Yesterday evening I went to the Lighthouse Cinema in Smithfield. It is currently running a Katharine Hepburn film season, and is screening various highlights from her illustrious career. ‘Suddenly last summer’ from 1959 was last night’s film.
Based on a one act play by Southern belle Tennessee Williams, adapted for the screen by Gore Vidal, it stars Elizabeth Taylor, Katharine Hepburn and Montgomery Clift.
It tells the tale of a doctor played by Clift, who works as a neuro-surgeon at an insane asylum in New Orleans. His specialty is the performance of lobotomy on disturbed patients.
He is summoned by society widow Violet Venable (Katharine Hepburn) to her gothic mansion, and is promised funding for a state of the art lobotomy surgery if he helps her with one pesky little problem – her niece Catharine Holly (Elizabeth Taylor).
The previous summer Violet’s son Sebastian died in mysterious circumstances while holidaying with Catharine in Spain. Sebastian had been a very non-prolific poet who wrote a single poem each year while in hot climes. In earlier years he had taken his mother on this annual vacation. Last summer Mother Dearest was kept at home and instead Catharine accompanied him.
On her return to the US, Violet has Catharine locked away in a psychiatric hospital run by nuns. Catharine is BABBLING – making all sorts of wild accusations about Sebastian’s behaviour and activities, that don’t quite match the heart attack listed on the death certificate as the official cause of death. Violet would like the doctor to perform a nifty little LOBOTOMY on Catharine – to shut up all her filthy talk.
Catharine seems unable to remember exactly how Sebastian died. The good doctor administers a TRUTH SERUM to jog her memory. The whole sordid tale emerges.
In the past Sebastian had taken his mother on his annual trip. But now, Violet’s looks were fading so she needed to be replaced by Catharine.
But why did he need the company of these women?
It turns out that Sebastian was a raving SODOMITE. He required the presence of his mother and Catharine to LURE young men into his company.
Catharine explains it to a distraught Violet ‘He used us as BAIT, Violet. We PROCURED for him.’
Suddenly last summer Sebastian miscalculated and met his sorry end by being CANNIBALISED by starving Spanish men.
It’s an utterly bizarre, yet mesmerising film.
At the time reference to homosexuality was strictly forbidden by the film censors. So nothing is openly said. Not much reading between the lines to understand the subtext though. In fact to trick the censor the film’s trailer declared ‘Suddenly last summer, Catharine realised she was being used for something EVIL!!!!!!!!!!’ Just to drive home the point that death and annihilation awaited those who engaged in implied sodomy and vice.
The film is creepy and atmospheric. The acting style is hammy, melodramatic and over the top (particularly from Hepburn and Liz). A sense of claustrophobia pervades the whole piece.
It was filmed a mere two years after Montgomery Clift (a closeted homosexual in real life) almost died while drunk driving home after a party in Liz’s house. Painful recovery and surgery left him hooked on pills and booze, and he found the filming very difficult. Taylor and Hepburn were appalled at the abusive manner in which the director treated him. On the last day of filming when Hepburn asked the director Joseph Mankiewicz if she was finished. When he told her yes, she responded by spitting in his face.
I had heard about the film many times over the years but had never seen it. It’s remembered as one of the earliest films in which the topic of homosexuality is the unspoken theme (the previous year Liz Taylor and Paul Newman starred in another Tennessee Williams adaptation called ‘Cat on a hot tin roof’ in which a gay subtext underlies the piece – just not quite as blatant as in ‘Suddenly last summer.’
I thoroughly enjoyed it. Although it wouldn’t win any awards for positive representation of gay lives in the modern era (in fact it wouldn’t get made today).
I will be keeping my beady eyes open for future black and white film screenings from the golden era of Hollywood.
Why don’t all these wonderful films get shown on television. There’s an absolute treasure trove waiting to be rediscovered.