So much of the controversial content of and colorful lore surrounding the film version of Tennessee Williams’ startling 1958 one-act play Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) is overheated that it’s a wonder that the film didn’t combust in the camera as production in London and Spain proceeded between May and September of that year. Yet suddenly, somehow, a legendary movie came out of all the contentiousness and chaos. Several autobiographical touches in the original play came from Williams’ own life: a complex, possibly smothering matriarch/brother/sister bond (earlier explored in The Glass Menagerie), the troubling specter of lobotomy as a medical treatment for a disturbed mind (which was employed in the case of Williams’ sister Rose), the lengths to which dark secrets should be buried or unrecognized (homosexuality, mixed with entitlement, as one’s true nature), the intervention of a sympathetic physician to excavate the unvarnished truth and effect emotional recovery (Williams began psychiatric treatment in mid-1957). Adding degrees of temperature is the very nature of this “Southern gothic,” spiced with references to a legendary Catholic saint and cannibalism. In his profile of the film’s director, Pictures Will Talk: The Life and Films of Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Kenneth L. Geist summarizes the feverish plot: “A wealthy harridan, Violet Venable [Katharine Hepburn], attempts to bribe Dr. John Cukrowicz [Montgomery Clift], a young psychosurgeon from a New Orleans mental hospital that is desperately in need of funds, into lobotomizing her niece, Catherine Holly [Elizabeth Taylor]. Violet wants the operation performed in order to prevent Catherine from defiling the memory of her son, the poet Sebastian. Catherine has been babbling obscenely about Sebastian’s death the previous summer. The climax of the play occurs when Catherine overcomes her memory block to recall, in a horrific monologue, that the pederast Sebastian had been dismembered and partially devoured by a band of starving Spanish urchins, some of whom Sebastian had courted.”
Gore Vidal, who reportedly did the heavy-lifting of the screenplay adaptation co-credited to both him and Williams, talks about the Legion of Decency’s feedback in this clip from the 1993 documentary The Celluloid Closet here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pzO9iXny8ME. On the Shepperton Studios set doubling for a sultry New Orleans, where Mankiewicz had to wear white gloves due to a troublesome skin condition, tensions made working conditions even balmier. Hepburn and Mankiewicz were at odds as to how much of Mrs. Venable’s delusional grasp of reality should be doled out through the course of the film up until the revelatory climax. Geist recounts: “While Hepburn had boned up on Tennessee Williams’ work and was certainly familiar with the role…, it appears she had second thoughts about it after production began, finding the role ‘unsympathetic, and [she] wanted to play the woman as insane in order to distance the role or remove herself from identification with it’…telling Mankiewicz, ‘If you only knew what it means to me when I have to say those things!’ Joe soothed, ‘That’s the play, and that’s what we have to do.’” Fresh off her Williams-conceived Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) triumph, Taylor was on firm ground portraying Catherine’s mix of hysterical vulnerability and spirited rebellion, and that carried into her defense of close friend and Raintree County co-star Clift, who was not in peak shape (Geist states: “It became evident that Clift’s problems were chronic and caused by drugs, drink and depression.”) and came close to being sacked on a couple of occasions, but for Taylor’s intervention. Photographed by Jack Hildyard (who had shot Hepburn earlier in Summertime (1955) and would again shoot Taylor in The V.I.P.s (1963)), and co-starring Mercedes McCambridge, Albert Dekker and Gary Raymond, the finished film screened for critics in December just prior to a pre-Christmas opening. It did not please them to the intense degree of the Williams play adaptation of the year before. So producer Sam Spiegel decided to take a page out of the Cat on a Hot Tin Roof playbook and add some heat to an initial winter chill. “To counter the negative reviews and the film’s inexplicit content,” Geist writes, “Spiegel and Columbia’s publicity department devised an ad campaign featuring Elizabeth Taylor spilling out of a low-cut white bathing suit with the copy line, ‘Suddenly last summer, Cathy knew she was being used for evil.’ The zaftig bathing beauty proved as magnetic a lure for the moviegoing public as she did, in the film, for the young men Sebastian coveted at the public beach. Williams’ reputation for perversity, combined with the critics’ denunciation of the film’s subject matter, served to rouse the public’s curiosity.” It landed among the year’s Top-10 highest-grossing Films, nabbed three Academy Award® nominations (Best Actress for Hepburn and Taylor, Best Art Direction/Set Decoration (B&W) for Oliver Messel, William Kellner and Scott Simon), and like a hothouse flower or even perhaps a Venus flytrap, still wields a peculiar fascination. How high will your thermometer climb this summer? Twilight Time’s Suddenly, Last Summer hi-def Blu-ray puts that to the test when it arrives August 15. Preorders open August 2.