When it was released at the tail end of December, 1959, the Los Angeles Herald Examiner called director, Joseph L. Mankewicz’s Suddenly, Last Summer “a malignant masterpiece – a horror picture for adults”; Variety – the showbiz Bible, adding “by far, the most bizarre motion picture ever made by a major American company.” Indeed, in years to follow there have been very few movies of any generation to so completely rattle the brain – literally and figuratively – in a visual and aural repose of absolute human terror. It can safely be said Katherine Hepburn’s wealthy benefactress, Violet Venable, ‘democratically’ descending from ‘on high’ in her Byzantine-esque elevator, thereafter periodically slipping into lugubrious daydreams of her son, Sebastian and incestuously referring to themselves as ‘a couple’, is one of the most markedly evil representations of motherhood in cinema history. Only one other comes immediately to mind, Angela Lansbury’s supremely wicked Eleanor Iselin from 1962’s The Manchurian Candidate. Like Eleanor, Violet is ‘devoted’ to her offspring – or rather, his downfall; an enabler/procurer, feeding into and off of his self-destruction. Violet’s flawed remembrances of their even more insidiously unsettling and curious trip to the Galápagos Islands, where she and Sebastian witnessed ‘flesh-devouring’ birds turning over newly hatched baby sea turtles to peck apart their soft stomachs, creates a riveting impression; also, a bit of foreshadowing, and furthermore still, to Vi’s overbearing gargoyle of a matriarch; interpretations remade into fact, meant to obscure what actually occurred ‘suddenly’ last summer. But exactly what did happen? Is the integrity of her dead son, the fantasy of their ‘loving’ relationship, or an even more brutally dishonest secret, worth destroying two lives? Or can it liberate and restore one life, even as it has so completely decimated the other?
As a movie, Suddenly, Last Summer should have been a more intensely shocking experience; what, with Tennessee William’s play, its acidic subject matter eluding to repressed incestuous frustrations, homoerotic cannibalism, and, the threat of lobotomizing a frightened young innocent, merely to silence the nightmarish truth sprung from a seemingly innocuous respite on a beach in Cabeza de Lobo – the movie version had a lot to feast upon (pun intended, for those familiar with the outcome). And director, Joseph Mankewicz certainly knew his way around such stagecraft; his movies, literate, sobering revelations on human foibles. Alas, Mankewicz was hampered in several ways as to prevent the complete and complex maturation of its subject matter; the Catholic League of Decency weighing in, and Hollywood, not yet willing to loosen its yolk on screen censorship. The movie’s biggest asset is undeniably Katherine Hepburn as the disturbing – and disturbed – matron of the maison; Violet Venable about as grotesque and devouring as the Venus flytrap she favors in Sebastian’s primordial paradise; a garden populated by oversized dense foliage straight out of the Cretaceous period, decorated by winged skeletal statuary; its’ centerpiece, Sebastian’s shuttered artist’s atelier.
We never meet the deviant heir apparent to this decaying labyrinth of artistic decadence; the man closest to Violet’s heart, if indeed she possesses one – the boy wonder/poet with a weak heart for whom she selfishly allowed a husband to die alone at home while they frolicked abroad in Europe; Sebastian (Julián Ugarte), only briefly glimpsed from behind in a regressed ‘flashback’ recalled by cousin, Catherine Holly (Elizabeth Taylor). Even so, Sebastian’s presence permeates virtually every frame of our story. Even the crisp white linen suit, greedily pulled from his closet by Catherine’s brother, George (Gary Raymond), lingers with Sebastian’s essence, thanks primarily to Tennessee Williams’ infectious dialogue. Were that Elizabeth Taylor’s performance (Oscar-nominated, no less) could hold a candle to his prose. While praised at the time for her acting chops, Taylor really does not dig beyond the surface of this part; her pantomimed reactions as she observes her cousin being consumed by the urchins he patronized (and, so it is only hinted within the context of the film, though openly spelled out in the play, exploited for his own sexual sadisms) more of a lampoon of fear than a genuine reaction to the carnage on display.
