Performance of the week: Katharine Hepburn in Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)


Katharine Hepburn received her 8th Oscar nomination for playing Mrs Violet Venable in Suddenly, Last Summer. Her co-star Elizabeth Taylor was also nominated for her performance here, and they both lost to Simone Signoret for Room At The Top. 1959 was a fantastic year for best actress, imo. Ok, I haven’t watched Doris Day but the other 4 gave great performances. If I could I’d have given a tie between Signoret, who is fantastic and haunting, and Audrey Hepburn, who is sensational and soooo under appreciated for The Nun’s Story. It’s really too bad that her more iconic performances like Breakfast at Tiffany’s (which I didn’t go crazy over like most people do) actually overshadowed her work here as Sister Luke. I really feel that it is this performance that displayed Audrey Hepburn’s acting talents. Anyway, I will discuss that performance in the future since this post is going to focus on the other Hepburn’s work.

Tennessee Williams was a superb playwright, and it really shows in a lot of film adaptations of his plays. Yes, I get that his stories can be deemed as stagey (they were born on stage) and over the top, with his characters spouting lines like “I feel like a cat on a hot tin roof!” or “I don’t want realism, I want magic!” However, the electrifying and sizzling atmosphere of his stories, as well as his fascinating characters, make the movies extremely entertaining and fascinating to watch. I feel like he kinda outdid himself with Suddenly, Last Summer since this story is really outrageous and extremely over the top, especially with a particular sequence involving the death of a character that requires you to stretch your imagination by quite a bit. However, I still loved the film even though this is my second time watching it and I can just watch it over and over again. It’s a crazy plot, but then again, it is a twisted film about closeted homosexuality, incestuous relationships, mental illness, cannibalism, the cruelty of the Venables and how they “devour” and make use of people. It’s such a bizarre tale that the weirdness of it just fits perfectly.

Katharine Hepburn is a fantastic actress, really one of my favourites. I loved her as Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion of Winter and she was fun in The Philadelphia Story. I guess her 4 time Oscar winning status can mislead people into thinking that she’s the greatest ever, which is why a lot of people says that she is overrated. To me, however, there’s no greatest actress ever to begin with so I didn’t really mind the fact that she has the most Oscars (haven’t watched Morning Glory and Guess Who’s Coming Home To Dinner?). Yes, Hepburn uses a lot of the same mannerisms in her film but crazily enough, it works, or at least most of the time. The head tilt, the crossing of the arms, the arrogant and sarcastic way of speaking just makes her characters more fascinating. I guess some people can argue and say that they always see Katharine Hepburn and not the character, but it doesn’t matter to me because I can always see how she is in firm control of her characters and how she fits her style to the role, which is more important. And I’m going to say this over and over again: to me, it’s more than the mannerisms and accents, but how alive the character is through the actor. Not many actors do a Daniel Day-Lewis and Meryl Streep but still give outstanding performances despite their strong personalities, such as the absolutely divine Bette Davis. Ok, I’m sounding like an over-defensive fan so I’ll just stop here lol.

This performance is widely regarded as Hepburn’s worst and I don’t understand why, because this is the performance that really made me love her as an actress. When I first watched this movie, I was watching it primarily for Elizabeth Taylor because I was going through this Elizabeth Taylor mania and just watching everything she’s in (and loving all of her performances well). However, even though Taylor’s performance really impressed me then (and still does), it was Hepburn’s performance that really stuck with me. The famous “sea turtles” monologue was so chilling and frighteningly delivered that whenever I think of Katharine Hepburn, I instantly think of this monologue. I guess the reason why people dislike this performance is because of how weird Violet Venable is, and that’s why she seems so “all over the place”. In a way, her character is like a polar opposite of Taylor’s Catharine. Catharine may be losing her mind and hysterical, but she is the one who has the clearest idea of what is happening. On the other hand, Violet thinks she is in control, but is in fact cuckoo.

What I loved is how Hepburn makes Violet such a grand character, like a queen. Her character is introduced by this elevator that descends from the top, and while it sounds silly, Hepburn makes it look so…majestic. She controls the first part of the film entirely, delivering her lines with this acidity and confidence, so much so that she even managed to manipulate me into thinking that what she said is the truth. There’s also that trademark arrogance of hers that fits this character so well. I mean, when she called her relatives a “family of Neanderthals”, it’s so deliciously mean and hilarious at the same time, never failing to crack me up.

However, while she displays this confidence and control, Hepburn also hints that something is a bit off about the character, something that the doctor (Montgomery Clift) notices. She tends to ramble on about something, and when questioned about it she suddenly acts all surprised. She also has this weird obsession with her son and his garden (and his carnivorous pitcher plant), and this strange sense of superiority and control over all other beings. Although this may seem bizarre to others, she doesn’t realise it and finds it perfectly normal, even thinking that her wealth is a form of power over others. Hepburn brilliantly illustrates how Violet is so comfortably lost in her own mind, making her performance so magnetic and bizarre simultaneously.

Hepburn’s performance takes a backseat when Elizabeth Taylor’s character is introduced. Yes, I can see why some say that her performance is affected (some even think she should be campaigned in supporting) because from this point onwards, Taylor takes over with a very LOUD and over the top performance as the hysterical and screaming Catharine. However, I still firmly believe that Hepburn makes the most out of her remaining scenes. As Violet and her son’s secrets slowly get exposed, we see how the initial confidence she displayed is slowly peeling away, revealing the insecurities of this woman. Her face when Catharine reveals their relationship with Sebastian (Violet’s son) actually made me feel sorry for her. You can really see how desperate and horrified Violet was. And then there is the final scene where the truth is revealed; Violet exits the same way she entered, except that you see how delusional and lost the woman really is, making it so haunting and pathetic at the same time.

All in all, Katharine Hepburn is simply mesmerizing as Mrs Violet Venable. Yes, the middle portion of the film where she disappears for a while, as well as the weirdness of the character may make her performance hard to appreciate but I absolutely loved the dazzling quality and humour of her work here. 4.5/5.


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