Director: Joseph L Mankiewicz
Stars: Elizabeth Taylor, Katharine Hepburn, Montgomery Clift
This essay will contain plot spoilers. It’s been 59 years since the film came out, but still, consider yourself warned.
Released in 1959 to mixed – if not downright negative – reviews, Joseph L Mankiewicz’s exaggeration of a short Tennessee Williams play has earned a special place over the years. Appearing at the tail end of Hollywood’s love affair with the melodrama, much of its poor critical reception might be blamed on exhaustion with the genre, especially as the French New Wave was exploding. Suddenly, Last Summer and its ilk were starting to seem stiff and dated. Yet such dismissal is shortsighted. The movie is daring and complex, riddled with sensationalism. It exists on a hotbed of incestuous suggestion, histrionic talk of lobotomies… and cannibalism.
The 50’s melodrama is an arena I too scoffed at, but one’s tastes mature over time and I’ve come to recognise and appreciate the wealth of powerful and subversive cinema that exists here (I wouldn’t bet against some similar writing on Douglas Sirk to follow soon). Looking back at the evolution and adaptation of Hollywood over the decades, the melodrama appears to fill the vacancy left by film noir. For it is here that you find cynicism, depravity, social prejudices and taboo topics, discussed in a form that merely suggests conservatism while simultaneously sold on the suggestion of sex.
The echoes of noir are stifling in Suddenly, Last Summer in which Montgomery Clift plays Dr. Cukrowicz, an esteemed neurosurgeon who is wooed by grieving mother Mrs Violet Venable (Katharine Hepburn); the richest woman in Louisiana. Dispatched to her New Orleans home by his superior, Cukrowicz arrives to collect a charitable donation for their struggling hospital, but Violet reveals that her philanthropy comes at a price; he must lobotomise her niece Catherine (Elizabeth Taylor); the sole witness to what befell her beloved son Sebastian the summer before.
This long opening act is particularly reminiscent of the opening of Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep. Instead of gumshoe Phillip Marlowe sweltering in a conservatory, however, we have Clift’s monotone surgeon lost in a surprise jungle on the grounds of Violet’s lavish home. Lost in the verdant menagerie, Clift plays second fiddle to Hepburn’s more abundant theatricality. Hepburn chews up and spits out the flavoursome dialogue, embellished from the slim text by Williams by Gore Vidal (Williams is credited on the screenplay but never touched it). Cukrowicz, and in turn we in the audience, are asked to play sleuth. There’s truth about what happened that fateful summer Sebastian died, but finding it entails walking a most curious path.
And what a baroque movie this is. After the vivid soliloquies of Violet, our first meeting with Catherine – a good half hour into the picture – contrasts sharply with the picture that’s been painted. While Violet talks of her as raving and aggressive, the Catherine introduced to us is sultry and demur, if prone to the occasional outburst. Under the circumstances, such outbursts appear quite sanguine. Mankiewicz’s camera plunders Taylor’s vulnerability, asking us to immediately sympathise. We prefigure the mutual attraction between Catherine and Cukrowicz. We anticipate it. We make the snap judgement that it is the mother who is mad, and not this frightened girl lost in the body of a beautiful woman.
But there is more to her than that. Far more. Taylor’s performance as Catherine is magnificent, nuanced, detailed and as magnetic as you could hope for. So much of Suddenly, Last Summer is about the past. Specifically about women whose lives are anchored to it, giving them a maximum radius in which to exist. It’s about PTSD. The theatrical origin of the text announces itself in the tell-not-show nature of what follows. The notion is uncinematic, but the delivery of this exceptional dialogue proves as captivating as any flashback, the fevered performances (especially from Taylor) capturing the horror of reliving a traumatic memory.
By denying us a visualisation of the past – of last summer – Mankiewicz also allows it to remain mutable. We hear versions but seeing is believing, and this we are denied until the very end of the picture. Thus the nature of truth and memory hang in the balance and our guesswork is allowed to perpetuate. Tell-not-show rarely works so well. Suddenly, Last Summer becomes riveting because of how talky it is.
