The ravishing Elizabeth Taylor enjoys the surf in Suddenly, Last Summer.
Tennessee Williams wasn't exactly known for writing lighthearted plays and Suddenly, Last Summer is probably the darkest of them all. Insanity and cannibalism being its main themes. The story is over-the-top and melodramatic and it paints an incredibly depressing and destructive picture of homosexuality. Considering that Williams was a gay man from the south living in the time that he did it is perhaps understandable that the character of Sebastian Venable is portrayed as such a selfish monster.
The talent involved here is amazing. The screenplay was written by Gore Vidal and Williams from his play. The legendary Joseph L. Mankiewicz directed it and the cast boasts Elizabeth Taylor, Katharine Hepburn, Montgomery Clift and Mercedes McCambridge. Taylor and Hepburn both give brilliant performances and seem to be trying their best to upstage each other. Clift, in the much less showy role, merely reacts in a mild mannered voice to the histrionics of the two female stars.
The story concerns the aftermath of the death of Sebastian Venable, a gay man from a wealthy southern family. He is never shown except in the final flashback and even then we never see his face. His mother Violet is in denial about his homosexuality as well as the gruesome manner in which her son died. His cousin Catherine is the only one who knows the whole truth but she has suffered a nervous breakdown and now the ruthless Violet wants to shut her up permanently by way of a lobotomy. Clift plays the surgeon being pressured into performing the operation in order to secure a large donation for a new hospital wing from Mrs. Venable.
As with all of Tennessee Williams' plays it is the characters and their dialogue that shines. He was truly the American Oscar Wilde. Mrs. Venable is a classic persona, her entrance and exit on her elevator are great moments. She describes her time with Sebastian in this way. "We would carve each day like a piece of sculpture, leaving behind us a trail of days like a gallery of sculpture until suddenly, last summer." Catherine, though a bit less defined, says things like, "Is that what love is? Using people? And maybe that's what hate is - not being able to use people."
The most iconic moment from the movie is Elizabeth Taylor in that tight bathing suit on the beach. Her voluptuous breasts heaving, and then her primal scream when she sees Sebastian's body.
The problems with the movie are its lack of plot and its staginess. The story doesn't really allow for it to be opened up for the screen. The opening scene between Clift and Hepburn and the final scene in Sebastian's garden are the only truly great scenes in the movie. The rest of it is trite melodrama. The ending, however, remains one of the most disturbing and bizarre moments in 50's cinema.
Photos © Copyright Columbia Pictures (1959)