Elizabeth Taylor | Film | Nathaniel Rogers | Tennessee Williams

Gay Cinema Touchstones: Suddenly Last Summer

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Suddenly Last Summer... "The one they're all talking about!"

BY NATHANIEL ROGERS 

Have you seen the classic queer cinema documentary The Celluloid Closet recently? Whenever I see an older film with gay content I find myself reflexively referencing that documentary. Did they cover it? If they didn’t could it fit easily into the historical narrative they mapped out there? I know that Suddenly Last Summer (1959) is referenced, but I can’t begin to recall in what context or which clip was shown. The film has a dark stickiness to it that is hard to shake for days afterwards and I’ve just rewatched it last week so I’m still in its swampy hot presence.

In high school English I became totally smitten with the Tennessee Williams classics. This worried my mother because she picked up on everything gay long before I did though she was too religious to ever name that unspeakable concern. (She gave me the same look when I fell hard for Cabaret though the most she would say by way of explanation was that it was “disgusting”). Hollywood as an industry is perhaps a little more akin to a frightened parent than their gay child; Showbiz loved, nurtured and produced endless gaybies but always had issues with their gayness!

MORE AFTER THE JUMP...

Suddenlylast-blondes
Liz dreams of beautiful men "Blondes were next on the menu"

 

 Case in point: Hollywood couldn’t stop making film versions of Tennessee Williams plays in the 50s and 60s but his celebrated plays rarely made it through the adaptation process intact. Usually they were marred by censorship of some kind whether outwardly imposed or stemming from a lack of nerve about their sexual content. A Streetcar Named Desire, a total masterpiece of both stage and screen, is arguably the only film version you could safely call definitive. Wouldn’t it be great to see more cinematic versions of his work? How many film versions of Shakespeare plays have we had at this point? Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a masterwork so why is there only one big screen Cat, for example?

It's hard to imagine someone remaking Suddenly Last Summer … but shouldn’t someone try? The material is so ripe for interpretative leeway since it’s so strange and unfilmable, a one act consisting of just two long monologues. If Tennessee enjoyed Shakespeare’s reputation (and why shouldn’t he? Let’s not succumb to pop culture’s view of Shakespeare as the only masterful and important playwright) it might well be named one of his “problem plays” but the problem is perhaps not the play itself but how unsuited it is for traditional narrative film adaptation. Naturally the movie had to take liberties with expansion and characters and a more conversational approach. Tennessee Williams hated it but artists aren’t always the best judges of their own work.

For those who are unfamiliar Suddenly Last Summer takes place after the wealthy Violet Venable’s (Katharine Hepburn) son Sebastian has died under questionable circumstances on a summer vacation with his beautiful cousin Catherine (Elizabeth Taylor). Catherine has been locked up since either spouting gibberish about the incident that no one believes or understands or forgetting the details of the event entirely. Enter the neurosurgeon Dr. Cukrowicz (Montgomery Clift) who Violet hopes will Vlobotomize Catherine… carve those hateful gibberish lies right out of her brain! Essentially Suddenly Last Summer is a war over who owns the truth, but it’s also in its peculiarly evasive way, a psychological horror movie about predatory gays.

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Despite its flaws and the lurid material, there’s quite a lot about it that’s worth loving. Take the unsubtle but often brilliant Production Design (Oscar nominated), which brings the wildness of nature right into the home. The most ingenius move of the filmmaking team is to make dead Sebastian a more vivid tangible presence in death through constant referencing in background objects (paintings, memorabilia, skeletons), than he is in flashbacks where his face is always obscured. No one really knew or understood him, did they? Consider the strange meta dialogue between the doomed mythology of Montgomery Clift, one of Hollywood’s greatest and most tragic stars, and the fused specter of both death and queerness that’s so central to the movie. Know that you can have a ton of fun chasing almost any of Hepburn’s campily incestuous line readings with a Heathers shout out:

“I LOVE MY DEAD GAY SON!”

Sls2

Some future production of Suddenly Last Summer might conceivably top and complicate and rescue the 1959 film version with the distance and perspective of a post-homobic* world, but good luck trying to top its indelible leading actresses. They were both nominated for Oscars. Elizabeth Taylor was at the absolute peak of her legendary beauty in the 1950s but she was also knocking performances out of the park and this is one of her very best. She careens from self-possessed to just possessed and her big moments are like molotov cocktails of provocation, carnality, confession, memory, and post traumatic stress disorder. Hepburn’s imperiously cruel and delusional matriarch is something else entirely, a camp classic in and of itself. It’s worth noting that Hepburn never joined in on the popular 1960s fad of Grande Dame Guignol Horror (aka “Hag Horror”) that her peers Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Olivia de Havilland all participated in. Suddenly Last Summer is as close as she ever got to that endlessly fascinating sub genre that was long dead and buried until Ryan Murphy met Jessica Lange and they dug up its corpse.

Suddenly Last Summer is not a lost Hag Horror classic, don't misunderstand. It’s something far more singular. It may well be its own genre of one: Fag-Hag Horror. When Violet and Catherine finally clash in the film’s last mesmerizing act, Catherine terrifies Violet with the truth of their similar roles in Sebastian’s lives.

