Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)

Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz; Written by Gore Vidal and Tennessee Williams

Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Suddenly, Last Summer is a perverse pleasure for most of its runtime. Right up until the last 10 minutes, where it’s a frenzied triumph, setting a high water mark for Elizabeth Taylor, and providing Katharine Hepburn with a chance to rule as the queen of perversion. 

Watching from the wings is Montgomery Clift who plays Dr. Cuckrowicz, a brain surgeon toiling away in an underfunded state hospital. On the verge of quitting and heading back to Chicago, he gets a call from Ms. Venable, the richest lady in town, requesting he come meet her. The topic of discussion is her niece, who she claims has lost her mind and stands to benefit from the operation he specializes in: a lobotomy. 

Meeting with the niece, the young and impetuous Catherine, and learning how her trauma stems from the untimely death of Catherine’s cousin Sebastian, he decides to investigate, sensing something far more sinister than insanity is at play. 

It marks the beginning of a story of incest, homophobia, and draconian plots against one’s own kin concocted out of twisted jealousy, and while that’s fun on its own, to watch Suddenly, Last Summer is to watch the landscape of cinema change. 

Stylistically, Mankiewicz’s direction is born out of the classic studio system, and based on Tennessee Williams’ play, it doesn’t involve any major setups or showpieces. Rather, it’s neat, tidy, and well-versed in the visual syntax of the time. It doesn’t necessarily detract, but from a purely visual perspective, there’s not a lot to get you to sit up for most of the film. 

Where Suddenly, Last Summer is mesmerizing is in its subject matter and how it toes the line, making said subject matter all the more traumatizing and twisted in how it remains a hushed evil. Ms. Venable’s disturbing descriptions of her “bond” with her now-deceased son, and Catherine’s terror at the memory of his last moments is impossible to not want to see play out, and Clift’s sweet-mannered detective’s prying into both is all the more compelling because of it, as you feel you would most likely have walked away from it all the moment Ms. Venable descends from her upstairs living quarters in a throne-like elevator, talking at you all the while. 

In the U.S., the biggest films of the year were Rio Bravo, Ben-Hur, North By Northwest, all classics, but works by masters who were of the definite past, and you could still find schmaltz from a bygone era like Pillow Talk in theaters. In France, the new wave was rolling with The 400 Blows and Hiroshima, Mon Amour releasing that year, the latter taking sledgehammer to established cinematic form. Amongst all this is Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who had a 30-year career behind him working for Paramount, MGM and Twentieth Century Fox before going independent, starting his own production company, and directing on the side, with Suddenly, Last Summer coming during this period where the Hays Code was on its last legs. 

You couldn’t imagine Suddenly, Last Summer releasing a decade prior during a period where post-war cynicism funded noirs and their associated crimes and misdemeanors. The sin at play in Suddenly, Last Summer is taboo to consider today, let alone sixty years ago, and Mankiewicz producing a story like this, with a star-studded roster to boot, is exciting from a purely historical context.

Hepburn, one of golden age’s biggest and most iconoclastic stars, adds an all-timer in Ms. Venable. Hepburn was already a unique romantic star in the old system, her wit, energy and fortitude making her a mercurial presence within the system. Too beautiful and charming to not be a romantic interest, too “smart” and “combative” be simple arm candy. While this gave her more room character-wise, Ms. Venable is different still, as a domineering ice queen with sordid motivations. 

Taylor is similarly peaking here, dialing down from sexual lionness to mere ocelot, just a bit more subdued, demure and coy, but still retaining her simmering ability for manipulation with those blue eyes. Our prevailing view of Taylor remains her imperious performances, and here there’s vulnerability and desperation, even if they have tinges of coercion attached to them. 

Opposite this bright wattage is Montgomery Clift, who could easily become a shadow on the wall, but he plays around the edges, his vulgar eyebrows curling above his sensual eyes and quiet demeanor as a consummate professional made just slightly less so by the siren that is Catherine. A symphony of perfomances. 

Not only does Suddenly, Last Summer have history’s lift under its wings, it also has star power, envelope-pushing storytelling, and twisted thematic suggestions – who says no to that? 

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