“My son Sebastian and I… we left behind us a trail of days like a gallery of sculpture until suddenly, last summer…”
– Mrs. Violet Venable (Katharine Hepburn), “Suddenly, Last Summer” (1959)
by Michael Hadley
The story takes place in 1937 in a New Orleans mental asylum. The plot centers on a psychiatric doctor evaluating a female patient who, by the direction of her wealthy aunt, is now a lobotomy candidate after witnessing the mysterious death of her male cousin while traveling in Spain the previous summer.
The film was based on a one-act play of the same name that opened off-Broadway in January 1958 as part of a double-bill with another one-act play called “Something Unspoken”. Both plays were written by Tennessee Williams. The theatrical presentation of the two plays was given the overall title “Garden District.”
Gore Vidal and Williams co-wrote the screenplay which added several new supporting characters and expanded the original play considerably. Filming took place during the summer of 1959 at London’s Shepperton Studios, while location footage was shot in Mallorca, Spain (part of the Balearic Island chain in the Mediterranean Sea).
Columbia Pictures released “Suddenly, Last Summer” in December 1959. It was directed by the estimable Joseph L. Mankiewicz whose previous directing and writing credits included the classic films “All About Eve” and “A Letter to Three Wives.” He also directed “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir,” “No Way Out,” “Guys and Dolls” and the ill-fated 1962 version of “Cleopatra” also starring Elizabeth Taylor.
Mankiewicz assembled a stellar trio of charismatic actors to play the leading roles: Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Clift and Katharine Hepburn. At the time of filming, Taylor had become the toast of the tabloids because of her scandalous affair with pop singer Eddie Fisher.Taylor, after the tragic death of husband Mike Todd in an airplane crash in 1958, became romantically involved with her husband’s best friend, Fisher, who was married to America’s sweetheart, Debbie Reynolds. The subsequent headlines temporarily eclipsed the fact that Taylor was indeed a fine dramatic actress, which she demonstrated the year before in her searing portrayal of “Maggie the Cat” in the film version of Williams’ “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof.”
Taylor took the central role of Catharine Holly, who became the traveling companion of her enigmatic cousin and poet Sebastian when he vacationed along the Southern coast of Spain. Catherine’s memory holds the key to unlocking the mystery surrounding her cousin’s tragic demise. Her shocking and salacious account of his death has prompted her aunt to push for a lobotomy to stop her from ruining her son’s reputation and preserve her own highly romanticized memories of her son. – Wikipedia and IMDB.
Montgomery Clift accepted the role of Dr. Cukrowicz after starring in a number of critically successful films that included “Red River”, “A Place in the Sun” and “From Here to Eternity“. He was considered a first rate dramatic actor who possessed the good looks and “method acting” style of Marlon Brando. Unfortunately, Clift had suffered serious injuries in a 1956 car crash that crushed his face and made him dependent on prescription drugs and alcohol to manage the chronic pain. Although his face was rebuilt surgically, the emotional scars from the crash haunted him for the rest of his life. He also maintained an enduring and close friendship with co-star Elizabeth Taylor, who was credited with helping save his life after the car crash. – “Montgomery Clift: A Biography” by Patricia Bosworth.
Katharine Hepburn, after a long line of impressive comedic performances opposite Spencer Tracy, signed on to play the important role of Violet Venable, a wealthy widow and potential benefactor to the state-maintained asylum. This was Hepburn’s first film since the 1957 release of “Desk Set” and she brought a refined presence to the role that pleased Williams enormously. He was quoted as saying: “I love her diction. She makes all my lines sound better than I thought they would.” – IMBD and “Katharine Hepburn: I Know Where I’m Going: A Personal Biography” by Charlotte Chandler
According to Garson Kanin’s book “Tracy and Hepburn” and Patricia Bosworth‘s biography of Clift, Hepburn demonstrated her famously forthright personality by denouncing director Mankiewicz’s harsh treatment of Montgomery Clift during filming. Both books claim that once Hepburn confirmed all of her scenes had been completed satisfactorily, she spat at Mankiewicz to show him how just she felt about him. Bosworth goes on to report that she also spat on the office floor of producer Sam Spiegel to make sure her feelings were clear. – IMDB and the Kanin / Bosworth books
Both Katharine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor were nominated for the Best Actress Academy Award, but the Oscar that year went to Simone Signoret for her performance in “Room At The Top.” The film was also nominated for Best Art Direction for the work of Oliver Messel, William Kellner and Scott Simon. Taylor and Hepburn were nominated for Best Actress Golden Globe awards and Taylor won. Taylor also won the Laurel Award for Top Female Dramatic Performance. – Wikipedia
“Suddenly, Last Summer” features themes that are familiar to Williams devotees including mendacity, mental illness, greed, homosexuality and the toxic effects of self-serving mothers who put financial opportunity and personal vanity ahead of their children.
