not in our stars, but in ourselves
I don’t know what I was expecting from Suddenly, Last Summer (1959), but I was not expecting what I just saw. It had been on my must-see list for a long time, and I knew vaguely that it involved lobotomies and madness and the like, but I wasn’t quite prepared for this.
Beginning at the Lions View State Asylum in 1937, somewhere in New Orleans, we meet Dr. John Cukrowicz (Montgomery Clift). He’s a talented young doctor whose specialty is the brand-new surgical procedure: the lobotomy. The state hospital is woefully underfunded, and so Dr. Cukrowicz accepts an invitation from wealthy widow, Violet Venable (Katharine Hepburn).
He hopes that she will donate money to the hospital. She hopes that he will perform the radical surgery on her niece, Catherine Holly (Elizabeth Taylor). According to Violet, Catherine is dangerously insane, suffering from “dementia praecox.” Even in 1937, capable doctors (and our Dr. Cukrowicz is nothing if not capable) knew that dementia praecox is an essentially meaningless diagnosis. It may be a harbinger of genuine mental illness, or it may be the dreaded “female hysteria” – i.e., not a mental disorder at all, but a sign of some other, more physiological problem. Violet is undeterred, however. Catherine began babbling obscenely, as Violet put it, after the death of Catherine’s cousin and Violet’s beloved son, Sebastian. He died under mysterious circumstances the summer before, and Violet is determined to silence her niece. Cue lobotomy.
Naturally enough, the good doctor and the poor patient – uncommonly beautiful as they are – fall in love. It helps that he believes she’s not actually insane at all, but that she has suffered a great trauma and needs to try to remember it in order to confront and overcome it. And what a trauma. Sebastian, it seems, traveled each summer with his mother. She was lovely enough that she was able to attract the attention of many men, men whom Sebastian then propositioned. After a stroke, however, he decides she is no longer sufficiently beautiful for his purposes, so he enlists his knock-out cousin. Things go south, shall we say. Nothing happens to Catherine during that fateful summer, but she witnesses Sebastian’s horrific death. I am trying not to spoil things, but just imagine the worst thing that could happen after being pursued by a gang of young boys, and then multiply it by about a thousand. It is grotesque.
By 1959, the powers of the Production Code had lessened considerably. Nevertheless, Sebastian’s homosexuality could never be uttered explicitly; Catherine’s de-flowering the previous spring could never be called anything but “losing my…honor“; and the treatment of mental illness is uncharitable, as usual. Still, there is a LOT going on here. The creepy closeness between Violet and Sebastian pre-dates that between Norman and Mrs. Bates by only about nine months. It must have been a good season for emotional (if not physical) incest. The fact of Sebastian’s homosexuality, while never called by its name, is clear enough – and even though Sebastian is presented as a rather terrible person, it has less to do with his being gay and much more to do with his having been raised by Violet. And Catherine is actually a rather amazing character for a 1950s film. I always say this when I see an emancipated young woman in a movie released between 1934 and the late 1960s, but she’d be right at home in a Pre-Code film – literally, at her home. In this film, she’s institutionalized. Tells you something about the ’50s, no doubt.
The treatment of mental illness is rather bleak, of course. Despite Dr. Cukrowicz’s alleged brilliance as a doctor and surgeon, the patients in Lions View are stock loonies: rocking back and forth, building card houses while weeping, aggressively cradling dolls, and quick to riot. Sebastian’s “condition” is considered a great shame by Violet, but no one else seems to share her disgust. Catherine’s madness, if she is in fact mad, is universally considered a fate worse than death. From the time we first see her, it’s abundantly clear that she’s not mad – and thank heaven for that, because you just can’t have a genuinely crazy, sympathetic female character in a film. (That’s probably a rant for another time, but think about it: there aren’t all that many films that deal with mental illness in a sympathetic way. Of those, how many are about men, and how many about women? How many of the men have legitimized issues, and how many of the women are just “misunderstood” or whatever? I am speaking of sympathetic, leading characters – not antagonists. Crazy female antagonists are a dime a dozen, but for her to be the protagonist, she can’t be truly sick. Even that piece of pap, The Hours , managed to turn Virginia Woolf’s genuine and heartbreaking struggle into a couple of hours of bad moods and unpredictability.)
Where was I?
Oh, right: all in all, a fascinating and beautifully shot film. Poor Monty isn’t at his best, but both Taylor and Hepburn are. And just as a happy little coincidence, I close with this: Catherine’s final flashback to Sebastian’s death rages out of her as a torrent of emotion – or, as I scrawled in my notes while I watched, as an exorcism. As the closing credits floated past, I noticed that Catherine’s mother was played by Mercedes McCambridge – the very same actress who voiced Pazuzu, little Regan’s demon possessor in The Exorcist (1973). What a small world.