Female on the Beach: “Suddenly, Last Summer”‘s Unsung Tough Girl, Catherine Holly
Tennessee Williams’s 1958 play Suddenly, Last Summer was one of his more overtly lurid creations—incestuous overtones, homosexual prostitutes, a forced lobotomy and cannibalism were some of the poison bon-bons in this genteel candy dish. Briefly, it’s the story of a young woman, Catherine Holly, who is made a candidate for a lobotomy by her wealthy and treacherous Aunt Violet Venable. Catherine was labeled mentally unstable because she claimed that the previous summer, she was witness to her cousin Sebastian’s horrific death on a trip to Spain. Sebastian’s mother, Violet, insists that the story is a lie and wants Catherine silenced through a forced lobotomy. Aunt Violet offers a considerable sum of money to a young specialist, Dr. Cukrowicz, as incentive for him to perform the procedure on Catherine. When he insists on hearing Catherine’s story, an inquest of sorts is performed at Violet’s home in her strange greenhouse full of exotic plants, and Catherine is allowed to tell her story in every gruesome detail. The truth, as it turns out, is far more gruesome and fucked-up than they imagine.
Gore Vidal‘s script for the 1959 film adaptation by Joseph L. Mankiewicz retained most of the outré elements of the play despite the censorship of the time and it was surprising how much they got away with in terms of overt references to the “something evil” that Catherine was used for in the previous summer. Just as notably, the film showcased one of Williams’s most underrated heroines, Catherine Holly. Not a grandiloquent doomed Southern belle like Blanche DuBois, or an overheated sexpot like Maggie Pollitt, Catherine’s most distinguishing traits are the dreadful secret she keeps and her incorruptible adherence to the facts of that story even in the face of radical brain surgery which could silence her forever. As a character, Catherine is another of Williams’s women whose delicacy or candor render them unfit or untenable for their families and who face harsh consequences for their transgressions. Like Laura in The Glass Menagerie, Catherine was an echo of Williams’s sister Rose, a delicate beauty whom he adored and who was diagnosed early in life with schizophrenia. She was subjected to a botched prefrontal lobotomy in 1943 and Williams was devastated by her subsequent disability and mental destitution.
It’s over thirty minutes into the ornate, overheated plot before Catherine shows up, and from the get-go we sense that there’s more to this girl than the troubled pathological lunatic her elegant-but-creepy Aunt Violet makes her out to be. And what a girl: for from a simple victim, Elizabeth Taylor’s Catherine is hard-bitten and resolute, smart enough to realize what a mess she’s in but too inherently moral to lie about the things she’s seen. She’s been through hell and back in heels but carries herself with an authority surprising for someone holding a very bad set of cards; somewhere in the haze of traumatic and excessive psychiatric treatment she still holds the truth, and that’s enough to imbue Catherine with a steeliness that’s apparent in the way she drags on her cigarette or delicately steps around the insane asylum in her hot black pumps. And the way she stubs the cigarette out on the nun’s hand leaves you wondering if she’s not THAT sorry about returning some of the misery back at the wimpil-headed prison guards who work this nuthouse.
Catherine won’t shut up about the awful events of last summer and Williams stacks the deck just enough that we soon doubt Violet’s claims of her niece’s derangement. His sympathy for his heroine is obvious; Catherine’s first exchange with Dr. Cukrowicz drips with self-deprecating sarcasm, so much so that Catherine is obviously not just playing with a full deck, she’s clear-eyed enough to see exactly how the hand she’s playing makes her look crazy.
As Catherine’s story begins to coalesce into something resembling a coherence account of “last summer”, Williams brings into sharp relief the contrasts between Catherine the “lunatic” and the redoubtable Mrs. Venable; Mrs. Venable hides the truth behind heavily ornamented language and poetic visions, while Catherine the quotidian truth-teller needs few words to tell it like it is. Mrs. Venable hides monstrous truths behind propriety and social graces, while Catherine’s fidelity to memory and truth cut through those obfuscations like a surgeon’s blade. This is exactly what makes Catherine dangerous in a society of hypocrites, and also what makes her a candidate for annihilation.
Catherine Holly wasn’t one of the easier female roles Williams wrote. For much of the story she has to keep the audience guessing as to the veracity of her memories, teetering on the edge of seeming either delusional or passionately guarding an unsavory truth. The last act of the play is pretty much her show, a detailed monologue during which she describes the events of the “Summer” everyone is so curious about. Taylor’s ripe beauty serves the story well; she manages to appear both world-weary and ravishingly unsullied, her polished cinematic glamor a welcome counterpoint to the repugnant events of the story. Although Williams thought her miscast, Taylor took Catherine Holly and owned the character from her first moment on-screen. Visually, her Catherine’s prepossessing beauty and youth provide a perfect foil for the old-world decay of Violet Venable and her pervy son Sebastian; the horrific conclusion, a blood-soaked metaphor for Sebastian’s male animus run amuck, is intriguingly witnessed by a beautiful young woman, a figure at once distanced from Sebastian’s catastrophic sexual tumult and who also tries and fails to save the doomed Sebastian. Catherine the outsider is labeled insane and a liar, but by the end it’s apparent that she is the most objective observer of this house of horrors and that willingness to tell the truth is what gets her in very deep shit. Not for nothing was this device of a female witness to a sexual horror show used again in Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs (1991) or Martin Weisz’s Rohtenburg (2006), a re-imagining of the gruesome Armin Meiwes “German cannibal” case; in that film the gruesome murder and cannibalism of a gay man was told through the eyes of a young woman not connected to the gay (or cannibal) scene. This displacement of perspective creates for the audience both a symbolic paragon of innocence with whom they can empathize and some degree of narrative distance to digest the lurid goings-on in the narrative.
What truly sells this gory fairy tale is Catherine’s account of that hot day in a Spanish town, a tale so outlandish and barbarous in its outcome that in the wrong hands it would become risible. Taylor flies solo for much of this film’s third act, and it’s apparent how underrated she is as an actress. Emotional but never hysterical, Taylor’s slow-burn build to the story’s climax displays enormous control as she unburdens the truth of last summer from her character’s psyche. She makes us feel both the tragedy and catharsis of this moment, as well as finally giving her wretched Aunt Violet a good smackdown with the truth about her tormented dead son. Even before this moment, though, she’s already firmly established herself as “Suddenly, Last Summer”‘s hero; unable to drag her ill-fated cousin out of the darkness, she’s left with the awful truth, and she’s not afraid to tell it.
***** ***** *****
Inspired by a fab-sounding Spanish Meat Pie recipe, our decadent trip to the Spanish coast is slightly modified by a veggie variation as a tribute to the carnivorous goings-on at the Cabeza de Lobo…
1 lb. veggie ground round
1 tablespoon vegetable shortening or olive oil
1 cup chopped onion
1 cup fresh, barely ripe tomato, skinned and chopped
1/2 cup red or green bell pepper, peeled (see note)
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1/4 cup green olives, sliced
1/4 teaspoon red hot sauce
1/4 cup flour
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
6 frozen pie shells, thawed but unbaked or 6 single-crust pie dough rounds
2 tablespoons water
Saute veggie ground round with oil until it’s brown and sticks to pan. Add onion, tomato, peppers, olives and garlic. Cook 3 minutes, then add red hot sauce, ground black pepper and flour. Cut out 5-inch round circles from pie crust dough.
Fill center of dough with meat mixture. Fold over and press edges down with fork, brush with beaten egg mixed with water. Bake at 425 degrees for 13 minutes or until brown.