My current Top 5

My current Top 5

1/31/2010

Best Actress 1959: Katharine Hepburn in "Suddenly, Last Summer"

It’s always hard to judge a performance from your favorite actress because it’s very easy to let personal preference cloud your judgment. But I think that so far I have been very fair when it comes to judging performances by Kate so I trust that I am also fair in this case.

Suddenly, Last Summer is a grim, gothic tale of homosexuality, cannibalism and mental disease. If the viewer wants camp, then Suddenly, Last Summer is the ultimate revelation. But it’s all done in such a serious way with so much talent involved that the outcome is still a fascinating, gripping tale, as ridiculous at the plot may seem.

Both Katharine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor are the natural stand-outs in the movie since they have the showy, flashy and wonderfully-written parts that only Tennessee Williams could write for women. And both women also perfectly understood the material they worked with and how to interpret their parts.

Katharine Hepburn plays Mrs. Violet Venable, a woman who mourns the loss of her son who died last summer on vacation in Greece. The only witness to his death was his cousin Catherine who has apparently gone mad since then and spends her days in an asylum. Mrs. Venable is very eager to have Montgomery Clift’s Dr. Cukrowicz perform a lobotomy on Catherine to stop her madness – but it is clear right from the start that Catherine seems to know something about Sebastian, Mrs. Venable’s beloved son, and his death that Mrs. Venable wants to be kept secret and a lobotomy seems to be the only way to guarantee it. But since Mrs. Venable is the richest woman in town and waves a new hospital in front of Dr. Cukrowicz’s face it seems to be only a matter of time before she gets her wish.

Katharine Hepburn obviously knows that the whole movie is camp and that her part is a borderline caricature. Catherine may be the one who is officially crazy but Katharine Hepburn leaves little doubt that Mrs. Venable is actually the one close to a mental breakdown. But she chose to avoid any grand gestures or crazy facial work and instead decided to play the part as straight-forward and subtle as possible without ever making it too subtle – the craziness is always there but in a very controlled and hidden way which makes the whole performance incredibly mesmerizing.

Overall, this is one of Katharine Hepburn’s most fascinating performances. Her entrance is among the great movie entrances ever. The first thing we hear is her voice while she is slowly coming down in an elevator. Her voice has an echo which makes it even more haunting and the way her secretary says “She’s on her way down” seems to announce the arrival of a queen. And considering the power and wealth of Mrs. Venable, the description “Queen” might even fit. The first word we hear her say is the name of her son, Sebastian. She will say that name a lot more times. It becomes clear very quickly that her whole life was build around him – she tells Dr. Cukrowicz with pride that she and her son were rather known as a couple than mother and son, people referred to them as “Viola and Sebastian” when they were on their yearly trips. Mrs. Venable seems to have worshipped the ground her son walked on, maybe she was even in love with him...

Everything that is so typical about Katharine Hepburn, her way of talking, her mannerism, her slight arrogance fits together perfectly in this performance. She makes Mrs. Venable a crazy mess without ever letting her appear like that – she carefully avoids all clichés and shows that Mrs. Venable is a woman who knows her power and her position and is used to get what she wants. Mrs. Venable may slowly go crazy but she still knows what she is doing. Katharine Hepburn wonderfully shows that in the mind of Mrs. Venable everything she does makes sense and has an irrevocably logic. She dominates the screen with self-security and self-assurance but there is always a desperation and loneliness behind her façade that gets her closer and closer to the edge of insanity.

Mrs. Venable lives in the past and the memory of her dead son is all that seems to keep herself alive. Her first appearance in the movie is basically a 30-minutes long monologue where she constantly talks about her son, his life, his work, his views and his experiences. And from time to time she lets her niece and her hope for an operation drop in. Katharine Hepburn does all this in a grandly nonchalant way but when she talks about a trip to the Galapagos islands she did with her son and she describes the cruelty of nature, then her acting becomes incredibly intense and holds the viewer on the edge of the seat.

Only when the talk comes to the death of her son, Mrs. Venable lets her masque drop. Katharine Hepburn shows that there is obviously something wrong with his death, something that she is trying to hide. But this secrets is so upsetting to her that it seems impossible for her to hide its existence. But maybe Mrs. Venable can’t hide the existence of the secret but she can hide its meaning and since Mrs. Venable is used to always get her will there doesn’t seem to be a problem.

Kate is not the central character in Suddenly, Last Summer and  she is gone for a long part in the middle and never gets as much focus again as in her first big scene but Mrs. Venable’s presence is so strong and her influence over the whole story so dominating that the power of her character can’t be denied.

At the end; Katharine Hepburn is even able to top her entrance with one of the most exhilarating exits in movie history. That whole scene could have so easily been overdone but again, Kate chose to simply play it totally straightforward without any doubt or signs of craziness and that way makes Mrs. Venable’s descent into madness even more tragic and frightening.

Despite all the evilness of the character, Katharine also shows enough pathetic and tragic parts in Mrs. Venable that she becomes an altogether pitiful character.

This is easily one of Kate’s greatest achievements and for this she gets

10 comments:

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

Lovely writeup. This film is good because it perfectly captures the play which is a sensation. I'm looking forward to your writeup on Elizabeth.

joe burns said...

Wow, I didn't expect five stars! I haven't seen this yet though. I think she'll be your pick.

Sage Slowdive said...

Wow...it wasn't expecting that either...well, at least you can surprise me :]

Fritz said...

@Andrew: Thanks! Yes, the film is good which is weird because it really shouldn't be. But it totally works!

@Joe: lol, to be honest, I didn't expect five stars either but when I re-watched her I was really blown away. But I know that a lot of people don't care for her performance...

Fritz said...

@Sage: well, surprises keep everything fresh! :-)

Sage Slowdive said...

Do you get the argument of her being supporting? I think it's an ensemble piece and the 3 of them are co-leads.

Fritz said...

I also think that she is a co-lead but one could argue that she is the "least lead" character compared to Montgomery and Elizabeth and so some people would probably put her in supporting.

In the end, I think it's a borderline case but the leading category is right. I mean, if Kate is supporting what would that make the wonderful Mercedes McCambridge?

Sage Slowdive said...

I hate it when people "push" people into supporting simply because of their screentime. Diane Keaton didn't have alot of time in Annie Hall, yet she is the lead actress of that film.

I also hate it when people argue over screen time of a supporting performance. Shelley Winters has a good hour almost in Diary Of Anne Frank, yet that's clearly supporting. It's just weird how all of these category fraud arguments come up.

Sage Slowdive said...

Let me add, that I think 100% Mercedes is supporting :]

normalityandbanality said...

I'm very late, but I just want to say that I absolutely agree with you on Katharine Hepburn's stunning work here. I don't get why people say that this is her worst.