“My son and I had a rare and wonderful love and trust between us — a sort of contract, a covenant.”
Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:
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.
Katharine 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. 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: