Southern Gothic’s Gut Punch

BAM dives into the mad and macabre below the Mason-Dixon line


The recent release of Sofia Coppola’s subdued rethink of The Beguiled occasions BAMcinématek’s peerlessly deranging “Southern Gothic” series, sixteen films saturated with grotesqueries and perversions, repression and delusion, the unutterable and too much overcompensatory talk. Watching these movies, released between 1941 and 1997, comes with somatic risk: While revisiting or viewing for the first time a handful of the titles in this rank, ripe retro, I often found myself clutching my stomach, unable to metabolize so much onscreen pathology. These films, filled with the monstrous and the still unreconciled past, hit me in the gut.

Unsurprisingly, one-fourth of “Southern Gothic” consists of adaptations of plays by Tennessee Williams, the Mississippi-reared colossus of mid-century American theater who once said, “I suppose I have found it easier to identify with the characters who verge upon hysteria, who were frightened of life, who were desperate to reach out to another person.” Elizabeth Taylor, one of the most emblematic of Williams’s screen hysterics, elevates the playwright’s emotional maximalism to florid heights in Richard Brooks’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) and Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Suddenly, Last Summer (1959).

As I wrote for another publication a few years ago, these movies hinge on Taylor’s knowledge of a secret — homosexuality — so unspeakable that torrents of evasive, euphemistic, and equivocal words inevitably spill forth. “It’s got to be told and you never let me tell it!” Maggie “the Cat” Pollitt wails in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to her constantly soused husband, Brick (Paul Newman), a one-time football hero who hasn’t touched his concupiscent wife in months. The unmarked antecedent of it in Maggie’s aggrieved claim is eventually revealed to be the wretched set of circumstances surrounding the suicide of Brick’s gridiron teammate Skipper: her jealousy of the closeness the two men shared; her attempt, abandoned at the last minute, to seduce her husband’s buddy; Skipper’s desperate phone calls to an indifferent Brick after Maggie’s machinations. Movie Maggie gets to “tell it,” but only part of it; the Motion Picture Production Code demanded the excision of the original play’s more explicit references to the true nature of Brick and Skipper’s relationship. Though Taylor’s speech in this Mississippi Delta–set production also demonstrates conspicuous elision, the letter g all but eliminated from the alphabet —“You were such an excitin’ lover” — the actress flourishes when delivering her character’s self-evident proclamations: “Maggie the Cat is alive!”

The ultimately talking-cured Catherine Holly in the garish Southern gay-gothic Suddenly, Last Summer also has a penchant for referring to herself in the third person: “She’s here, Doctor. Miss Catherine is here,” she says to John Cukrowicz (Montgomery Clift), a psychosurgeon. Dr. Cukrowicz has been summoned by the moneyed Violet Venable (Katharine Hepburn) to lobotomize Catherine, her niece. The imperious older woman insists on the procedure so her relative will cease “her dreadful, obscene babbling” about Sebastian, Violet’s beloved son, who died under mysterious circumstances while on holiday with Catherine in the (fictional) Spanish resort town Cabeza de Lobo. This time, Taylor’s character gets to tell all of it. After Catherine receives a shot of truth serum, sordid descriptions pour out of her mouth as she recounts the sick-making details of Sebastian’s death: Her queer cousin was cannibalized by the young Iberian trade he had solicited. (Unlike that of Cat, this traumatic recapitulation was given a special dispensation by the Production Code, which, according to Vito Russo in The Celluloid Closet, concluded: “Since the film illustrates the horrors of such a lifestyle, it can be considered moral in theme even though it deals with sexual perversion.”)

As Catherine nears the climax of this gruesome memory, Taylor lets out a piercing cry of Heeelllllppppp! The actress is the signature shrieker of the BAM series, screaming for what seems like hours during the camera-frenzied conclusion of John Huston’s Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967), his deviancy-dense adaptation of Carson McCullers’s 1941 novel. (Twelve years later, Huston would transfer another Georgia writer’s book to the screen, Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, also in the BAM retro.) In Huston’s film, Taylor is once again hitched to a closet case: Her Leonora — a two-timing, semiliterate (“How dew yew spell cordially?”) hippophile — lives in mutual disgust with her military husband (Marlon Brando), a major driven mad by his desire for a voyeuristic soldier under his command (Robert Forster, in his movie debut). They are only three of the maladjusted characters in Reflections, in which even walk-ons appear on the verge of a psychotic break.

Life for the neurotic grown-ups in “Southern Gothic” is frequently unendurable; the kids fare even worse. “It’s a hard world for little things,” says Lillian Gish’s gun-toting protector of unwanted waifs in Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (1955), an observation queasily borne out in Luis Buñuel’s The Young One (1960), one of the Spanish maestro’s few films made in English. Barely adolescent, spindly-limbed orphan Evalyn (Key Meersman) is sexually preyed upon by her de facto guardian, Miller (Zachary Scott), the game warden on a vastly underpopulated meridional island. Buñuel unflinchingly depicts this peckerwood’s pathology; just as brutally, he underscores an even more widespread, intractable sickness — racism — when a black musician (Bernie Hamilton) seeks refuge on the secluded land.

While ten-year-old Eve (Jurnee Smollett), the central character in Kasi Lemon’s Louisiana-set, civil rights–era Eve’s Bayou (1997), may not suffer the same abominable treatment as Evalyn, she is nonetheless traumatized by a primal scene, witnessing her upstanding physician father (Samuel L. Jackson) going at it with a woman who is not her mother. As the child taps into her rage, she becomes more intrigued by the supernatural, oracular gifts of her female relatives and the local eldresses. Feverish and fecund, Eve’s Bayou is haunted by ghosts, especially the most grotesque specter of the South, and of this nation: slavery.

“Southern Gothic”
Through July 11