I don’t know how many of my readers here spend any considerable amount of time visiting the Film Experience, but if you’re not, one of the things you’ve been missing out on in 2014 is A Year with Kate, a project by columnist to go through Katharine Hepburn’s 52-picture filmography, one per week, over the whole of 2014. Here in the final month of Hit Me with Your Best Shot for the year, Nathaniel has finally had occasion to cross-pollinate the two series, selecting 1959’s Hepburn + Montgomery Clift + Elizabeth Taylor vehicle Suddenly, Last Summer. I’m terrifically happy he did: Joseph L. Mankiewicz outstandingly sweaty, lurid melodrama is my favorite of all Tennessee Williams film adaptations (Williams co-wrote the script with Gore Vidal), and a terrific example of cinematographer Jack Hildyard and production designer Oliver Messel going absolutely batshit gonzo crazy in creating a vivid, heightened reality of creeping Southern Gothic excess, replete with a massive tropical conservatory that represents the hidden, brutal impulses of the characters and their backstory as a literal jungle, a little piece of malarial swamp brought home.
It is, in short, a movie that’s not hurting for terrific shots, especially as Mankiewicz starts to uncork the really nuts camera tricks in showcasing the psychological torments of Catherine, Taylor’s character. But I knew all along that whatever I picked, it was going to be from that heaving, overbaked metaphor of menacing, primeval plants. And though I thought about going with something a touch subtler-
-there came a point where I though, “fuck it, Suddenly, Last Summer is in no way, shape, or form a subtle movie”. Heck, it even manages to be more or less explicit about homosexuality, something that movies in 1959 were not allowed to be explicit about.
So with that in mind, I ended up picking something a little more humid.
It spoils nothing that isn’t obvious after the first words that come out her mouth that Hepburn’s Mrs. Violet Venable is a controlling psycho whose dictatorial impulses come out in the most threatening ways, and this is one of the shots – sequences of shots, really, but I had to pick just one – where that first comes oppressively clear. Taking Clift’s Dr. John Cukrowicz through her atrium of hell, Mrs. Venable stops to feed her pitcher plant with a fly. The mere fact that she has a little devouring beast that she keeps locked in a glass cage is already just about the most foreshadowy foreshadowing possible, which is why I homed in on this exact story beat. But the shot itself is a little more complex than letting us know that she likes to take care of carnivores, literal and symbolic.
What really impresses me here is the blocking: Hepburn is crouched, well below the camera, in a submissive position, but she is entirely, effortlessly in control of this image. Every line ends at her, and of course the way that Clift is crouched down towards her is telling: she doesn’t need to project herself to him, since she knows that he’ll defer to her. Just look at the expression on her face and the position of her hands: nonchalant, chatty, a touch bored; she controls the situation so thoroughly that she doesn’t even care about controlling it. It’s just how things are meant to be. And with that symbolic representation of her dead son sitting right beside her, the story the image tells is complete: Dr. Cukrowicz has just entered a sphere of influence where Mrs. Venable and dead Sebastian hold sway over all, and the remainder of the film plays out, in some degree, as his attempt to combat that influence over the frail Catherine. No, subtle it ain’t, but it’s effective as hell.