Although incest, cannibalism, and homosexuality were not the most common themes in Hollywood studio pictures of the fifties, the literary world was rife with such subject matter, so “Suddenly Last Summer,” Tennessee Williams’ one-act play comprised of two monologues and a bit of filler, didn’t shock anybody when it opened off Broadway in 1958. A year later, the movie with Elizabeth Taylor, Katherine Hepburn, and Montgomery Clift weirded audiences out by its evasive handling of the taboo themes, making the climactic moments creepier than they would have been had the play not been bowdlerized.
The movie is notable for the clash of acting styles among the three principals. As Violet Venable, Katherine Hepburn seems to be preparing for the part of Mary Tyrone in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” all neurotic Yankee venom where there should be aimless Rebel digression. Her performance is a blend of white-water verbosity and visual monstrosity. Witnessing her is like watching the Bride of Frankenstein playing Lady MacBeth. Taylor, who had just played Maggie in Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” offers soft respite from Hepburn, in spite of being too high above the Mason-Dixon line for the part of Catherine Holly. This is a recurring problem with both stage and screen versions of Williams’ plays.
It is too bad there was not a stronger regional theatre in his time, where his plays might have had their first productions with a Southern cast, instead of being forever ruined by the strong yet wrong interpretations by mugs like Marlon Brando that ill-defined the characters. Nevertheless, Taylor made a better Williams heroine than did either Barbara Bel Geddes or Kim Hunter. It is shocking that there was so much resistance to her being cast as Martha in the film of Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” as it was the perfect Yankee matron resolution of the Southern Belles she had playing for the previous decade. Montgomery Clift is a real stiff in the thankless role of the lobotomy doctor who has to stand around and listen to the two women give their versions of the death of young Sebastian in endless flights of theatrical passion. Anybody with a bad headache could come across just as troubled as Clift in any of the interchangeable parts he played in Hollywood. This was his third movie with Taylor, and their attempts to forge a romantic chemistry became more grotesque with each picture. Off screeen, however, they were quite good friends. The improbable casting, however, just adds to the strange allure of “Suddenly Last Summer.”
A shock cut from an extreme close of Taylor’s peaches and cream complexion to Hepburn’s gloppy zombie make-up is thrown in to emphasize how hideous Hepburn is, for those who couldn’t see it on their own. Then there is the scene in which Clift starts making out with Taylor when he is supposed to be preparing her for a lobotomy, One of my favorite parts is when Taylor starts repeating the word ”suddenly,” just as Hepburn did in a previous monologue, and then, after saying “suddenly” about a hundred times, she blurts out the whole phrase, “suddenly, last summer.” I love it when the title of a movie appears in the dialog, especially when it is repeated by more than one character. It is the visuals that accompany Taylor’s final monologue that will make you look twice and ask yourself if you are seeing subliminal images from Bunuel’s “L’Age d’Or” on this beach that is teeming with male prostitutes who just swam in from Tangier. The late fifties to the early sixties mark the true golden age of Hollywood movies, and “Suddenly, Last Summer” was one of the first psycho-soaps to salaciously titillate with forbidden subject matter. There was more to come: Sam Fuller’s “The Naked Kiss” and “Shock Treatment,” Martin Ritt’s “Hud,” Edward Dmytryk’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” Gottfried Reinhardt’s “Town Without Pity,” and Sidney Lumet’s”The Pawnbroker.” England gave us Basil Dearden’s “Victim,” Sidney J. Furies’ “The Leather Boys,” and Joseph Losey’s “The Servant.” If you enjoyed any of these pictures, “Suddenly, Last Summer,” is a sure bet. It is a breakthrough in adult entertainment, even if censorship issues forced them to shy away from naming the name of the name that can’t be named.