Suddenly, Last Summer is an incredibly twisted southern gothic melodrama/mystery directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. It’s based on the play by Tennessee Williams, who is co-credited on the script with Gore Vidal, even though it’s very clearly Vidal’s work. Williams would later claim he had nothing to do with the film, which cements Vidal as the author of the script along with the fact that his wit is there throughout. Williams was very dismissive of most adaptations of his work—his favourite was Boom!, which was a notorious BOMB!
The film is about the young woman, Catherine Holly (Elizabeth Taylor), who is institutionalised after her cousin Sebastian dies under mysterious circumstances, while they were on holiday together somewhere in Europe. Sebastian’s mother Violet (Katherine Hepburn) is trying to bribe Dr. John Cukrowicz (Montgomery Clift) into lobotomizing her niece so she can’t reveal the family’s dark secret about Sebastian’s life and death.
It’s definitely a film that leaves you in complete shock when you learn that it was made in 1959. It deals pretty explicitly with homosexuality, mental illness, incest, drug abuse, and even cannibalism, to top it all off! Of course, Williams’ work often dealt with homosexuality openly, which at the time was deeply taboo, but the previous two films based on his work, A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, had to tackle the subject very subtly. Here it’s pretty much out in the open. The reason they got away with it was the producers worked in conjunction with various groups for “moral decency” such as the Production Code and “League of Decency,” who accepted it on the grounds that “since the film illustrates the horrors of such a lifestyle, it can be considered moral in theme even though it deals with sexual perversion.”
Given who is involved, the cast is excellent. Liz Taylor is at her ravishing peak and pulls out all her acting chops, even doing some method stuff, no doubt encouraged from Montgomery Clift. Hepburn does the auntie from hell, which is something she could do in her sleep. This is one of Clift’s first films after the car accident that nearly finished his career. He is undeniably “shaky” at times, but it actually adds realism to his performance.
Williams would later say that the film strayed so far from his original play that it would make him vomit. For his part, Mankiewicz would say Williams’s source material was “badly constructed … based on the most elementary Freudian psychology.” In turn, Vidal hated how they changed the ending, which I can only assume he had originally made more explicit, given that he was always a provocateur. The production was evidently traumatic for Hepburn, who reportedly asked Mankiewicz on her final shooting day whether her services were still needed. When Mankiewicz confirmed they weren’t, Hepburn spat in his face. It’s rumoured that she also spat in producer Sam Siegel’s face, but sources differ on that one.
With all the drama on the set, and despite the fact that Mankiewicz later denounced his own film, it’s by far the best production of his that I’ve seen. In any case, Suddenly, Last Summer ended up becoming a great success, no doubt helped by a salacious poster that featured Liz Taylor in a white bikini. Taylor and Hepburn were Oscar-nominated, but both lost out.
The disc includes an array of archival and newly filmed interviews with cast and crew, including archival footage of Liz Taylor talking about Montgomery Clift soon after his death. Dan Ireland’s Trailer from Hell is also included, along with the stills gallery and a booklet with new and old writing on the film.