SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER
Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Stars: Elizabeth Taylor, Katharine Hepburn, Montgomery Clift
Suddenly Last Summer is cinema’s gay horn of plenty, a fabulous gothic thriller and a pantheon of renowned gay artists and gay icons and it’s disappointing – though sadly not surprising - that contemporary gay culture has all but ignored it.
The film is directed by four-time Oscar winner Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who made All About Eve.
America’s two premier twentieth-century gay writers, Gore Vidal and Tennessee Williams, collaborate to form a once-only screenwriting dream team, adapting Williams’ one-act play. To repeat, the screenplay is written by Gore Vidal and Tennessee Williams.
Montgomery Clift, after his car accident and well into serious decline, stars as a neurosurgeon who specialises in lobotomies for hysterical schizophrenics.
Elizabeth Taylor plays his patient.
And Katharine Hepburn plays her aunt.
Beyond this flabbergasting roll call lies a sinister story of sodomy, secrecy and insanity, where exotic plants, Mexican youths and protective mothers all devour flesh, in one way or another …
Dr. Cukrowicz (Clift) desperately needs money to fund the neurosurgery department of his crumbling local hospital. Enter Violet Venable (Hepburn), a zillionairesss widow who wants her institutionalized niece Catherine (Taylor) lobotomized before she can say too much about Violet’s beloved dandy son, Sebastian, who was on summer holiday with Catherine at the time of his sensational, suspicious death. Violet is happy to hand over a blank cheque to Dr Cukrowicz’s hospital, as long as he severs Catherine’s prefrontal cortex, and pronto - before anyone learns of Sebastian’s creepy sexuality.
Apparently, Catherine was the last to see Sebastian alive, and the outrageous circumstances of his death have rendered her amnesiac and hysterical. She’s been placed in an asylum administered by nuns, who keep a safe distance from their new inmate, the crackerjack siren who smokes, swears, and only needs to get a hold of a hair brush and a bra to unleash the genie. Flirtatious Catherine tries to persuade Dr Cukrowicz that she can regain her serenity without him having to drill a hole in her skull.
Bookended around Dr Cukrowicz thus, Catherine and Violet tear at him with their considerable power sets. In a memorable confrontation, Catherine reminds Violet that she’s too old to “attract”, a skill highly regarded by Sebastian, who apparently loved to have a beautiful woman nearby to lure sexy guys for his own use. Violet, holding firm to all the purse strings, remains understandably calm.
Sadly we don’t ever get to see Sebastian, beyond a few shots of his legs and his blurry moving form in long shot. However, his shameless carnality, high-voltage charisma, and Tennessee Williams lineage give him weight without presence.
Suddenly, Last Summer unrolls creakily like a one-act play, which it originally was. There are only half a dozen major scenes in the film, some running for well over fifteen minutes, and featuring great actors in spectacular Williams duologues. Bizarre highlights include Violet descending in a one-storey one-person elevator, Catherine (dressed to the nines) stumbling across an asylum catwalk grabbed at by horny male inmates, and a surreal Mediterranean cannibalism scene that’s straight out of Pasolini.
Oh, and IV-ecstasy/crystal meth users note: the scene where Catherine gets shot up with “truth serum” then gets real chatty, before tongue kissing everyone in sight is a thing for you to treasure.