Suddenly Last Summer

Columbia Tri-Star DVD, 1959

Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Gore Vidal
Based on the play by:
Tennessee Williams

Elizabeth Taylor,
Katharine Hepburn,
Montgomery Clift,
Albert Dekker, Mercedes McCambridge, Gary Raymond, Mavis Villiers, David Cameron

Unrated, 114 minutes

Who's Afraid Of Sebastian Venable?
by Michael D. Klemm
Posted online, December, 2008

According to popular legend, playwright Tennessee Williams underwent psychoanalysis in 1957 to "cure" his homosexuality and the play Suddenly Last Summer was the result. This is inaccurate; the truth is much more complicated than that and will be discussed in more detail below. Many view Suddenly Last Summer, especially the film version, as being one of the ultimate artistic expressions of a self loathing queer. The inclusion of a negatively portrayed homosexual is hardly proof of this; Williams' fiction is populated with far more grotesque examples of heterosexuals.

It's time to dispel a few myths. This essay is intended to rescue Williams from these charges and also to closely examine one of his most evocative and challenging works. The exquisitely filmed movie was realized by an A-list director with a dream cast of Hollywood icons, It is regrettable that its achievement has been overshadowed by the more sensationalistic aspects of its adaptation. This will be a lengthy and in-depth discussion and so please be warned that there will be substantial spoilers ahead.

Suddenly Last Summer takes place in 1937. Dr. John Cukrowicz (Montgomery Clift) is a young neurosurgeon who has been summoned to the palatial home of a widowed, and very wealthy, matriarch named Violet Venable (Katherine Hepburn). Violet is prepared to donate a large sum of money to fund the doctor's research at the state mental hospital, provided that he operates on her supposedly insane niece, Catherine (Elizabeth Taylor).

Violet shows the doctor around her late son Sebastian's garden; a primordial jungle that resembles "the dawn of creation." Violet is obsessed with her son Sebastian; a poet who died abroad under mysterious circumstances the previous summer. Catherine was with him when he died and she has been locked away so that nobody can listen to her "obscene babble." It seems that Catherine's fantastic tale is "a hideous attack on [her] son's moral character" and Violet wants her to be silenced. The doctor's specialty, you see, is a charming new surgical technique known as a lobotomy.
As the doctor speaks with Catherine, it soon becomes apparent that there is much more to the story. Violet and Sebastian were fashionable jetsetters who went everywhere together and surrounded themselves with sophisticated and beautiful people. But when Violet suffered a disfiguring stroke she was no longer "useful" to her son and so he took his beautiful young cousin, Catherine, with him on his final vacation instead. "We procured for him!" Catherine defiantly declares and - even though the dreaded "h" word is never uttered - it becomes obvious that Sebastian harbored a taste for young men. Catherine is unable to remember the exact circumstances of Sebastian's death on the beach at Cabeza de Lobo but, after taking a truth serum, she finally reveals that he was killed and devoured by the same starving boys whom he had, himself, exploited earlier. The truth drives Aunt Violet mad.
This was heavy stuff for a Hollywood film in 1959 and the filmmakers endured, of course, much censorship before Suddenly Last Summer made it to the screen and the viewer is forced to read between the lines to gleam the truth about Sebastian. However, the same truth that could not be told about Brick and Skipper in the previous year's film version of Williams' Cat On A Hot Tin Roof became the basis for a new breed of Hollywood horror film with the newest screen monster being cast as a homosexual. The film - after the appropriate cuts were made - was approved by The Catholic Legion Of Decency because it, in their view, portrayed the horrors and inevitable outcome of such a sinful lifestyle. As if all queers died at the hands of cannibalistic third world rent boys.
Vito Russo, writing in The Celluloid Closet, called Suddenly Last Summer the ultimate "psychosexual freak show" demanded by the end of the 1950s and many other gay critics and scholars have jumped on the same bandwagon. Tennessee Williams, they say, was never a proud gay man and Suddenly Last Summer was the result of his own suffocating self loathing. For proof, they pointed to the time that he spent in psychoanalysis during the months before he wrote his play. But who is the real monster in Suddenly Last Summer? Let's take a closer look at both the play and the film. First, its genesis...
As stated earlier, popular legend holds that Williams went to a psychiatrist to be cured of being gay. The truth is that Williams' distant father had recently died, his previous play, Orpheus Descending, had been a critical and commercial failure, he suffered from paranoia, depression and anxiety, and he was in danger of becoming an alcoholic. Williams was also plagued by a life-long guilt regarding his fragile sister, Rose. Laura, in The Glass Menagerie, was inspired by his sister. Rose was diagnosed with schizophrenia and, when institutionalized, was prone to what was called sexual babbling. This was partially the result of a very Puritan upbringing. When she accused her father of rape, her mother signed the papers for Rose to have a lobotomy. The operation silenced Rose and left her incapacitated for life. The playwright was away at school when this happened, in 1937, and he never forgave his parents for the violence done to his sister.
I am indebted to Michael Pallar's fine book, Gentlemen Callers: Tennessee Williams, Homosexuality And Mid-Twentieth Century Drama (2005) for providing the following facts regarding the time spent by the playwright in psychoanalysis. Pallar writes that it may have been a referral from fellow playwright William Inge that sent Williams to the offices of Dr. Lawrence Kubie. In 1957, Kubie was a leading figure in American psychiatry and his list of patients included several closeted writers. Kubie once held an important post as a military psychologist and his role during the 1940s, in drafting the military's stance on homosexuality for the purposes of exclusion from service, cannot be overstated.