“We procured for him!”

She says with contempt and says it repeatedly. Is she horrified by her own life choices, or the man she loved that didn’t love her back? Or both? And here both women are again, repetitively warring over the soul and loyalty of another man who doesn't love them in quite the same way. And one who so reminds them of Sebastian.

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*We are not living in a post-homophobic world, of course. But, to twist the comforting ubiquitous current LGBT mantra, “It Got Better!”

 

Nathaniel Rogers would live in the movie theater but for the poor internet reception. He blogs daily at the Film Experience. Follow him on Twitter @nathanielr.

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Comments

  1. It's a bizarre film to be sure. And sad to view due to the fact that Clift was in pretty poor shape here. It would appear he was heavily under the influence of something during filming (he was addicted to painkillers after his accident); in this film he's just barely hanging on by his fingernails, barely able to speak his lines.

    This WAS filmed a second time, for television; the television version stuck to the script of the play. The remake was more open with the gay content, but (in my mind) considerably less entertaining and melodramatic.

    Posted by: octobercountry | Aug 17, 2014 2:48:31 PM


  2. Amazing film..

    Posted by: Rob | Aug 17, 2014 2:49:12 PM


  3. I've always been surprised that this film ever got made, considering the lurid content. It's certainly some kind of classic. I'd love to see the tv version. Anyone know if it can be accessed somehow?

    Posted by: throwslikeagirl | Aug 17, 2014 3:01:53 PM


  4. any film people know if there is a lost kinescope out there? as a long time fan of all the players, including tennessee, i would love to see that as well.

    Posted by: bandanajack | Aug 17, 2014 3:19:00 PM


  5. There's a 1993 BBC version of "Suddenly Last Summer" with Maggie Smith as Violet and Rob Lowe as the doctor, available on Netflix DVD.

    Posted by: Jeff Atwood | Aug 17, 2014 3:37:04 PM


  6. This was a much more interesting article than those ridiculous articles nominating everybody and his garbageman for gay icon status.

    Posted by: odee | Aug 17, 2014 3:50:22 PM


  7. the murder scene is what is referenced in The Celluloid Closet.

    Posted by: Eric | Aug 17, 2014 3:50:48 PM


  8. Thanks, Jeff! I just added it to my Netflix queue.

    Posted by: throwslikeagirl | Aug 17, 2014 3:51:19 PM


  9. Sebastian, a gay poet, uses Elizabeth Taylor to seduce the young men HE wants to sleep with -- and later is cannibalized by the young men. Gore Vidal wrote the screenplay based of Tennessee's one-act play.

    I love Tennessee's baroque sensibility. Unlike other playwrights of his day (or ours), Tennessee threw in madness and rape (Streetcar), pill popping and castration (Sweet Bird of Youth), a labotomy and cannibalism (Suddenly Last Summer). He was great and wrote in his own unique style. It must have been like cool, fresh water for audiences in the 1940s and 50s.

    Posted by: will | Aug 17, 2014 4:12:13 PM


  10. Actually, Octobercountry, Clift still had a few good movies in him. Persnoally, I thought he was great in "Wild River".

    Posted by: Mike in the Tundra | Aug 17, 2014 4:13:21 PM


  11. So I was lucky enough to attend a lecture by Vito Russo where he referenced this movie, and compared the gay character to other "monsters" that must be destroyed at the end of the movie. He talked about himself sympathizing with movie monsters, knowing what it felt like to feel both misunderstood and persecuted -- he also intercut the lecture with clips from Bugs Bunny and the Monster cartoon https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dLdKU4JCYqg The Bad Seed, and Bride of Frankenstein. **SPOILER*** Another interesting factoid if I remember it right, the fact that the movie would have probably been censored more if the character hadn't met a grotesque end. The fact that the gay character got devoured made it okay to have a gay character.

    Posted by: Nick | Aug 17, 2014 4:15:08 PM


  12. I love this write-up. Had forgotten about this gem. Thanks, Nathaniel.

    Posted by: T.s. | Aug 17, 2014 4:22:34 PM


  13. I watched this film once on commercial TV and right after Taylor's magnificent monologue, they cut to one of those big burly bare-chested "Come To Jamaica" commercials. I almost died of hysterics. Ah Jamaica, so "friendly" to gays...

    Posted by: Gunga Dean | Aug 17, 2014 4:54:41 PM


  14. Why is the pic above captioned "Liz dreams of beautiful men"? She was refering to Sebastian's tastes when she said "Blondes were next on the menu"… Was this supposed to be clever or just factually incorrect?

    I was also surprised that this film ever got past the censors, although by the end of the 50s things were loosening up; I suppose Tennessee Williams had some clout too — the film is wonderfully twisted and every actor wonderful (I think of Kate's entrance as Violet, as she descends in her elevator). I need to watch this again.