When it opened on Broadway, Suddenly, Last Summer was paired with another one-act play by Tennessee Williams; Something Unspoken – the two given the overall title, Garden District. On stage, Suddenly, Last Summer is basically two stark and lyrical monologues, Williams incorporating tragedies endured in his life, with a minor exaltation of his idol and muse; the poet, Hart Crane. According a rumor, Suddenly, Last Summer is the manifestation of Williams’ desire to rid himself of his own homosexuality through artistic expression after undergoing psychoanalysis. The truth is far more complex; Williams suffering from lifelong – and occasionally lengthy bouts - of paranoia, depression and anxiety that caused him to drink to excess. These transparencies between Williams’ life and the play prove compelling; even the superficial naming of the compassionate Dr. Cukrowicz (played by Montgomery Clift), an obvious ‘homage’ to Dr. Lawrence Kubie who, in 1957, was renown as a leading authority in American psychiatry, specializing in a ‘cure’ for homosexuality. There is little evidence to suggest Williams took Kubie’s advice to heart. Indeed, he never gave up sex or playwriting; Williams’ sessions with the famed psychiatrist resulting in one of the most fruitful creative periods of his career.
Williams’ sister, Rose, a schizophrenic, committed to a state asylum for her sexual babbling, had suffered the fate proposed for the play’s fictional Catherine Holly; a lobotomy at the instigation of their domineering mother. The operation left Rose incapacitated and institutionalized for the rest of her life. Mercifully, Williams spares his ‘Miss Catherine’ this surgical emasculation by revealing a truth Violet does not wish to be exposed; arguably, Williams’ revenge on the parents he never quite forgave for Rose’s fate. Williams even incorporates an incident from life, in which Rose accused their father of rape, into the play’s narrative; Catherine alleging an elderly caretaker has made improper advances while she was convalescing at a convent; the rumors – unsubstantiated, and never believed by even Catherine’s mother, Grace (Mercedes McCambridge) – prone to her own fretting and fuss. There is little doubt the symbols of predation employed within the play’s narrative – and marginally tweaked (nee, watered down, in the film) are derived from Williams’ psychoanalytic experiences. Yet, in the intervening decades, Suddenly, Last Summer has been misread as the weak-kneed pleas of a ‘self-loathing queer’, despite the fact these heterosexuals who populate this bizarre pantheon are far more perverted, immoral and monstrous.
In spite of the revelations we discover about Sebastian Venable – that he ‘used people’ via an intoxicating charm, as readily meant to consume as to ostracize any individual from his social clique once he was through with them – the real demigod of this piece is Sebastian’s mother, Violet; a demonstrative gargoyle, pledging her warped sense of maternal love to this offspring eager to exploit her beauty and wealth merely to satisfy his own appetite for desperate young men. Violet knows what her son is and cannot stand it. Insidiously, however, she is fervently committed to feeding his predilections without admitting to their existence; her possessive nature wounded, but unbroken, after Sebastian makes a new travelling companion of Catherine, who is younger, prettier and therefore, more likely to draw the right kind of attention Sebastian requires to satisfy his own homoerotic proclivities. As such, Violet’s doggedness to see Catherine’s lobotomized is never an act of altruism intended to ease this troubled girl of her haunted mind. It may not even be about maintaining Sebastian’s secret, best left buried in the past; but rather, a menacing and malignant retaliation against Catherine for being the new ‘woman’ in Sebastian’s life.
At its crux, Suddenly, Last Summer was never intended to be a play about homosexuality, despite its mobile of plot entanglements dangling loosely about the dead gay man at the center of its story. Tennessee Williams is far more fascinated with scrutinizing the exploitation of the natural world; how all living things – in one manner or another – ‘devour’ to survive. Unlike Mankewicz’s movie, the play begins with a tour of Sebastian’s prehistoric garden; Violet Venable, the docent of this somewhat clinical back story, indulging Sebastian’s Venus Fly Trap with live insects and thus, establishing Williams’ central theme. Mankewicz retains this vignette for the movie, but only after a fairly lengthy prologue involving Dr. Cukrowicz, a brilliant Chicago neurosurgeon, coaxed to practice medicine and perform his experimental surgeries at New Orlean’s Lion’s View state asylum. Cukrowicz is somewhat confrontational towards the asylum’s chief of staff, Dr. Lawrence J. Hockstader (Albert Dekker), especially over the deplorable lack of funding and less than acceptable working conditions. It seems Hockstader has promised Cukrowicz the world, without actually being able to deliver; an oversight to be corrected, should Cukrowicz comply with Violet’s request to perform a lobotomy on her niece, in order to ‘relieve’ her of these frightening sexual rants.
