Sebastian’s Bearable Lightness Of Being

Katharine Hepburn in 1959’s Suddenly, Last Summer is spare and precise in a campy, over-the-top role.  All of the roles, as well as much of the dialogue, in this heavy-breathing Tennessee Williams Southern gothic are overwritten and overdetermined, but Hepburn redeems the script’s overheated Oedipal hash by ignoring its silliness.  As an actress Hepburn herself was mannered and affected, overplaying her parts with fluttering hands, eyelids, and vowels, as if stirred by a strong breeze; in her early-1930s James Barrie-based films (The Little Minister, Quality Street), she quivers like a palsied Swan Queen.  But in Suddenly she takes her role straight, plays it simple, digs deep into her character’s camp weirdness, and comes out like someone alive, believable, and human. No mean feat.

Hepburn is Mrs. Venable, the story’s dragon-queen mother, obsessively attached to her queer son Sebastian (as in Saint), prattling on about his non-evident artistic genius (his life was a work of art, she assures us), while oblivious to her boy’s sordid reality.  I think Hepburn was consciously using her artificial style here.  Note how she moves:  Taking co-star Montgomery Clift’s arm, she glides and dips beside him like a great, eccentric swan gazing in rapture at its watery reflection.  Hepburn is portraying a woman who lives by style, aware how it affects her audience (and for Mrs. Venable, everyone is an audience), even to how she speaks.  Her major speech, a recollection of predatory birds swooping down on baby sea turtles, is chillingly, exquisitely spoken by Hepburn (just listen to the lilt on the word “Encantadas”), the words polished and caressed like old, beloved heirlooms.  Hepburn’s artifice matches Williams’ profligate language, as well the mad, overdone décor in her scenes, the garden wilderness encircling her house, its life-as-a-jungle profusion mirroring the veiled savagery of the Venable clan.  We never wonder why this lady is here, we just know she fits in.

As many readers probably know, Suddenly’s plot concerns Mrs. Venable demanding that the psychiatrist Dr. Cukrowicz (Clift) perform a lobotomy on her hospitalized niece Catherine, who witnessed, and can’t stop “babbling” about, Sebastian’s before-the-story violent death, which happened “suddenly, last summer.”  After re-seeing the movie, I read its source, Williams’ one-act play of the same title; and I was surprised to discover that Hepburn’s famous entrance—her descent by elevator, like a “goddess from the machine,” as baroque as anything out of a 17th-century masque—was not in the play but added to the film.  As were such baroque lines as, “Sebastian, my son Sebastian, was very interested in the Byzantine.  Are you interested in the Byzantine, Doctor…?”  I’m assuming these bits were added by the film’s scenarist, Gore Vidal, and they seem brilliantly right for this character.  Even to how Hepburn’s flutey, floating voice is heard before she’s seen, is instantly, exactly right.  When you hear that voice, its tones light, quick, ice-sharp, like a scalpel slicing through candy, you immediately want to know who this woman is.

The play itself is sliced between two modes of being, that of Mrs. Venable’s stylized existence and of Catherine’s dreadful, concrete memories.  Williams begins his play with Mrs. Venable in her metaphoric domestic jungle and never leaves it.  Everything in the plot, between Mrs. Venable’s self-entranced recounting of her life with Sebastian (including voracious birds and helpless turtles), and Catherine’s closing recollection of her cousin’s last fling and ghastly demise, takes place, and stays within, that heavily symbolic Freudian undergrowth.  The play really is weakly constructed:  Basically it rests on those two speeches, those two portraits of Sebastian, as either celibate saint or decadent sinner; which then converge towards that final revelation, of how he died last summer.  Catherine’s ending monologue is meant to fulfill the implied, promised shock of the “suddenly” in the title, but it’s a thin thread on which to hang a static drama.  The play isn’t so much a study of the odd characters we view onstage as a probe into the one we never do—who becomes literally a vanishing point in his own story.

Despite these structural and dramatic flaws, at least Williams’ play stays on course, its story shooting arrow-straight into the heart of darkness that is, or was, Sebastian Venable.  Its drama concerns not everyday reality but a representational one (Williams’ stage directions indicate the set should be as “unrealistic as…a dramatic ballet”).  Considering that the speeches stir up a perverse brew of, among other things, incest, pedophilia, cannibalism, and sexual predation, you’d think there be enough drama to endow, as in the ancient Greek theater, a whole cycle of plays, with sufficiently compelling incidents to rouse audiences into spasms of pity and terror.  But, being that Williams concentrates all this turbulence into one character, it’s just as well he kept the piece short and symbolic (which Williams later insisted it was).  As an invisible, yet potent metaphor of Rot and Decline—whether sexual, social, moral, political, spiritual—Sebastian can hover over the play, and our minds, like one of his devouring sea birds, ready to sweep down and carry us off to unnervingly imagined realms of depravity better left unexpressed.