During the course of their sessions together, Kubie's advice to Williams was to give up both sex and writing. Because Williams remained with his longtime lover, Frank Merlo, and continued to write, it is evident that he ignored most of the famous doctor's guidance. But their sessions together seem to have ignited a new creative spark. Undoubtedly, the two men discussed the playwright's family and that would mean that sister Rose's lobotomy was right up there on the marquee. Using the threat of a lobotomy as a weapon is the key to understanding Suddenly Last Summer. Could this negative portrayal of neurosurgery be his way of attacking and rejecting the norms society would impose on him and his way of life? Williams would eventually break with Kubie, and he was still queer.

If, as many of Williams' detractors claim, Suddenly Last Summer was meant to condemn his own homosexuality, why is so much time also spent damning the threatened lobotomy and all its inherent barbarism? Again, I ask all queer theorists just who the "monster" in Suddenly Last Summer is. Is it Sebastian Venable or is really it his mother, Violet?

Suddenly Last Summer is not "about "homosexuality; there just happens to be a dead homosexual at the center of the story. It is about truth and lies, and about how we, as humans, use people for our own ends. "Sebastian used people," Catherine tells the doctor. "Isn't that what love is? Using people?" It also examines how all living things, human, animal and plantlife, devour each other in order to survive.
Like A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, the queer is dead before the play even begins. The audience learns about Sebastian Venable when his mother shows the doctor through the late poet's garden. The film doesn't begin the same way as the play and these differences will be discussed later. The play opens with a tour of Sebastian's "well-groomed jungle." Like a docent in a museum, Violet describes the first exhibit, a Venus Fly Trap that devours live insects - and thus establishes the major theme. Violet has dedicated herself to the memory of her son. There is something creepy about all of this and its not just the overdone prehistoric setting. An almost incestuous air pervades her discourse as she beams about how she and her son were a "famous couple."

"People didn't speak of Sebastian and his mother or Mrs. Venable and her son, they said 'Sebastian and Violet, Violet and Sebastian are staying at the Lido, they're staying at the Ritz in Madrid. Sebastian and Violet, Violet and Sebastian have taken a house at Biarritz for the season, and every appearance, every time we appeared, attention was centered on us! - everyone else! Eclipsed!"