At Hockstader’s insistence, Cukrowicz agrees to interview both Violet and Catherine regarding the particulars of the case. What he quickly realizes is this grand dame of New Orleans society has some rather deviant quirks of her own; an almost lionizing passion for her late son, disturbingly isolationist carnal attraction. Violet considers their mother/son relationship from the stance of the ‘perfect couple’ and center of attention; the outside world melting away whenever they entered any room together. Whether intentionally realized or not, Violet’s insistence Sebastian was ‘chaste’ – an artist, who, having seen the ‘face of God’ on the Galapagos Islands, considers people only as they might satisfy his craft as a poet – paints a rather psychopathic account of her son, dismissive of all human foibles; a prig, perhaps – though not a wanton – whose purity is beyond reproach, but maybe masking a deeper ‘imperfection’ he could not have suppressed for much longer. Sebastian’s death has therefore spared him his reputation – at least, insofar as Violet is concerned. Alas, the fly in this ointment is Catherine: present at the time of Sebastian’s demise, and the one person who can dispel Violet’s claim he died of a heart attack brought on by the intense heat. Interestingly, Williams has given the dead Venable heir the name of a famous martyred saint; Sebastian’s impression completed by Catherine’s monologue, fleshing out the image of a doomed martyr – impossibly shy and fairly neurotic – using Violet as ‘bait’ to procure young men for his leisure.
In the play, Violet has suffered a mild stroke; the facial tick left behind forcing Sebastian to forsake his mother’s companionship for a new beauty capable of luring prospective contacts into his den of iniquity. To satisfy the conventions of a major motion picture, and one heavily censured by Hollywood’s self-governing body no less; but also, to flesh out what is essentially a forty minute oration into a two hour movie with character development, director Mankewicz turned to openly gay writer, Gore Vidal for inspiration. Vidal’s contributions are seamless and greatly expand upon the character of Dr. Cukrowicz, only of marginal importance in the play. The movie opens far away from the terrifying glamor of Sebastian’s garden; inside a makeshift operating theater at the state asylum where Cukrowicz is performing a lobotomy on a nondescript patient under the most primitive working conditions. A balcony railing breaks loose and a failing generator causes the overhead lights to momentarily fail. Cukrowicz is disgusted by these surroundings, informing Hockstader he is ‘not a witch doctor’. Hockstader is sympathetic, but presses Cukrowicz to perform the lobotomy on Catherine Holly, primarily because it will secure a badly needed grant of a million dollars; in 1937 (the period, in which the play is set), enough to build Cukrowicz his state-of-the-art facility where he can carry on with his work.
Unlike the play, basically taking place in Sebastian’s garden and an adjacent verandah, the film version of Suddenly, Last Summer takes us inside the Venable estate; a sprawling complex with adjacent buildings framed by the garden, and later – in flashback, with an overlapping dissolve into montage, to Cabeza de Lobo, where we witness (partially) Sebastian being torn apart and eaten by his avenging boy toys. Undeniably, Vidal’s greatest ‘contribution’ to the picture is confirmed in this altered finale; Catherine’s regression under the influence of truth serum, revealing the particulars of what happened ‘suddenly, last summer’; cross-cutting between the present and the past; photographed in overlapping images of Sebastian, fleeing the urchins in his immaculate white linen suit; driven through the cobblestone streets to an isolated hilltop where he is sacrificed by the ‘gobbling’ hoards; Vidal, quite unable to resist adding sympathy and restraint to the end of the picture. In the play, Violet storms out of the garden after ordering Cukrowicz to tear out this salacious memory from her niece’s mind; an indomitably determined and rather demonic presence to the very end. The movie provides us with a more avenging finale that nevertheless, and rather strangely, allows Hepburn’s venomous mother her moment of redemption; Catherine’s exposure of what really happened at Cabeza de Lobo liberates her mind from its repressed quicksand of madness. Alas, it also sends Violet into a tailspin and a retreat into the imagined ‘perfect’ past – or rather, her impressions of Sebastian before last summer; a purgatory from which she will likely never emerge. To this penultimate conclusion, Vidal rather clumsily concocts a ‘romance’ of sorts between the antiseptic Cukrowicz and Catherine; periodically fleshed out within the story by Cukrowicz ability to show Catherine unaffected kindness – the only character to do so. She repeatedly throws herself at his head; passionately kissing him twice, to which he playfully suggests “it was a friendly kiss”.
