16 February 2008 | robb_772
Unsung, surreal masterpiece
Long-fabled as one of the most bizarre films to come out Hollywood during the years of the Production Code's strict enforcement, SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER is a riveting psychological drama that remains absolutely gut-wrenching even after nearly fifty years since it's original release. Screenwriter Gore Vidal takes Tennessee Williams' one-act play and runs with it, fleshing out the central characters and expanding the story's central arc. Vidal had the seemingly impossibly task of taking a tale involving homosexuality, incest, pedophilia, and even cannibalism and presenting it all in a manner that would be acceptable to the rigid Production Code, yet still coherent to the average film audience. Not only did Vidal succeed victoriously, but the slightly ambiguous nature of the film's climax and denouncement actually makes the twice as unsettling and disturbing.
With relatively few characters to populate the story the performances are absolutely crucial, and the tight-knit cast delivers the goods in spades. Long after many of her acting contemporaries of the thirties and forties had been forgotten, Katharine Hepburn continued to reign supreme on the silver screen and her sublime performance as the manipulative and cunning Mrs. Venable ranks among Hepburn's best work of the decade. The wounded vulnerability of a post-car accident Montgomery Clift serves him well in a difficult role as the middle man between the film's leading ladies, and the still-handsome actor provides a humane, completely genuine performance that supplies viewers with level-headed window into the off-kilter story. Albert Dekker, Mercedes McCambridge and Gary Raymond also excel in minor roles.
The film's biggest surprise, however, is the exceptional portrayal of Elizabeth Taylor in the film's central performance. Although usually somewhat of an uneven actress, Taylor completely nails a dauntingly difficult role in a complex, multilayered performance that deservedly won her a Golden Globe Award as well as her third consecutive Oscar nomination. During the film's climatic revelation, Taylor lets out a series of bone-chilling screams that I could never imagine coming out of any other actress. Not only does it remain Taylor's finest performance (which is a considerable achievement when one considers that WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF is also on her resume), but it is also a performance that simply could not be bettered.
Although perhaps he could never surpass 1949's A LETTER TO THREE WIVES or 1950's ALL ABOUT EVE in the eyes of most viewers, SUMMER contains some of the finest work of director Joseph L. Mankiewicz' legendary career. Brilliantly combining southern Gothicism with straight-faced psychodrama and even grandiose horror, Mankiewicz stitches the various seemingly disparate threads together in a harrowing, yet perversely satisfying whole. Even the lengthy, sometimes criticized flashback sequence is an absolute tour de force of film-making that leaves viewers emotionally exhausted as one experiences the on screen turmoil more than simply watching it. An often unheralded classic, the film remains of the most sorely underrated films of its era.