Violet insists that Sebastian was "chaste." He was an artist and he made demands on people and only she satisfied all of these demands. He surrounded himself with young and beautiful people and "dismissed" the ones that didn't meet his standards. Each year, Sebastian wrote one poem after spending nine months in preparation. At the end of their vacation together, Sebastian would complete his summer poem. But it was always a difficult delivery and, without this mother's help, it was impossible. His death last summer, Violet bemoans, was his final poem.

If Sebastian is beginning to sound like a vain crackpot, keep reading. Violet declares, quite melodramatically, that "Sebastian saw the face of God" when, on one of their vacations, they voyaged to the Galapagos Islands. There, they watched the giant sea turtles crawl onto the shore to lay their eggs and then they returned later to watch the baby turtles hatch - only to be devoured, by a sky filled with flesh eating birds, during their mad dash to the sea. Sebastian was transfixed by the sight of the carnage. This, to Sebastian, was the face of God because God only shows a savage face to his creations and this was the horror of existence. This gruesome scene, of course, foreshadows Sebastian's own grisly death.

An aside: it has always impressed me that Williams so eloquently explored this theme years before Ingmar Bergman became famous for his own cruel and savage God motifs in his "Silence of God" trilogy: Through A Glass Darkly (1961), Winter Light (1962) and The Silence (1963).

It is no accident that Williams named Sebastian after the famous martyred saint and Catherine, in her monologues, completes this visage of the poet offering himself for sacrifice. Catherine's image of her cousin Sebastian differs greatly from the idealized rantings of his mother. To Aunt Violet, Sebastian was a saint; to Catherine he was a doomed martyr but hardly a saint.

