It represented the work of some of the gayest talent in the history of Hollywood: Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Clift, Gore Vidal and Tennessee Williams. But was it, in fact, one big exercise in homophobia?
By Christopher M. MacNeil
“Based on the play by Tennessee Williams” is a film credit that usually warns a movie-goer that he’s about to have a gay time – literally. And “Suddenly, Last Summer” certainly lives up to playwright Williams’ trademark of sneaking in the gay in the riskiest of times and places.
This one, from 1959 and set in New Orleans in 1937 when homosexuality was not only taboo but also a criminal offense and mental perversion, is either one of filmdom’s gayest or most homophobic movies ever. There may be little room to argue that “Suddenly, Last Summer” would be critically trashed by today’s politically correct standards as a hate film that promulgates homosexuality with every bias, stigma and stereotype that can be imagined.
A synopsis of the film’s plot can be summarized with the single sentence that Elizabeth Taylor is traumatized after seeing her gay cousin cannibalized by his ex-tricks and Katharine Hepburn, as the unfortunate man’s regal but overly affectionate mother, sets sail on the cuckoo cruise.
Almost lost in the cinematic melodrama of interpersonal family conflict and secrets that are to be hidden at any cost is Montgomery Clift. As the sometimes daft shrink caught between both women – and in real life securely closeted when being openly gay was career suicide – Monty rides to the rescue, breaks through Taylor’s amnesia of her cousin’s demise and saves her from a life locked away in a state cuckoo’s nest. He has less success with Hepburn as she loses her already tenuous hold on reality and retreats to a time that died with her son the summer before.
Not even the A-list acting prowess of Taylor, Hepburn and Clift or the craftsmanship of fabled director Joseph L. Mankiewicz can lift this sappy soap to little more than an overly soaped soap. Although screenplay credit was given to Tennessee Williams, Gore Vidal did the actual writing, and the dialogue he concots for his characters is so laden with metaphors that the film-goer has to ask what country New Orleans is in. Litte wonder that Williams, in 1973, trashed the screenplay he said made him want to “throw up.” He also chastised the abuse of Taylor’s already established talent in a role that he described as “something evil.”
Even the New York Times, in its review of the film, dismissed it as “tedious talking and a terminal showdown that is irritatingly obscure” in the climatic closing scenes when Taylor’s amnesia is gradually broken down by moviedom’s mythical “truth” drug and Clift’s as the psychiatrist prodding Taylor toward recall of her cousin’s violent demise.
Nonetheless, despite critical denunciation, “Suddenly, Last Summer” was a hit where it counts – at the box office. On its release in 1959, the movie raked in domestic receipts of $13,897,500 – or $52,570,468 in 2015 bucks.
Taylor is indeed in unchartered waters in this one and unfamiliar in her role as Catherine Holly, a vulnerable and often weak southern belle who finds reprieve from total insanity in the form of amnesia after witnessing her cousin’s canibalist slaughter just weeks after being raped. Catherine is far removed from Taylor’s role just a year earlier as the senuous and determined Maggie the Cat in another Tennnesse Williams-inspired but far superior film, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”
Likewise for Hepburn. As Violet Venable, the super-rich matriarchial bitch scheming to bury her dead son’s disgrace as a gay man with his corpse, Hepburn is out of step here from her earlier characters that defined her as a woman of integrity, guts and independence. Still, she and Taylor were both nominated for Best Actress Oscars – for some reason – but both lost to French actress Simone Signoret for “Room at the Top.”
Clift, as Taylor’s psychiatrist, Dr. John Cukrowicz – a Polish word meaning sugar, he tells Violet – is little more than a supporting player whose pscho-babbling to explain Catherine’s psychiatric demons is pseudo or surface Freudism at best.
What Williams wanted to achieve when he wrote this as a play that gave birth to the movie is a mystery, but it certainly was was not to send a positive LGBT message. “Suddenly, Last Summer” as a contemporary movie would be scathed – rightfully so – as vile right-wing homphobic propaganda to villify, demonize and stigmatize gay people as dangerous sexual predators whose sole function in life is scouting the next victim of their criminal sexual deviance.
