Therapy Thursday: Suddenly, Last Summer

As I mentioned yesterday, today’s Therapy Thursday post will showcase Suddenly, Last Summer, with Katharine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor.  Oddly, I haven’t been able to come up with a good topic for this series in weeks upon weeks … I just had nothing. Then, yesterday, doing a brief tribute to Elizabeth Taylor, this movie came to mind and it was an obvious choice. It’s a great topic for this series, but the universe is an odd place, and this timing is better than had I done it earlier anyway. Now to the point.

Suddenly, Last Summer is adapted from the play by Tennessee Williams. I actually saw the play staged before I saw this movie. While I don’t typically find a filmed version of a play or book an improvement, this is one of the seldom exceptions. They add to the play significantly, but it really adds something to it. Should it have been done this way on stage? Probably not. The film had some acting talent  we seldom see, and the cast combination was pure magic. While on stage, the point of view is a little ambiguous: we clearly should identify with Dr. Cukrowicz (Montgomery Clift); as we meet Mrs. Violet Venable (Hepburn), we would probably identify with him, even if he had been poorly portrayed. However, this is not the case. Clift plays a rather good role as Dr. Cukrowicz.

Meeting with Catherine

Listening to Ms. Violet is quite the experience. At first, we see eccentric and aristocratic, but the more we listen, we can develop an idea of how completely insane she is. Her speech is kind of linear, and yet, not remotely linear. Before long, we begin to think “delusion,” perhaps. She explains to Dr. Cukrowicz that Catherine Holly (Liz Taylor) is insane, and she wants her to have a lobotomy (eerily, this sort of thing is true to life–some family members would push for lobotomies of other family members, for various reasons). The more Ms. Violet talks and tells her story, the more the careful ear can pick up that she and George Holly had had an enmeshed relationship; that she is very controlling–and not just with her money; that she creates her world purely as she wants it; that she is manipulative, and frankly, is good at what she does. Somewhere midway, I felt afraid … she was scary. Now, later scenes are more designed to be frightening and make the film a thriller, in the sense we usually consider. However, I personally found her much more frightening than the more visual scary scenes.

She sets us up beautifully for the second section of the movie as well. Her story is full of facts and plausiblilities, but her telling of it is so weird, so odd, so circular, and yet so convinced that we are willing to believe Catherine’s story, with its outrageous sounding content, because she tells the story in an actual line. If we were to simply look at the content, of course Catherine is insane–it’s an outlandish story.

And so, we meet with Catherine. In the play, this mostly is a single scene, but it’s expanded and spread out in the film a little more. We get an interesting picture of the hospital, the structure of the mental health system, and the idea of lobotomy. Elizabeth Taylor did an amazing job throughout this entire process; however, I am going to emphasize her telling of her own story (the part that is crucial in the play as well).  As the film progresses, we identify more with Dr. Cukrowicz, and we want to do so. He’s endearing, and Violet is scary. But then something happens “suddenly”–we identify with Catherine. This is unusual in film–usually point of view is pretty consistent, but here we make a massive switch. Elizabeth Taylor’s performance certainly convinces us, the audience, that she is traumatized–we’d expect nothing less, but she goes further than that. She pulls us into her character, and from nowhere, we now identify with Catherine, and hope that Dr. Cukrowicz will help her out. When I watched this the first time, her artistry with the scene, particularly her amazing monologue (I looked for it on YouTube, but didn’t have much luck) and thought, “Wow.”  It was easy to appreciate as a great scene, but when I looked at it some more, I began to realize how completely brilliant is really was. She doesn’t stop at convincing the audience, but involves them (and of course, we believe her story, which we normally … wouldn’t. Clearly, she’s the truthful one, and completely traumatized by actual events, and possibly this crazy Violet woman). That is what I believe they mean when they say “movie magic.”

Why do I love this movie? It’s not a happy one, that’s for sure. The basic “psychology” of it is interesting and fairly well done. Typically, that’s what I talk about in this series. But this film is rare in the way it involves the audience, pulling them into the family, into the insanity, and making them players, too. That is the work of brilliant acting. Then, for me, the roles of both of the primary women in the film fit real family dynamics so perfectly that I’m in awe. It’s simply impressive, and there’s no other way to put it.

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