The movie, however, plumps heavily for ‘movie’ reality.  It focuses more on Catherine’s threatened lobotomization, while also building up, tacking on, and spelling out what was only suggested or glanced at in the play.  So we get new scenes in the grim hospital where Catherine is kept, even opening with Cukrowicz performing a lobotomy.  No doubt, the play’s brevity was an issue, and the filmmakers wanted to expand it to feature-length status.  Yet scenes of Albert Dekker as the hospital supervisor (an added character) fussing about the budget, or Elizabeth Taylor as Catherine twice visiting the psych wards (each time whipping up patients into protracted frenzies), seem dropped in just to stretch the running time.  The movie hints portentously at A Truth That Can’t Be Told while dragging towards the climax; it’s a horror movie that won’t get to the monster.  Most of this added stuff isn’t essential to the real interest, and the film gives it a weight not intended, nor even necessary.  In the end we still wait to hear what happened to Sebastian last summer, drumming our fingers as we do so.

The film thus hangs on a memorable entrance and a socko finish, while in between we wait, and wait, to find out about last summer (its suddenness only in the title).  Nothing in the film quite equals Mrs. Venable’s elevator descent, nor are we likely to remember anything up to Catherine’s hysterical, culminating confession of what she saw last summer—a straight-on dive into those unspeakable babblings, finally given utterance and form.  Taylor is excellent in this scene, calibrating her emotions up to her final, agonized scream, when the horror of what she saw is recalled, and laid out onscreen before her mental, and our actual, eye.  Unlike Hepburn’s artifice, Taylor grounds her character in contained, pulled-in gestures, even to how she folds her arms or grasps a cigarette.  Much of what she conveys is through her eyes, as she gives herself to the extreme close-ups the director Joseph Mankiewicz lavished on her.  Like Crawford or Garbo, Taylor was an actress willing to surrender to the camera, thus allowing us to view, and judge, Catherine for ourselves—a woman mercurial, inquisitive, manipulative, frightened, defiant, and very sane.

Yet, fittingly, I think, the film’s final impression is with Hepburn.  Unlike the play, which ends with Mrs. Venable lashing out at her niece (“cut this hideous story out of her brain!”), the movie’s matriarch instead goes quietly, beautifully mad.  Closing the book of Sebastian’s last, unwritten poem, Mrs. Venable reimagines, and revives, the dead Sebastian in Cukrowicz’s visible being, and then re-ascends the (both actual and metaphorical) elevator, to those remembered realms of beauty and poetry she inhabited exclusively with her son—now, presumably, shorn of those memories of ravenous fowl, whether avian or human.  Hepburn plays this scene with extraordinary physical, and emotional, grace, wafting through space as if gravity itself has lost claim to Mrs. Venable’s body.  How apt that our last view of the lady should be her rising upwards.

I think the film’s ending is an improvement on the play’s.  It takes us full circle, back to the never-seen main character, with his mother assumed, as it were, into his absent, inexpressible being.  Vidal’s denouement gets at something in Williams’ play that Williams himself didn’t reach; that Sebastian, beyond what other symbols we may attach to him, ultimately stands for the action of Memory itself—its violence of affect, its repressed currents of trauma and longing, its grip on identity and desire.  (I can only admire Vidal’s writerly instincts in seizing on this detail and making it concrete).  In a sense, Mrs. Venable’s rise away from us is the final expunging of Sebastian Venable:  First expelled from Catherine’s memory by her wrenching, concluding monologue, he’s now wicked out of all recollection by Mrs. Venable’s ascent (literally) out of the film.  Sebastian may have died suddenly, last summer, but it’s only at film’s end that he’s finally laid to rest.

BONUS CLIP:  Here’s Katharine Hepburn’s fabulous entrance—“…like an angel coming to earth, as I float, float into view…”—as Mrs. Venable in Suddenly, Last Summer, accompanied by Montgomery Clift as Dr. Cukrowicz (a lovely performance).  The opening seamlessly combines Tennessee Williams’ dialogue from the play and Gore Vidal’s additions:  “All poets, whatever age they may seem to others, die young.”

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