The screenplay makes a strong case for those who are unable to defend themselves when they are at their most fragile. This theme hits home when you consider that “Williams was very close to his sister Rose, a slim beauty who was diagnosed with schizophrenia at a young age. As was common then, Rose was institutionalized and spent most of her adult life in mental hospitals. When therapies were unsuccessful, she showed more paranoid tendencies. In an effort to treat her, Williams’ parents authorized a prefrontal lobotomy, a drastic treatment that was thought to help some mental patients who suffered extreme agitation. Performed in 1937 at the Missouri State Sanitarium, the operation incapacitated Rose for the rest of her life. Her surgery may have contributed to his alcoholism and his dependence on various combinations of amphetamines and barbiturates.”
There are numerous references to the predatory aspects of nature in the film. Perhaps the most blatant is the Venus Flytrap that Sebastian kept in the elaborate “jungle” garden in the backyard of his mother’s home. Violet makes an elaborate point of how voracious the plant is and how expensive it is to feed it with the flies she has flown in specifically for that purpose. She refers to the plant as “our lady” and says “the lady exudes this marvelous perfume which attracts them [the flies]. They plunge into her chalice. And they never come out.” This section is perhaps a direct reference to Williams feelings about his mother with whom he had a difficult and strained relationship.
The pivotal character of Sebastian remains a puzzling cipher to most viewers. At the time the film was completed, the censors insisted on softening the homosexual theme and the gruesome details of his demise at the hands of a gang of starving street urchins. Screenwriter Vidal reported in Vito Russo’s book “The Celluloid Closet” and subsequent documentary that the censors of the day, especially the Catholic Legion of Decency, forced him to edit much of the dialogue so that the homosexual theme is only implied, and that the actual homosexual character does not have a face or a voice in the film.
Vidal credited New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther with the financial success of the film. Crowther wrote a scathing review denouncing the film as the work of degenerates obsessed with rape, incest, homosexuality, and cannibalism among other qualities. Vidal believed advertising such salacious detail made audiences flock in droves to the film.
Written and researched by Michael Hadley
Katharine Hepburn plays the arch and airy dowager with what looks like a stork’s nest on her head.” – Bosley Crowther, New York Times
Hepburn vs. Mankiewicz: Hepburn had her own ideas about how to play her part and clashed often with her director. According to Mankiewicz’s biographer Kenneth L. Geist – Pictures Will Talk: The Life and Films of Joseph L. Mankiewicz– reports that Katharine Hepburn clashed with Mankiewicz because he mistreated Clift seem to be untrue. The actress did, however, clash with her director for other reasons. “Kate wanted very much to direct herself in Suddenly, Last Summer”, Mankiewicz said. This is a battle I don’t think a director can ever afford to lose, because the first time I lose that battle, then I must give up directing. I refused to lose that battle, and I insisted on the performance being played my way”.
Kenneth L. Geist – Joseph L. Mankiewicz Tribute: Suddenly, Last Summer
Footnote: I met Mankiewicz’s biographer, Ken Geist in London, a couple of summers ago. I told him how much I’d enjoyed reading his book on Mankiewicz (he’d given me a copy on a previous trip he’d taken to sample the delights of London theatres). “Did you know him very well?” I asked. He thought for a few seconds and replied, “Enough to dislike him”. He then had to leave so I was unable to discover what lay behind his intriguing answer. However, I hope to at some time in the future – perhaps suddenly, next summer? – Bryan James
“If it’s camp you want, it’s camp you’ll get, as when Monty gives a blond male nurse a visible once-over, or when Liz starts struggling with a locked door in the wrong place at the wrong time, triply imprisoned by an iron-barred causeway, an expressionist camera angle, and a triangulated bra. The movie makes it so easy for conservative culture vultures to tear away at it, like the flesh-eating birds that feast on baby sea turtles in one of Hepburn’s centerpiece monologues. Tear they did: Suddenly, Last Summer sparked a bonfire of disgusted protest in 1959, but the movie, even more than the play, belongs in that beastly menagerie with Faulkner’s Sanctuary, Pasolini’s Salò, and Mary Harron’s film of American Psycho, aggressively vulgar works in which a hard, proud skeleton of social critique and complex implication is nonetheless palpable, even to viewers as green as I was at age 15, when I first saw the movie…
There is something remarkably formidable about Suddenly, Last Summer. It makes you chuckle, sometimes against its own interests, but it also lingers like few “better” films ever do, and in that way at least, it’s a better Williams film than those bashfully catered affairs that Richard Brooks whipped up out of Cat and Sweet Bird. Just you try flossing it from your mind.” – Nick’S Flicks Picks