Catherine reveals how Sebastian used people. Sebastian was shy and he needed his mother "as bait" to meet people and to make contacts. Violet's stroke caused a slight twitch to her face that compromised her beauty and so he took Catherine on holiday instead. To Sebastian, people existed for his gratification and so Williams' theme of devouring organisms is further cemented. "Blondes were next on the menu," Catherine explains. "He was fed up with the dark ones and was famished for blondes....that's how he talked about people, as if they were - items on a menu. - 'That one's delicious looking, that one is appetizing'..." Sebastian gets his comeuppance - as he is devoured by the very boys that he, himself, fed upon earlier - at the beach of Cabeza de Lobo.
Suddenly Last Summer was originally a long one-act play that was first performed in 1958, along with Something Unspoken, on a double bill entitled Garden District. The 1959 film, directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz (All About Eve) was fleshed out to feature length by another gay writer, Gore Vidal. The character of Dr. Cukrowicz was greatly expanded and the film begins with the doctor performing a lobotomy in an operating theater that is literally falling apart; underscoring the need for Violet's donation to the hospital. I, myself, prefer the story to begin in Sebastian's garden but the shift makes the doctor more important - and more saintly - than he was in the play. This being a Hollywood film, (and especially one starring Elizabeth Taylor), naturally the doctor and Catherine fall in love. To generate more sympathy for Catherine, she is seen twice walking into the mental hospital's disturbed wards. The play took place entirely in Sebastian's garden and on the adjacent verandah. Movie adaptations of stage plays are almost always "opened up" but this one, to be honest, sometimes overdoes it.
The biggest augmentation to the film was the literal depiction of Sebastian's demise that accompanies Catherine's final monologue under the influence of truth serum, and this is the also the biggest problem to contemporary critics. The conventional wisdom, in the world according to Hollywood, is that nobody wants to watch a film that is too "talky" but showing these lurid events - no matter how stylishly filmed they are - turns the end of the film into a circus sideshow. It could have been just as effective to keep the camera on a close-up of Elizabeth Taylor's face (look at the exquisitely filmed monologues in Bergman's movies) but this would have bored the audience that came to see the film in droves after reading reviews that attacked it for being disgusting and sinfully salacious.
Catherine describes how Sebastian forced her to wear a "scandalous" bathing suit on the beach in order to attract attention. Soon he is surrounded by all the young men and adolescent boys who have come for a closer look. Catherine speaks of waiting for Sebastian to emerge from the bathhouses at the end of each afternoon and how he threw handfuls of money, or "tips," to the mobs of youths who grew larger each time. Finally one day, as they sat in an outdoor cafe, a crowd of boys who resembled "a flock of plucked birds" beg for food from behind a nearby fence and Sebastian flees the scene in terror. He is chased through the streets of the town until he is finally overtaken by the ravenous mob. The bleached white photography is often terrifying and, admittedly, quite effective as cinema.
But it is the way that Mankiewicz films Sebastian's end that offends. The movie version of The Celluloid Closet brilliantly cuts these scenes with images from James Whale's The Bride Of Frankenstein to make its point. The youths pursuing Sebastian might as well be villagers with rakes and torches. The monster must be destroyed. And, by the standards of the 1950s, monsters don't come any more vile than Sebastian. To drive this point home with a sledgehammer, he is presented like a monster from a Universal horror film - we see the back of his head, an arm dangling on the side of the frame, his legs on the beach, his outstretched arm reaching out for help from the center of the devouring mob. Sebastian's face is never seen; it is as if he is too horrible to be shown to a civilized audience.
Tennessee Williams "loathed" the film version, insisting that the concluding cannibalism was meant "metaphorically" and not literally. An argument can be made that the accompanying visuals are all in Catherine's disturbed mind (and a few surreal images - like the winged skeleton from Sebastian's garden appearing in the street - are inserted to suggest this possibility) but movie audiences are used to "flashbacks" being presented as literal truth. Hitchcock was lambasted for an opening flashback that lied in 1950's Stagefright. As far as a movie audience is concerned, they have just witnessed Sebastian being deservedly devoured by an angry and starving mob. Justice has been served and a great evil removed from the world.
Sebastian Venable is not a positive portrayal of a gay man. That much is a given. He is a pretentious poet, an effete dandy, exquisitely dressed, frail and in weak health. He uses people, he is a sexual predator and probably a pedaphile. It is possible, given the times, that Williams intended Sebastian as a caricature of society's misguided perception of what a homosexual really is. But it is also important to note that almost everyone else in the film is no better than he. If Sebastian is a destroyer, he shares this trait with the rest of the dramatis personae.
What of Aunt Violet? Here is a woman who is willing to have her niece lobotomized in order to save the reputation of her son. She will withhold her son's inheritance from Catherine's mother (Mercedes McCambridge) and her son, George, if they do not consent to the operation. At first, Violet seems like a daffy but charming eccentric but she soon shows her true colors. She will also withhold her donation to the hospital if Dr. Cukrowicz doesn't "cut this hideous story out of her brain." Catherine reveals that Violet abandoned her dying husband to be with her son when Sebastian once contemplated throwing away his worldly possessions to become a Tibetan monk. If Sebastian is a monster, then Violet is his mad creator. Sebastian wasn't a saint but his mother is truly the most monstrous person in this story.

And, while we're at it, what about Catherine's own mother and sibling? They are willing to sacrifice their own blood in order for Sebastian's will to emerge from probate. Catherine is treated as collateral damage by the administrator of Lion's View State Hospital, as long as he gets to benefit from Violet's patronage.

So let's stop calling Suddenly Last Summer a manifestation of the playwright's supposed queer self loathing and accept it for what it is - a flawed, but complex and brilliantly constructed, one-of-a-kind work of art.

Many of Gore Vidal's additions to Williams' play are actually improvements. For example, shifting around some of the dialogue to different scenes actually helps the dramatic flow. I was very surprised to discover - when I read the original play - that Violet's first speech in the film was not written by Williams. The play references a fancy elevator that Violet installed in her mansion and we get to see it in the film. When she descends in the elevator to first greet Dr, Cukrowicz, Katherine Hepburn delivers these utterly delightful lines:

"Sebastian always said, 'Mother when you descend it's like the Goddess from the Machine'... it seems that the Emperor of Byzantium - when he received people in audience - had a throne which, during the conversation, would rise mysteriously into the air to the consternation of his visitors. But as we are living in a democracy, I reverse the procedure. I don't rise, I come down."

