Saturday Night Cinema: Suddenly, Last Summer


As the first snow blankets my beautiful city, I thought we might heat things up a bit. So tonight’s Saturday Night Cinema classic is Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly, Last Summer, starring Elizabeth Taylor at the height of her powers. The star-studded cast includes Taylor’s great friend Montgomery Clift and Katherine Hepburn (whom many adore, though she’s not my cuppa).

By Tennessee Williams’ standards, the text is trashy and overwrought, but at the time, homosexuality and cannibalism stirred such a controversy that the movie became one of the playwright’s most successful Hollywood adaptations.

Yeah it’s one hot mess. But what a mess.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will present a centennial salute to legendary writer, director and producer Joseph L. Mankiewicz, featuring a special 50th anniversary screening of a recently restored print of ÒSuddenly, Last Summer,Ó on Thursday, May 21, at 7:30 p.m. at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills. The evening will also celebrate the recent gift of the Joseph L. Mankiewicz Papers to the AcademyÕs Margaret Herrick Library. Ben Mankiewicz, film critic and great nephew of the honoree, will host the evening, which will include a panel discussion with family and friends before the screening. Pictured: Elizabeth Taylor in a scene from SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER, 1959.
Pictured: Elizabeth Taylor in a scene from SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER, 1959.

Brain surgeon Montgomery Clift is summoned to the home of fabulously wealthy Katharine Hepburn, who wants to have her daughter-in-law Elizabeth Taylor lobotomized. Recently released from an asylum to Hepburn’s care, Taylor suffers from horrific nightmares and unpredictable bursts of violent behavior. As it turns out, Taylor is harboring an awful secret concerning Hepburn’s late, beloved son–a secret that Hepburn intends to keep from the world, even at the expense of Taylor’s life. The explanatory flashback is as lurid a piece of filmmaking as ever emerged from the supposedly white-bread 1950s. Reportedly, Hepburn so despised Mankiewicz that she spit in the director’s eye on the last day of filming.

In this lush, lurid adaptation of the 1957 Tennessee Williams one-act, Elizabeth Taylor and Katharine Hepburn play a seemingly insane, young New Orleans debutante and the wealthy aunt who wants to lobotomize her. Dr. John Cukrowicz (Montgomery Clift) is a gifted Chicago brain surgeon stymied by the primitive operating conditions at the New Orleans asylum where he works. Society matron Violet Venable (Hepburn) offers a solution in the form of a million-dollar grant — as long as Cukrowicz will treat her niece, Catherine (Taylor). Catherine, it seems, has been institutionalized since the sudden death of her cousin, Violet’s son, Sebastian, overseas the previous summer. As the young doctor tries to get to the bottom of what happened to Catherine, Violet’s steely demeanor and devotion to Sebastian present a formidable barrier. Catherine herself doesn’t offer much help, her recollections jumbled by medication and the trauma of Sebastian’s demise. Under pressure to seal the deal and cut into Catherine’s brain, Cukrowicz’s principles (and attraction to the young woman) prevent him from proceeding until he uncovers what actually happened to Sebastian. In his memoirs, Gore Vidal claims to have written the screenplay for Suddenly, Last Summer single-handedly, although Williams took half the credit. Vidal toned down the original play’s allusions to pedophilia, cannibalism, and incest, but the film nonetheless provoked heated controversy. As for the cast, an unhappy Hepburn reportedly was threatened by the attention lavished on Taylor by director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, whom Hepburn had hired to produce The Philadelphia Story two decades earlier. Mankiewicz, for his part, allegedly hated Clift, whose drinking and partial paralysis from an auto accident prevented him from working more than half a day at a time.~ Brian J. Dillard, All Movie Guide
Release date: December 22, 1959 (USA)
Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz


Awards: Golden Globe Award for Best Actress – Motion Picture – Drama, David di Donatello Golden Plate Award

The Cast
SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER, screen play by Tennessee Williams and Gore Videl, adapted from the play by Mr. Williams; directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz; produced by Sam Spiegel; distributed by Columbia Pictures. At the Criterion Theatre. Broadway and Forty-fifth Street, and the Sutton Theatre, Third Avenue and Fifty-seventh Street. Running time: 114 minutes.
Catherine Holly . . . . . Elizabeth Taylor
Mrs. Venable . . . . . Katharine Hepburn
Dr. Dukrowicz . . . . . Montgomery Clift
Dr. Hockstader . . . . . Albert Dekker
Mrs. Holly . . . . . Mercedes McCambridge
George Holly . . . . . Gary Raymond
Miss Foxhill . . . . . Mavis Villiers
Nurse Benson . . . . . Patricia Marmont
Sister Felicity . . . . . Joan Young
Lucy . . . . . Maria Britneva
Dr. Hockstader’s secretary . . . . . Sheila Robbins
Interne . . . . . David Cameron

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