Suddenly, Last Summer

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Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s film adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ one-act play is as famous today for its sensationalism as it is for the on-set clashes between the stars and the director. Penned for the screen by Gore Vidal, Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) represents the qualities associated with Williams’ works at their most extreme. Thematically, Suddenly, Last Summer deals with issues such as social class, mental health, systemic oppression, loneliness, homosexuality and rape; each rendered with a sinister brand of camp.

Suddenly, Last Summer concerns an aged socialite widow, Violet Venable (Katharine Hepburn), whose desire to safeguard her late son’s name leads her to Dr. John Cukrowicz (Montgomery Clift) with the request that he silence her niece, Catherine (Elizabeth Taylor), by way of a lobotomy. Violet’s son, Sebastian, wrote a poem every summer during his travels with his mother. She, still young and beautiful, would draw or lure teenaged boys into their orbit on whom Sebastian would prey. That is until, suddenly, last summer, Sebastian took his cousin Catherine instead. She would be the only person to witness his death which subsequently led to her being institutionalized.

The first act of Suddenly, Last Summer takes the form of an interview between Violet and Dr. Cukrowicz in Sebastian’s “prehistoric” garden at his mother’s home. Violet descends in an elevator into the scene, mid-conversation, suggesting her power and privilege. The scene unfolds with recollections of Violet’s summer vacations with her son. The subtext is incest. Hepburn’s performance is big, bold, and entirely verbal; a harsh contrast with the down-to-earth naturalism of Clift’s doctor.

The second act sees Dr. Cukrowicz treating Catherine. Taylor’s performance is as lofty and campy as Hepburn’s though it manifests physically rather than verbally. Taylor’s depiction of Catherine is a physical feat undulating from the sensual to the frigidly fearful. Again the female lead juxtaposes Clift’s quietly mannered choices. For Mankiewicz camp is the province of women and the wealthy.

Catherine’s whole situation is a tragedy unto itself; she is the scapegoat for her aunt and she is the victim blamed for the crimes of her predators. Dr. Cukrowicz, with no personal stake, is the only person who listens to and believes Catherine. The sensationalist approach to psychological treatment in Suddenly, Last Summer is but a means of successfully dramatizing Catherine’s trials. The drama plays out as pulpy high-camp but it is terribly affecting; resonating now more than ever.

Until the climactic final act of the film Mankiewicz takes a very stagey approach to framing and blocking. The takes are long and the perspective is almost always wide. As Suddenly, Last Summer reaches its end and Catherine shares her story this facade deteriorates into something far more expressionistic. With Elizabeth Taylor’s face burned into the far right of frame the flashbacks play out in rapid succession with some subtly surreal touches. The mostly off-camera horrors of Sebastian being beaten and devoured by his youthful victims is made visceral by Catherine’s descriptions and the ever present pained expression on Elizabeth Taylor’s face.

Nothing makes a villain in a Tennessee Williams play like sexual repression and Suddenly, Last Summer is no exception. Vidal manages to preserve Williams’ capacity to share his compassion with both the victim and the victimizer. For Williams, Vidal and Mankiewicz loneliness is universal and everyone, good or bad, is in some way its victim.