In life, Montgomery Clift, whose earnestly expressive fine-boned features, for a brief wrinkle in time, branded him the ‘hot’ young stud in Hollywood’s famed stables of masculine stars; posthumous rewritten as a gay icon, and, Elizabeth Taylor, the screen’s sultry and violet-eyed vixen, were life-long friends; she, knowing early on he was gay but keeping it a secret; the two romantically paired in George Stevens’ magnificent, A Place in the Sun (1951), and later, the ill-fated (and costly epic) misfire, Raintree County (1957); Taylor utterly devoted to Clift after his good looks were irrevocably destroyed by a near-fatal car wreck while leaving her home in 1956. It remains fascinating to watch their loosely quixotic byplay in Suddenly, Last Summer, void of the more obvious overtures played out in either of the aforementioned movies; Taylor mashing her glossy lips against Clift’s rather brittle and stiff doctor – the moment unrequited (one could infer, out of Cukrowicz’s respect for doctor/patient privilege), except the undercurrent of these stars’ enduring friendship remain plainly on display during such exchanges; Clift, grateful and humbled by Taylor’s backstage devoutness to him (indeed, he was no longer being considered for leading parts, the effect the accident had on his ego and social life even more devastating and, arguably, escalating his sad death at the age of 45).
By the time Suddenly, Last Summer went before the cameras, Montgomery Clift was already a shell of his former self; tortured by the frustratingly mad downward spiral of his real life. Arguably, this had begun long before the wreck; Clift, embracing Hollywood’s hedonism with a chronic addiction to booze and late nights carousing with hustlers. Yet, there is little to deny the accident as the seminal moment to speed up Clift’s folly, putting an eventual period to his life; the hellacious dismemberment of Clift’s car, discovered along a lonely road by actor, Kevin McCarthy, with Clift lying on its front seat, semi-conscious, half his head missing and two teeth lodged down his throat; Taylor rushing to the scene to wield absolute power over the tabloid press who had already gathered, declaring that if any photos were taken of Clift she would make it her singular mission in life to see none of these men ever worked in Hollywood again. Whatever the truth to these stories, not a single image of Clift’s perilous injuries has ever surfaced. Multiple surgeries and physical therapy rebuilt only a fraction and reasonable facsimile of Clift’s former self. But the reconstruction, coupled by Clift’s abuse of heavy painkillers and alcohol did much to age him well beyond his years; Clift’s death in 1966, later described as “the longest suicide in Hollywood history.”
It was Taylor who had championed Clift for the part of Dr. Cukrowicz in Suddenly, Last Summer, producer, Sam Spiegel willing to weather the risk to keep his star satisfied. Alas, the results were trying at best; Mankewicz repeatedly grown perturbed with Clift, who could not remember his lines or get through any of the major scenes without periodically losing his train of thought; forcing Mankewicz (who preferred long takes) to split up the action and then cobble together a performance from the various pieces in the editing room. At one point, Mankewicz went to Spiegel; then, over Spiegel’s head, to implore cooler heads remove Clift from the film. But Taylor’s clout proved Teflon-coated. With backing from Katherine Hepburn, Clift remained in the picture – barely – Hepburn taking her outrage one step further; rumored to have spat on Mankewicz at the end of the shoot; a summation of her disgust for the way Clift had been shabbily treated on the set. In reviewing Suddenly, Last Summer again, there is an intangible fragility and poignancy to the Taylor/Clift relationship as it translates into their respective on-screen characters; something about the body language; Catherine’s repeated need to cling to Cukrowicz for support, heartened by Taylor’s need to console, coddle and look out for Clift’s fragile and steadily declining sense of self-worth. She does none of this out of pity, but respect and love for the man she calls her friend; Clift’s tired, careworn and occasionally glazed over look of affection emanating volumes of sad-eyed gladness; a heartrending and ruined thing to behold. That Clift could look to the fictional Sebastian Venable as his counterpoint of sorts, having fallen from grace as the imminent hot shot about whom much had been written, now to a point of pretentious folly, still immaculately attired, but physically waning and emotionally frail, perhaps helped to augment his steady decline. Without question, it makes for an interesting comparative analysis of the film today.
