole" Eddie Fisher away from American Sweetheart, Debbie Reynolds. She alws felt that her win the following yr for Butterfield 8 was a compensation for her loss for SLS.

On the other hand, Tennessee Williams was less than impressed w Liz's performance. In his own words: "I can't believe that a HIP DOLL like LIZ does not know she was being used for evil...." He was unhappy that the cannabalism that was meant as a metaphor in the play (It was only a recollection by Cathy w no images to support her TRUTH), played out LITERALLY in the movie.

He was however so pleased w Kate's performance, that he wrote The Night of the Iguana w her in mind to play the character, Miss Hannah, the spinster teacher. Kate turned it down & the role went to Margaret Leighton who won a TONY for her effort. Had Kate accepted the part, she wouldt had played opposite BETTE DAVIS (as Maxine, the other lead actress) & won the TONY (debatable? Kate was twice nom for TONY, but din win) .

August 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterClaran

I have legitimately always wondered (well, since I saw it for the first time) whether Bette Davis was perhaps originally intended to play Violet. As others have said, it totally fits into her wheelhouse at the time, and Mankewicz and she had had such success at the start of the decade with EVE.

August 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

Glenn-Bette's an intriguing possibility, I think her more florid style would have really changed the dynamic of the film though. Thinking about who else could have played Violet, although I can't see anyone else playing her as well as Kate, the only two possible actresses that came to mind were Rosalind Russell and perhaps Olivia de Havilland although I'm not sure Livvy had the proper iciness.

August 15, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

Much as I luv Bette, I dun think anyone could play Violet Venable as effective as Kate, Her distinctive diction, poetic monologue & thearactical gestures would not suit Bette well. Her turn in The Night of the Iguana was major fodder on Broadway & she was mad that Leighton, a respected stage veteran, stole the show from her. Truth is Bette was more of a movie actress & Violet Venable is a part that required someone who is more "theater". Kate conveyed this quite chillingly well.

Since we are on a detour to La Liz, I'm surprised nobody mentioned Cleopatra as one of her top five. Sure it was a mess but it's pure golden mess, like an indulgent buffet! lol & no other actress is more identified w the Queen of Nile than the Queen of Hollywood herself.

And IMO Cat on a Hot Roof is not over-rated. Liz NAILED Maggie the Cat! Its a part that required some1 who's v sultry, sensous yet wily & manipulative, & I think Liz delivered that. Giant is the overrated one IMO. (Sidenote: Liz inherited these Giant & Cat from Grace Kelly when she left Hollywood to become Princess of Monaco)

August 15, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterClaran

I don't think anyone could have done Violet as well as Kate. There is such a repression beneath the manners, Bette would be more grand in style, not what the part needs.
As for Liz as Maggie, I still like Paul's Liz list the best. I think Eliabeth Ashley did the best Maggie ever.

August 15, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLeslie19

I just found on YouTube the rare cable version of COAHTR with Jessica Lange, TLJ, Rip Torn and Kim Stanley. I know what I'm doing tonite.

As much as I love Liz in the film, I think Jessica would be sublime in this.

August 15, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Rewatching Skyfall yesterday, I was amused to note that (in addition to a Hannibal Lecter style glass cell later in the film) Javier Bardem's villain is treated to a first entrance—over an hour in—out of a descending elevator. Unlike Hepburn, he waits until the doors open to start monologuing, not Mendes' most clever piece of direction, I think.

September 26, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

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