Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)

“My son and I had a rare and wonderful love and trust between us — a sort of contract, a covenant.”

Suddenly Last Summer Poster

Synopsis:
A wealthy widow (Katharine Hepburn) attempts to convince a renowned brain surgeon (Montgomery Clift) to perform a lobotomy on her niece (Elizabeth Taylor) in exchange for a generous endowment to a cash-strapped mental hospital — but Clift soon learns that Hepburn’s request is motivated by a desire to suppress memories of her beloved son’s unsavory death.

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Review:
Based on a one-act play by Tennessee Williams, this Gothic Freudian “horror” story — directed by Joseph Mankiewicz, with a screenplay by Gore Vidal and Williams — tells a surprisingly suspenseful tale of toxic secrets and dysfunctional maternal love, with “homosexuality, incest, lobotomy, [and] even cannibalism… discussed or implied”. The storyline revolves around a mysterious character (“Sebastian Venable”) whose figure we only glimpse briefly in flashback; the fact that we never actually “meet” him adds to the power of the narrative, as we struggle to understand exactly what caused his gruesome death, and why his mother is so determined to conceal the truth about her enigmatic son. Vidal and Williams’ screenplay is wonderfully dense, full of hidden insinuations — indeed, one spends the entire movie in awe by how cleverly layers of implications are stacked. Sebastian was gay, no doubt about it, and his homosexuality drives the entire tragedy in question; yet this is never openly stated.

Katherine Hepburn is truly chilling in the pivotal role of Mrs. Venable — perhaps theater/cinema’s most inappropriately protective mother ever, she’s unafraid to make her character completely evil, and entirely unsympathetic. Meanwhile, Taylor is equally fine in the challenging role as her troubled niece, who must deal not only with the trauma of what she saw and experienced while vacationing with Sebastian, but fear for her very life, as her (greedy) mother (Mercedes McCambridge) and brother (Gary Raymond) seem willing to “trade” her mind in exchange for financial recompense by Hepburn. Gothic sets contribute to the film’s overall sense of psychological terror, while smartly chosen costumes (in particular Hepburn’s hideous “feather hat” — reminiscent of Cruella De Vil) accentuate the heightened melodrama of the material.

The only section of this undeniably dialogue-bound film that feels overly staged is the climactic finale, as all the “players” gather ’round to hear Taylor (who’s been given a “truth serum”) spill the beans about what, exactly, happened “last summer”. The choice to literalize Sebastian’s death is probably necessary, but doesn’t prevent all sorts of lingering questions from remaining in viewers’ minds. (However, see this thread on IMDb’s message board for a useful discussion that helps to clear up some confusion.) While it’s not for all tastes, I’m recommending Suddenly, Last Summer for one-time viewing, as an engrossingly tawdry melodrama and for Hepburn’s unforgettable performance.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Katharine Hepburn as Mrs. Venable
    Suddenly Last Summer Hepburn
  • Elizabeth Taylor as Catherine
    Suddenly Last Summer Taylor
  • Effectively “spooky”, Oscar-nominated sets
    Suddenly Last Summer Sets

Must See?
Yes, as a powerful melodrama, and for the Oscar-nominated lead performances.

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One Response to “Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)”

  1. Must-see. There never has been, and never will be, another film that can touch the territory of ‘Suddenly, Last Summer’…not quite like this version.

    Take your pick: ‘SLS’ is either brilliant and demented, or brilliantly demented – either way, it’s riveting cinema, with captivating performances bolstered by both Jack Hildyard’s stark, often inventive photography and a film score (by Malcolm Arnold & Buxton Orr) that serve to offer the film as the thriller/horror flick that it is. (I’m not sure who is responsible for some of the symbolic imagery placed throughout, but honorable mention.)

    If it hadn’t been for the particular track records and talents involved – in front of and behind the camera – it’s unlikely that this film would have been made at all, much less given top-drawer treatment by Columbia Pictures. But something this risky was, nevertheless, a surprise hit: Critics – in an apparent effort to perform a lobotomy on the film itself – excoriated it as vile trash…so, naturally, the public lined up eagerly. …But then, having Taylor in the starring role didn’t hurt matters, I’m sure. Especially when she’s featured in a wet bathing suit that fully showcases her ample bosom.

    Vidal (who has spoken of his experience as co-writer) and Williams opened the play up considerably from its stage form – and the result is a cleverly constructed improvement, much like the film version of Williams’ ‘The Night of the Iguana’. (The film builds – whereas the play just dumps us, bewildered, into the central conflict.) But, as for the gay content – which at times is blatantly obvious…it’s quite inconceivable that the censors of the time were so naive when it came to what managed to get through. Don’t get me wrong – thank God they were that stupid…because (esp. for gay audiences) it increases the film’s value two-fold. (I’m not so much referring to ‘the devil in the details’ – since the film is peppered throughout with gay in-jokes – but some of the rather-direct references: i.e., Taylor’s speech about Sebastian, in which he refers to people as “items on the menu”; her acknowledgement that she was a “decoy”, “procuring for him”. In a sense, it’s all too silly for words, but it’s played with full-blown conviction, so it works.)

    This is a very, very wordy film – and, personally, I like that. But that’s mainly why the film won’t appeal to the average filmgoer (or even film fanatic). You really do have to pay attention. But, in doing so, you become swept up in a maelstrom of rich, vividly descriptive language…as well as subtly bitchy zingers. For this reason alone, I never tire of revisiting the film.

    In one way, it’s not that hard to understand how ‘SLS’ made it to the ranks of mainstream cinema. On the surface, it’s a story of how wealthy people can either help or destroy others, depending on their whims. The film posits, accurately, that the rich lean toward caring about the rich (I love how Hepburn shrugs off with, “I stand accused of generosity.”) which, by extension, makes them delusional. (Hepburn has a speech in which she seems to feign horror in recounting a nature story re: the survival of the fittest – yet, being rich, she’s as fit as she needs to be. ~and damn everyone else, since she’s fatally heartbroken.)

    Really remarkable work by Hepburn (one of her best roles), Taylor and (doing wonders with a small role) Mercedes McCambridge.

    As for Clift (who is still impressive)…the story goes that, upon completion of all of her scenes – and upon confirming that all of her scenes were, indeed, finished – Hepburn spat in Mankiewicz’s face before finally leaving the set. ~that she did that due to how the director treated Clift. One can speculate. But one can also sense that Clift was not having an easy time with this performance; sometimes he seems a little tired. (And his character seems to have never heard of homosexuality – but that was, of course, in deference to the censors.) If Mankiewicz pushed Clift to beyond endurance…well, look at the script. If you don’t play a script like this as hyper-reality, it just ain’t gonna work. …Fortunately, the result works. It’s wacky as all get out (esp. the final ‘revelation’) but, by God, it works!

    Note: the 1993 BBC version is most notable for the lead performance by Maggie Smith. She takes Mrs. Venable down a somewhat more sympathetic path. It’s a daring choice for such a monstrous role. Perhaps no one by Smith could get away with such a contrasting interpretation.

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