Some movies drip with stars, to the extent that you start to wonder if most of the conflict in the film was about who would get higher billing. Not this one – as well as star power, we have a story of homosexuality and cannibalism, and it’s not totally clear which was more shocking to the audiences of 1959.
As for the stars – we have Elizabeth Taylor, Katherine Hepburn and Montgomery Clift, in a film directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz (All About Eve, Guys and Dolls, Cleopatra, etc), and loosely adapted from a play by Tennessee Williams. Gore Vidal wrote the screenplay. A veritable galaxy of stars.
The film is about a young woman who has descended into mental illness due to a traumatic experience with cannibalism, the details of which the audience are not shown until the very end. Catherine Holly (Elizabeth Taylor) is being evaluated by a psychiatrist, Dr. John Cukrowicz (Montgomery Clift), at the insistence of her wealthy New Orleans aunt Violet Venable (Katherine Hepburn). Violet suspects there is more to her son Sebastian’s death than she wishes to become public, and offers to finance a new wing for the hospital if they will pressure Dr Cukrowicz to give Catherine a lobotomy (which is what had happened to Tennessee Williams’ sister). Violet hopes thereby to remove the memory of what happened to Sebastian (who is only seen in flashbacks and never front on), while Catherine was travelling with him in Spain “last summer”.
Sebastian has rejected his smothering mother, with whom he has had an almost Oedipal relationship, and instead has been using his cousin Catherine, as he used his mother on earlier trips, to attract young boys, whom he then procures for sex. Sebastian’s appetite changes though – just as he discarded his mother when she got older, now he no longer wants these Spanish boys: he says he is “fed up with the dark ones” and is “famished for blondes”, intending to head to Northern Europe.
Catherine in the final scene is given a truth serum by her psychiatrist and finally recalls Sebastian’s death. She remembers that the boys followed Sebastian, calling for bread (pan), and when he refused and ran, they chased him, tore him to pieces and ate his flesh.
“…there were those children along the beach which was fenced off with wire. Our table was less than a yard away from the wire fence. And those… children… there was a band of them, they looked like a flock of plucked birds and they came darting up to the wire fence as if they’d been blown there by the wind by the hot white wind from the sea. And they were all calling out… Pan Pan Pan.”
Psychiatry and cinema evolved together and are closely tied, particularly in cannibal films (consider Hannibal Lecter), where madness is sometimes used as a convenient explanation to avoid deeper social analyses. This film brings together complex themes that often were avoided in the 1950s. In the conflict between the rich tourists and the starving children of the seaside village we witness savagery as a response to a colonialist mentality of exploitation, objectification in Sebastian’s use of the boys and of his relatives as sexual objects to bait the boys, voracious appetite and the breakdown of normative morality. Sebastian’s sexual appetite is mirrored in the hunger of the boys he has abused, enjoyed and abandoned.
“…cousin Sebastian was, he was lying naked on the broken stone… and this you won’t believe…nobody, nobody could believe it… it looked as if they had devoured him…as if they had torn or cut parts of him away with their hands or with knives or with jagged tin cans they made music with. As if they had torn bits of him away and stuffed them in their gobbling mouths.”
Tenessee Williams hated the adaptation of his play. To him, the cannibalism should have been metaphorical, not graphically represented (although it was certainly polite by today’s standards). He wrote:
“I walked out. Sam Spiegel, the producer, gave a private showing of it at a big party, and I just got up and walked out. When you began to see Mrs Venable, and it became so realistic, with the boys chasing up the hill – I thought it was a travesty.”
The New Yorker called the film “a preposterous and monotonous potpourri of incest, homosexuality, psychiatry, and, so help me, cannibalism.”
It’s not totally clear how a film about incest and homosexuality got round the Hollywood “Production Code”, which had strict rules against such immoralities. Critics have opined that Sebastian’s grisly death gave the film a free pass, because, the review board said, it “illustrates the horrors of such a lifestyle” and “can be considered moral in theme even though it deals with sexual perversion.” Weirdly, the cannibalism seems to have cancelled out the homosexuality.
Anyway, it was a hit at the box office due to its big stars and scandalous content, earning $6.4 million on release, a tidy sum in those days. Both Katharine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor received nominations for the Academy Award for Best Actress.
The film pressed all the buttons of 1959 America: homosexuality, incest and cannibalism. But what happens to the cannibals? The film leaves them on the top of the hill, their mouths stuffed with pieces of Sebastian. Like the angel of death in Violet’s parlour, they have passed judgement on Sebastian’s proclivities and handed him a sentence equally unpardonable (in those days) – to be eaten alive. Presumably they remain there, ignored and hungry until another rich man seeks to sate his appetite by arousing theirs. There is no judgement offered – these cannibals are simply forces of nature, a “flock of plucked birds”. Savages inhabiting our own travel itineraries.
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