Williams enforces all that – we can only hope unintentionally or unwittingly – in his creation of Sebastian Venable, the movie’s central character whose face is never seen and whose lifetime of soliciting gay sex feeds directly into his death. Born to mega-millionaire parents whose wealth survives the ruin of the Great Depression, the privileged and pampered Sebastian is a self-described poet by occupation who apparently spends nine months a year working up to a single “Poem of Summer” – and he apparently needs the other three months of the year to write it.
Sebastian’s literary masterpieces are penned on international travels with mom Violet as his solicitious companion until, “Suddenly, Last Summer,” she gets laid up with a “hysterical stroke” and cousin Catherine is recruited to fill in as Sebastian’s traveling bud. And it is on a blistering hot day in Spain when Sebastian meets his fate with his cousin watching and, as Catherine’s brother George later characterizes it, Catherine goes off her rocker.
Shipped back home to New Orleans and apparently spilling the circumstances of Sebastian’s death to his mother, Catherine is quickly slapped by aunt Vi into a psychiatrict institution. Enter Clift’s character of Dr. Cukrowicz, a psychatric neurosurgeon transplanted from Chicago to a Louisiana state mental hospital. His specialty is treating the sickest of the sick with a then-new surgical procedure – labotomy.
Violet, in desperation to safeguard her late son’s reputation, looks up the good doctor hoping he will latomomize Catherine, thus securing her son’s untarnished reputation. And, as leverage to get her way, Vi dangles the encticement of a $1 million grant to the cash-strapped state hospital where Cukrowicz works.
Although Catherine has buried Sebastian’s fate in the deepest depths of her memory, she hasn’t forgotten that both she and aunt Vi accompanied the globetrotting Seabastian as “decoys” who “procured” for him. We figure out soon enough the women solicited men to get it on sexually with Sebastian.
The film meanders through confrontations between Taylor and Hepburn while a befuddled Cukrowicz stands by and looks on passively, there’s a failed suicide attempt by Catherine and then the undramatic and unfulfilling climax in which all is revealed. The short of it: a troop of Sebastian’s ex-tricks and their friends looking to cash in chase the poor man down, overwhelm him and literally eat him.
We are left at movie’s end with Catherine apparently restored and whole, back on her rocker and smiling glowingly after poor Violet, her slender thread to reality broken by Catherine’s recall, has retreated to a time when all was perfect in the world that only she and Sebastian occupied. Their world, centered in a sprawling mansion on a sprawling estate, is far from majestic and instead is an unsettling backdrop in the film. At Sebastian’s insistence, the grounds of the Venable estate have been dug up and remade to look like Earth when it was first created for some reason, looking like something “a little frightening” in Cukrowicz’ opinion.
“Suddenly, Last Summer” fails on far too many levels, from the methaphor-laden dialogue and the misuse of some of the industry’s greatest talents to the unsatisfying and preditable anti-climactic climax. So lame and tedious is the dialogue that the film’s most memorable line comes from Catherine’s brother, George, visiting his sister with their mother for the first time since Catherine was institutionalized. “I’m so nervous I could jump out of my skin,” Catherine’s mother tells Cukrowicz. “Well don’t, Mama,” George sheepishly mutters.
In supporting roles, Mercedes McCambridge as Catherine’s mother and Gary Raymond as brother George do admirably with the material they’re given. Their characters, introduced initially as gold diggers, are somewhat redeemed in the film’s closing sequence with their only objective then being to get Catherine de-institutionalized, away from Aunt Vi and back home.
“Suddenly, Last Summer,” if produced and released today, would likely – perhaps justifiably – draw picket lines for its distorted and demonic characterization of gay people while being hailed by religious and pro-family extremists as an example of the threat gays present to society and children. Through Sebastian Venable, gay men are presented as sexually insatiable predators, even pedophiles, whose only desire in life is to stalk their next sexual victims and seduce them with the promise of a financial payoff. A gnawing and unsettling feeling we get from the movie is that Sebastian got what he deserved, a premature and bloody end of a life dedicated to physical satification of a sexual perversion.
Unless “Suddenly, Last Summer” appeals to the homophobe or as a guilty pleasure, skip it and catch Taylor in one of her superior roles, as Maggie the Cat opposite Paul Newman in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” another film with gay insinuations. “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” unlike “Suddenly, Last Summer,” at least doesn’t bash gay people and whip up stigma and demonization in hefty servings on a silver platter.