The film's ending is actually better than the play's. When Catherine finishes her monologue at the play's end, Aunt Violet springs out of her chair to strike Catherine with her cane and screams, "Cut this hideous story out of her brain!" In the movie, Violet holds the empty notebook in which Sebastian would have written his last poem of summer. As Catherine's story builds up steam, Violet's hands run down the empty pages of the notebook as if Catherine's monologue were Sebastian's final poem. When Catherine finishes, Violet closes the book and there is a look of peace on her face. She looks up at Dr. Cukrowicz and mistakes him for Sebastian. She appears to have suddenly lost her mind. She takes the doctor's arm and she continues to address him as her son as they walk back into her house. In case anyone in the audience actually missed the connection between the sea turtles and the flesh eating birds - and Sebastian being devoured by the starving youths - Violet wistfully recalls their voyage to the Galapagos Islands and reiterates the theme of God showing only a savage face to His creation. At last, she sits down in her fancy elevator and ascends upstairs.
I've always preferred this ending but I wonder if the finale was changed in accordance with those absurd Hays Code and Breen Office rules that governed Hollywood for so many decades. No bad deed was allowed to go unpunished during the days of the Code. Sebastian was torn apart by rent boys but perhaps this was Aunt Violet's comeuppance for threatening her innocent niece with a lobotomy. Whatever the reason for the change, it is sublime poetic justice.
That Suddenly Last Summer became a film at all is a minor miracle. But the Code Restrictions were loosening as the 1950s drew to a close. Even so, screenwriter Gore Vidal had to meet several times with the Catholic Legion Of Decency before the script was approved. The production itself was not trouble-free. Katherine Hepburn resented the star treatment and attention that Elizabeth Taylor received, and director Joseph Mankiewicz and producer Sam Spiegel both disliked Montgomery Clift because he was queer and also because, for both physical and emotional reasons, Clift could only work for a few hours each day. Following the famous 1956 car crash that disfigured Clift's face, the already frail method actor needed alcohol and drugs in order to function and he was having difficulty being hired in Hollywood. It was, in fact, only through his loyal friend Elizabeth Taylor's influence that he got the part in Suddenly Last Summer. Clift was treated badly on the set and, when filming concluded, Hepburn spat in Mankiewicz's face.
Despite all this on-set drama, Suddenly Last Summer is beautifully acted by its superb cast. It is hard to say who delivers the best performance but Katherine Hepburn certainly dominates every scene in which she appears. This is one of Elizabeth Taylor's greatest roles. Her delivery of Catherine's climactic monologue is a nuanced and controlled performance and, of course, she is ravishingly beautiful and lights up the screen. The black and white photography is excellent; the look of the film is terrific and the art directors must have had a blast with Sebastian's Grand Guignol garden. Shadows are employed effectively and I also liked the large portrait of St. Sebastian's martyrdom on the wall of the poet's studio. Some of the music is overdone (especially during Violet's description of the slaughter on the Galapagos Islands) but it is typical of the films from that period.
Whatever one thinks about the film's supposed homophobia, Suddenly Last Summer was a quantum leap forward in the way that Hollywood was finally able to present more mature and adult subject matter on the silver screen. The film may be a tad sensationalistic, but what the hell it certainly sold tickets. Tennessee Williams may have hated the film but, aside from the regrettable horror film conventions employed at the ending, this is a very fine film that fully realizes the playwright's vision on screen. This is important, especially when you consider the vivisection that Cat On A Hot Tin Roof received in its screen adaptation just the year before. As I noted earlier, Suddenly Last Summer is a flawed, but complex and brilliantly constructed, one-of-a-kind work of art. They don't write them like this anymore.