    Posted by: tinkerbelle | Aug 17, 2014 5:04:48 PM


  15. You can rent Suddenly last summer on Amazon streaming...netflix- you have to get the dvd.

    Posted by: woodroad34 | Aug 17, 2014 5:35:13 PM


  16. A true classic

    Posted by: jarago | Aug 17, 2014 5:48:11 PM


  17. To be the contrarian here, but "Suddenly Last Summer" is a mess of a movie. It depends on Montgomery Clift's character being dense and slow-witted. "I don't understand..." seems to be his usual response to the revelations about Sebastian, as if he has never heard of a homosexual. Elizabeth Taylor is stunning - and the white bathing suit became iconic - but acts up a storm and not in a good way. Katharine Hepburn is my favorite actress, but this is a rare one-note performance.

    This is not to take away anything from Mr. Williams who wrote two of the four greatest American plays, "Glass Menagerie," and "Streetcar." The others being, "Death of a Salesman," and "Long Day's Journey into Night."

    Posted by: gr8guya | Aug 17, 2014 6:50:12 PM


  18. @gr8guya
    Good analysis. But Elizabeth Taylor is so beautiful, though, that it's beside the point even after all this time. "Suddenly Last Summer" documents for all time how lovely she was.

    Posted by: elg | Aug 17, 2014 7:12:28 PM


  19. I enjoyed this article a lot. But it's important to add that the screenplay adaptation was written by Gore Vidal (although Williams was credited at the time). A great gay writer adapting the work of an even greater gay writer. I find the film, and Vidal's screenplay, better than the play (not one of Williams' greats). I've always wondered if that's one of the reasons Williams hated the film.

    I also think that the great, great film director Joe Mankiewicz (All About Eve, Letter to Three Wives) deserves mention for why this odd film is so watchable. Apparently he didn't get along with his cast at all and apparently Hepburn spit in his face after her last shot, but what a film he made.

    Regarding the censorship: it is surprising the movie was made in 1959. But the producer Sam Spiegel asked the Production Code for a waiver, which was granted because Sebastian's bad end showed the horrors of homosexuality.

    I disagree with the notion that a remake in a "post-homophobic" time would "rescue" the material. The times that Tennessee Williams lived and wrote in, the unspeakableness of homosexuality, and his own internalized feelings are a vital part of his writing, and infuse the gay undercurrents of so much of his work. I think the fact that this film was made when it was made is part of the fascination and thrill of watching it.

    I also am not sure if a big screen remake of Cat would prove more insightful/enjoyable than the 1958 film. Although the material was censored, a lot of the beauty of the language and the ideas of the play are there to be enjoyed over and over in the film. As we've seen with TV performances (Natalie Wood/Robert Wagner, Jessica Lange/Tommy Lee Jones) of the unedited play (well, he wrote various versions but the 1973 version that was "final") and with Broadway revivals, no one but no one can match Taylor, Newman and Burl Ives. At least none that I've seen yet.

    I feel the same way about Suddenly Last Summer. The Maggie Smith/Rob Lowe/Natasha Richardson version reminded me of how glorious Hepburn, Taylor and Monty (even post-accident, painkiller-addicted Monty) were.

    Posted by: Robert | Aug 17, 2014 7:36:49 PM


  20. "Fag-hag horror". I love it! I now have a title for my memoirs. To paraphrase Henny Youngman; "Take my boyfriend's fag-hag...PLEASE!!!!

    Posted by: Bill | Aug 17, 2014 7:48:11 PM


  21. Oh, yes! I saw it the summer it was released, the same summer I graduated from high school. You might say it was "formative" for me, then again, you might say it was a warning about how grown-ups act, and then finally, it was the first movie I ever saw that validated the fact that we (gays!) exist. Imagine that?

    Posted by: Michael | Aug 17, 2014 7:52:32 PM


  22. The Maggie Smith version is on YouTube in six parts. The production is more theatrical than the movie, with Smith's Violet less a 'star turn' than Hepburn's, and for me, somewhat the better for it. There's also a snippet of the Roundabout Theatre production, with Blythe Danner playing Angela Lansbury playing Violet Venable.

    Posted by: Aunt Sharon | Aug 17, 2014 8:20:11 PM


  23. An odd and powerful film to be sure, this from one who does not jump on bandwagons. Liz was wonderful, Monty too, but cannibalizing someone? That's stupid. T. Williams' terrible sick streak made his stories depressing and joyless. They made you feel that life was basically, intrinsically ugly and that, indeed, cannibals wait at the bottom to devour our joy along with our lives. How pathetically, lunaticly "Southern" he was. Catharsis is one thing, immersion in the perverse is crap.

    Posted by: UFFDA | Aug 17, 2014 8:24:17 PM


  24. I have seen this movie on television and the gay censorship is appalling. The gay character of Sebastian is shown only briefly and from the neck down - they refuse to show his face or head. He was a headless man! Both funny and sad by today's standards.
    A very bizarre movie that is worth seeing simply because it is so bizarre.

    Posted by: David From Canada | Aug 17, 2014 8:45:21 PM


  25. Love this movie. It may not be everything a great movie can be, but it's Williams, Taylor, Hepburn and Clift. I can't imagine all the story that went over people's heads at the time but this is subversive drama, interesting themes and great acting. Everyone I have shared this movie with has loved it.

    Posted by: Omar | Aug 17, 2014 9:11:46 PM


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