It must be said screenwriter, Gore Vidal’s artistic license has, for the most part, improved upon the play; shifting Tennessee Williams’ dialogue to different scenes to invigorate its dramatic flow and, when necessary, even ostentatiously accepting the challenge to write in Williams’ tone to embellish a scene. As example, the moment where Violet descends from her elevator, uttering the playfully delicious lines, “Sebastian always said, 'Mother when you descend it's like the Goddess from the Machine'... it seems that the Emperor of Byzantium - when he received people in audience - had a throne which, during the conversation, would rise mysteriously into the air to the consternation of his visitors. But as we are living in a democracy, I reverse the procedure. I don't rise, I come down” are purely Vidal’s invention; the elevator, while referenced in the play, never actually seen. Vidal also punches up the finale by allowing for the transference of guilt from Catherine to Violet; the former, liberated after expressing these suppressed memories, the latter, unable to challenge the truth, retreating into a fantasy alternative for it – because of it – becoming lost, trapped and destined to remain perversely fantasizing about the fiction that has consumed her life. And Hepburn plays this penultimate surrender for all its worth – subtly – Violet’s hands caressing the empty pages of Sebastian’s notebook; a look of peaceful surrender writ large across her face; mistaking Cukrowicz for her dead son as she gingerly touches his gentle hands.
Was Vidal compelled to alter the ending of the play to satisfy the Hays Code, Breen Office and Catholic League of Decency? Hmmm. Convention of the day promised no bad deeds go unpunished. Sebastian’s comeuppance fits his crime; to be dismembered by the boys whose innocence he has stolen. Violet’s punishment is no less murderously devised; for she surrenders sanity for the sake of a dream best remembered before all these nightmares of the present have set in. That Suddenly, Last Summer was made at all is, frankly, a miracle; Mankewicz ambitiously pursuing one of the most controversial properties in, then, recent times to create a riveting – if marginally convoluted – artwork underscored by Tennessee Williams’ own spark of Southern Gothic brilliance. And Production Designer, Oliver Messel and Art Director, William Kellner have outdone themselves on crafting Sebastian’s garden landscape; moodily lit and photographed in stark B&W by cinematographer, Jack Hildyard. The results are a tad melodramatic, and, as previously discussed, slightly blemished, though nevertheless vividly realized. Thus, and, in the end, Suddenly, Last Summer remains a unique work of cinema art; the visual manifestation of some very impure thoughts.
Your old Columbia Classics DVD is officially a coaster for your drink. For here is another beautifully rendered ‘region free’ Blu-ray from Viavision and MadMan Entertainment; a disc erroneously advertised as ‘region B locked’ on various websites when, in actuality it will play on any Blu-ray device anywhere in the world. I sincerely wish Viavision would get its own advertising right. Their previously reviewed Lost Horizon (1937) Blu-ray suggested ‘region 4’ encoding. Suddenly Last Summer’s back jack blatantly advertises this disc as ‘region B’ locked. Lies – all lies. But I digress. Once you have seen the near pristine quality of this 1080p transfer, the old Columbia DVD is obsolete. The B&W image herein is stunning; exporting superb shadow delineation, exquisite textures, superb amounts of fine detail and some gorgeous grain. There are a handful of scenes that can appear marginally softer by direct comparison; possible the result of dupe inserts. But even these momentary lapses are not so far gone as to distract. Better still, there are no age-related artifacts to intrude. The DTS 2.0 mono audio sounds quite unexpectedly powerful. Suddenly Last Summer is a primarily dialogue-driven movie, so stereo really is not necessary. One thorough regret – NO extras – not even a trailer. Bottom line: this one is a keeper. Like many classic movie fans living in North America, I have grown sincerely tired of waiting for the major studios to get their act together and release more of their back catalog on this side of the pond. As Viavision/Madman have proven they possess the rights to legitimately authored impeccable masters from the Sony classic library, rest assured what you are buying from them is quality of the highest order. So buy today and treasure forever.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)