But to dismiss it as merely recorded dialogue does Mankiewicz a disservice. There are extremely powerful touches to this film, not least the two occasions on which Catherine takes flight of her wardens and encounters the insane, cluttering the bowels of the asylum. In both instances Catherine is positioned at a height above the mad patients. Salaciously, her first transgression is milked for sexual menace as drooling male inmates writhe to reach her. The threat of sexual violence in this scene is quite shocking, regardless of Catherine’s relative safety and the ease of her escape.
Some time later she finds herself standing high above the female ward, and here comes perilously close to throwing herself down into their pit of anguish. It’s a reflection of the earlier scene; now she flirts with suicide, with descending into the anonymous mass of madness from which she radiantly shines. That Catherine is allowed to roam the grounds of the sanatorium is fanciful but such licence is permitted by the viewer. In these sequences, Suddenly, Last Summer recalls the gothic horrors of the 1930’s and 1940’s. Catherine is a countess, surveying a domain that doubles as her prison.
The set designs are abundantly interesting also. See Violet’s descending throne; surely one of Hepburn’s finest entries into a film. See particularly Violet’s savage garden. Gardens conjure expectations of tranquil places, but Violet’s is wild, threatening, carnivorous. Early on in our exploration of it, Violet shows Dr. Cukrowicz a Venus fly trap. She feeds it. An early foreshadowing of the horrific tale to come. The goddess of love is voracious and destructive; those noir themes thrum in the background again.
So despite its verbosity, Mankewiecz’s film manages to imprint some indelible imagery, allowing this melodrama to brush fingertips with other genres. The nods to horror are precursors to the film’s eyebrow raising finale in which, under the influence of a truth serum, Catherine recalls the grizzly events that led to the death of Sebastian the summer before. Having milked the mystery for all its worth, the revelation is hysterical, in every sense. Sebastian – heavily inferred as either homosexual or a paedophile – is shown to have been chased, cornered and cannibalised by a gang of poor children. On first approach it is a staggering surprise that this is where we’ve been led.
Yet there are harbingers. Just as the two scenes of Catherine in peril mirror one another, so do the two extended scenes set in Violet’s jungle garden. In the first, Violet has a vivid monologue about birds feasting on the fleshy bellies of newborn sea turtles that very much seeds Catherine’s later recollection of the children tearing at the prone body of Sebastian. And right before Catherine reaches this shocking denouement, the flashback we’re permitted sees an old woman in a doorstep double as a visage of the grim reaper, lending Catherine’s rapturous recollection a supernatural quality.
That said flashback begins with Elizabeth Taylor exposed in a revealing swimsuit also underscores the film’s exploitative tendencies. It’s a tawdry tale and one that was quite heavily sold on the promise of such titillation. The poster campaign for the movie leans heavily on the image of Taylor is the bathing suit, bosom thrust outward. It is not representative of the movie as a whole by any means, but it does key potential audiences into the lurid leanings of the story at large; the sensationalism. It is perhaps this flavour of tabloid sleaze that caused the film to be dismissed in more conservative quarters.
But there are interesting things being discussed here. Sebastian’s sexual inclinations are suggested rather than articulated. This is classic melodrama behaviour; addressing a societal issue by directing the audience to its absence in the mouths of the characters. The negative space asserting itself.
In addition, Sebastian’s ultimate fate speaks of the wealthy’s fear of the poor; the nightmare of those in need catching up to you. This doesn’t appear to be Sebastian’s concern alone. Violet feels feasted on by greedy relatives whom she observes as lower than she is, while Catherine’s encounters with the insane at the asylum can be read as visual representations of this same fear. Suddenly, Last Summer becomes a comment on the rift between classes, rather uncommonly viewed from the perspective of those who are more fortunate. It doesn’t flatter.
That Sebastian’s demise occurs abroad adds an element that can be read as xenophobic. Hardly uncommon given the era of production. And as has been mentioned, Mankiewicz and the marketing department lean hard on the promise of Taylor baring her body. Still, Suddenly, Last Summer is an astonishing watch. It’s deranged finale skirts high camp, can be mocked as such. But if that’s your take then it’ll also be a pleasure on those terms. This is magnificent and layered entertainment. They just don’t make ’em like they used to.
Suddenly, Last Summer has recently received a limited UK bluray release from Indicator, and looks divine.