Movie: Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)

Every time somebody says the title of Suddenly, Last Summer in the 1959 film, I suddenly can’t get that song by 80’s band The Motels out of my head.  Go figure, those words get spoken about 10 times or so over the course of the film.

This movie pairs Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor, who had been together previously in A Place In the Sun and Raintree County.  Clift is a psychiatrist and neurological surgeon who specializes in lobotomies.  Taylor is his latest ward, a woman who has lost her grasp on reality after something caused the death of her cousin, Sebastian, when they were on vacation last summer.  Word on the street is it happened suddenly.

Katherine Hepburn plays Sebastian’s wealthy mother.  She is willing to endow a very large amount of money to the struggling hospital where Clift works, but only if he will give Taylor a lobotomy.  Hepburn is very insistent this surgery be performed, as Taylor has apparently been spreading “scandalous” stories about her dead son.

This picture was based on a play by Tennessee Williams, and the screenplay is a collaboration between him and Gore Vidal.  Needless to say, it isn’t any surprise this movie is about what used to be described as “the love that dare not speak its name”.

What greatly surprised me is how this picture all but says completely outright what was going on.  The standards of the time required such a tap-dance around the subject, that I was shocked a major studio could get away with this.  Well, John Wayne publicly condemned the picture, as if that counts for anything.

At first, I suspected Sebastian’s secret love was something far more nefarious and still a major taboo.  We first meet Hepburn at her mansion, where she shows Clift Sebastian’s garden: an overgrown jungle full of exotic plants.  The way she speaks of her son, and the incredible closeness of their relationship raised a red flag.

No need to worry, as it turns out he was simply gay.  The manner of his death, however, is pretty shocking.  We will see in flashback the events immediately preceding it and they are surreal and unnerving.  But the full extent of what happens is only hinted at by Taylor.  It took a while for me to wrap my brain around the what she has suggested, and I just kind of took a step back and went, “Oh.”

Taylor, as always, gives the best performance of the film.  As for Clift, I haven’t seen him in many things, but his acting here is interesting and curious.  He is always slightly hunched over and frequently looks a bit terrified.  His eyes seem to float in an unusual way which intrigued me.  It was only afterwards I learned filming this came after the car accident that radically changed his life for the worse.

I wouldn’t count myself as a fan of Katherine Hepburn, but I will concede she is perfect for this role.  I have always found her to be smug, superior and aloof, and all those qualities serve her well as a wealthy ice queen here.  She especially has a number of interesting bits in the only scene staged in her son’s room, which has at least 100% more pictures and statues of naked men than that of the average heterosexual male.  I found it interesting she offers Clift a seat in a jester’s chair: “It suits you.  Make me laugh.”  I also like Clift’s response: “I’d make a horrible jester.  I get concerned when people stop wanting to cry”.

The director was Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the genius who helmed All About Eve.  This movie is nowhere near as amazing as that one, but he was a wizard for getting great performances from his actors.  He also has a good eye for interesting visuals.  The opening shot has a woman who is about to be lobotomized trying to keep a doll’s face lit in the light of the setting sun, as the rays ascend the wall.  There is a interesting parallel shortly after this when Taylor is in a stairwell after being let out of her room.  She tries to reach the rays of sunlight coming through a window just out of her reach.

Suddenly, Last Summer is weapons-grade melodrama, but I found myself engaged by it, nonetheless.  Admittedly, by the end of it, it goes into such hysterics that it put some distance between me and the material.  I’m not sure I believe everything in it, but I am willing to regard the fantastic in this as symbolic.  This is a much weirder film than I anticipated, and it is all the better for it.

Dir: Joseph L. Mankewicz

Starring Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Clift, Katherine Hepburn

Watched on Twilight Time blu-ray