The End of the Innocence

Suddenly, Last Summer
Oak Street Cinema, Tuesday at 7:20 and 9:35 p.m.; and Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Friday and Saturday, September 11 and 12, at 2 p.m.

Sex kills!: Michael Dante and Constance Towers in Sam Fuller's The Naked Kiss
Sex kills!: Michael Dante and Constance Towers in Sam Fuller's The Naked Kiss

The Naked Kiss
Oak Street Cinema, Monday at 7:30 and 9:20 p.m.

Sex with debutantes, abortion, madness, suicide, prostitution, rape, incest, cannibalism--not quite the movie fare we'd expect from the allegedly family-friendly '50s. So, when writer Tennessee Williams and writer-director Samuel Fuller disgorged these things on screen at the dawn of the 1960s, were they anticipating the sinful debauchery of the sexual revolution as conservatives might have it? Hardly. The forces behind Williams's Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) and Fuller's The Naked Kiss (1964) were both more mundane and more interesting than that.

Bottom-line, Williams and Fuller simply met the industry's new demand for "adult" films designed to boost low movie attendance by enticing viewers out of their rec rooms and away from their televisions. But in the process, these provocateurs blew the lid off the sexual pressure-cooker that was the '50s, especially with respect to women.

Suddenly, Last Summer revolves around a hideous "secret." What drove Catherine Holly (Elizabeth Taylor) mad, and why is her rich aunt (Katharine Hepburn) determined to lobotomize her? When a young neurosurgeon (Montgomery Clift) probes Catherine's repressed memories, he discovers "the whole slimy story" (as a predictably horrified Time reviewer put it): While traveling in the Mediterranean, the heroine's predatory cousin Sebastian used her to "procure" young boys for himself. In a grand melodramatic finale, the good doctor conquers Catherine's resistance, and she remembers that Sebastian's street-urchin sex partners took revenge by killing, dismembering, and eating him. "There's every possibility that the girl's story is true," a formerly unsympathetic doctor concludes.

Although Columbia Pictures tried to temper the gay themes of Williams's original play by tacking on a love affair between the sexy madwoman and her compassionate shrink (as well as a cheesecake ad campaign featuring a swimsuit-clad Taylor), Last Summer's forbidden "secret" wasn't exactly hidden. The Catholic Legion of Decency chose to believe that the film illustrated "the horrors of such a lifestyle" and thus approved its release, but only after forcing screenwriter Gore Vidal and director Joseph Mankiewicz to bury overt references to homosexuality. Censorious maneuvers aside, the question remains whether Williams envisioned Sebastian as a demon or a martyr of the closet, intending his play as a homophobic freak show or a critique of repression.

Audiences, though, be they titillated or appalled, knew what was up. "That guy in Suddenly, Last Summer, he was a queer, wasn't he?" a state trooper asked Gore Vidal upon stopping the proudly gay writer for speeding. John Wayne learned of its "perverse" content and publicly refused to see the film, calling it "too distasteful to be put on a screen designed to entertain a family--or any member of a decent family." Most reviewers expressed similar disgust, but even the ultramainstream McCall's grudgingly recommended the movie to those who could "stomach" it. As for Williams himself, he "loathed" the film for destroying the play's symbolic qualities in favor of a supposedly realistic approach. It "made me throw up," he said.

The hysterical reaction to Catherine's revelation effectively obscured the film's primary horror: that is, the plot to destroy her memory by lobotomy. Williams had devastatingly personal reasons for exploring such mutilation, since his own parents had successfully conspired with surgeons to lobotomize his sister Rose in 1937. (Not for nothing did he set the play in that year.) Oppressive forces warp Catherine's sexuality as surely as Sebastian's: There's the married man who steals "her honor" on the occasion of her society debut, the cousin who uses her, the elderly gardener who rapes her, the doctors who charge her with "erotomania," the nuns who won't believe her testimony, the mother who plans to profit from her operation, and the aunt who plans to castrate her brain.

Reviewers responded in kind when it came to Liz. One critic conceded that Catherine didn't require brain surgery, but suggested that Taylor herself might consider breast reduction; more recently, another suggested that, judging from Taylor's performance, "surgery had already taken place." Evidently, Williams's radical diagnosis of the nation's deeply sick sexual attitudes--including society's perversion of female desire-- didn't stick.

Shock virtuoso Samuel Fuller took a similar swipe at small-town sexual pathologies in his unforgettable B-movie The Naked Kiss. Here, too, everyone harbors secrets--from Kelly (Constance Towers), the beautiful hooker trying to make it straight nursing physically handicapped children, to her new fiance (Michael Dante), a philanthropic pillar of society whose shocking sexual tastes lead Kelly to exact revenge. At every turn, Fuller's feminist soap-opera undermines such stock Hollywood characters as the victimized hooker in need of rescue, the good cop, the feisty madam, and the handsome local benefactor (but not, unfortunately, the compassionate doctor).

Again, the story hinges on a woman's testimony and our willingness to trust her memory. While Taylor's performance in Last Summer left no room to conclude that the traumatized Catherine had confused fantasy with memory, Fuller stretches out the ambiguity of Kelly's story, suggesting the uncomfortable possibility that she has projected her own experience of sexual abuse onto a local child. Nevertheless, Kelly emerges as a feminist avenger who helps her sisters bear the brunt of small-town sexual hypocrisy while punishing those who profit from it. The tabloid-savvy Fuller, for one, wouldn't have been surprised to learn what Miss America of 1958 later revealed to People magazine: Her wealthy, respectable father sexually abused her beginning at age 5.

A far cry from Ozzie and Harriet, indeed. Tennessee Williams and Sam Fuller suggested that the roots of sexual perversity resided not in passion but oppression, not in certain acts but in our twisted responses to them.

 
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