“After all, Gore, it is my play.” —Tennessee Williams, author
“Yes, all forty-five minutes of it.” —Gore Vidal, screenwriter
I’m genuinely surprised that Suddenly, Last Summer isn’t discussed more, as a work of high trash melodrama if nothing else. It is ridiculously camp. It’s also true that Tennessee Williams wasn’t exactly closeted—his lover, Frank Merlo, once replied to a movie executive’s question about what he did with, “I sleep with Mr. Williams.” Vidal’s sexuality is its own weird Thing, but still; I, as I suspect is true of many other people, first became aware of the movie through The Celluloid Closet—our epigraph is taken from the book—and it is considerably less discussed than other films given far less time in that particular documentary.
Violet Venable is an old woman mourning the loss of her son, Sebastian. She is also furious at the stories spread by Catharine Holly, her niece by marriage. Catharine (the spelling is from the script) is locked in a mental hospital, but her doctor, Dr. Cukrowicz, is willing to bring Catharine to the Venable home. Violet wants to confront her, and Dr. Cukrowicz believes that Catharine will be better suited to revealing the truth if she is given a truth serum and allowed to talk in the garden that used to be Sebastian’s.
The movie is roughly the same, with Katharine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, and Montgomery Clift in the main roles. It’s longer, as established, and goes more into the financial issues of a state mental hospital. It’s quite clear that they’re willing to lobotomize Catherine (they’ve changed the spelling) if it means an endowment from Violet. Catherine’s mother (Mercedes McCambridge) has to give permission, which she’s being persuaded to do because Violet is tying up Sebastian’s will, keeping a substantial amount of money out of the Hollys’ hands. That’s from the play, but what a ‘30s mental hospital looks like appears here, whereas the play is exclusively set in Sebastian’s garden.
I don’t know if it’s necessarily that Vidal saw the horror of lobotomies more than Williams did; it may be that Vidal had more time to explore that horror in. But he did put a lot of emphasis on the fact that Violet is perfectly willing to sacrifice Catherine to an uncertain medical procedure if it means that the stories she’s telling about Sebastian will be kept secret. The state mental hospital is in a former school that was probably a sugar warehouse before that, and money is extraordinarily tight. Lobotomies are being performed under incredibly primitive conditions—and this is the older kind, where they actually cut the skull.
Sebastian’s sexuality is implied and never revealed, but it’s obviously intended to be worked out that he was paying young boys for sex. How young? That’s vague. They’re referred to as “children,” though it’s worth noting that one of them is played by Eddie Fisher, who was married to Elizabeth Taylor at the time. Teenagers? Probably? Still. It’s appalling, and Sebastian is taking advantage of their poverty to get what he wants out of them. Certainly he expects them to be old enough to be attracted to Elizabeth Taylor in a white lisle bathing suit, but honestly even if they weren’t children, their poverty makes it clear that they’re not in a position of equality to him.
This is probably the most extreme example of “kill your gays” from the era of the Code. They’re able to be as explicit about Sebastian’s sexuality as they are—Elizabeth Taylor is even allowed to say the word “procured,” probably for the first time in this context in decades—because, well, he’s eaten. This is a spoiler, but if you’ve heard of this movie at all, this is probably why you’ve heard of it. Now, he doesn’t seem to have been murdered except inasmuch as the children chase him through hot streets in the blazing sun while he had a heart condition, but still; this is bonkers.
Is it worth it? Well, that depends on what you want from a movie, I guess. It’s from three of the greats of classic Hollywood. There’s exciting behind-the-scenes drama; Hepburn was so furious at how Joseph Mankiewicz was treating Clift that, as soon as filming was over, she apparently actually literally spat at him. It’s certainly got its place in queer history, being as it is at the intersection of Tennessee Williams and Gore Vidal. Not to mention Montgomery Clift, poor tortured soul that he was. It is also, I think, important in the history of screen treatment of mental illness. Lobotomies were seldom being performed at the time, but it’s worth noting that Catherine is shown in both play and movie to be fully aware of what will be done to her and what the results will be.
All in all, there’s a lot going on here, and it’s well worth discussing even if you don’t feel the need to engage with it particularly. Taylor was apparently channeling her recent widowing and was unable to do a second take of the most important scene. Sure, it’s melodrama and kind of ridiculous, and goodness knows there’s a certain amount of internalized homophobia going in what Williams thought would happen to Sebastian and honestly that he would be okay with discreet relationships with wealthy men for years and then prey on homeless street urchins instead simply because they were what he could get. But if you’re here for spectacle, it’s all right there.
Next month, we’ll be getting into a different kind of hysteria with the Satanic Panic and D&D freak-out of Mazes and Monsters. Sorry, Tom Hanks! Now, I already own the movie, and I might even own the book somewhere, but that’s no reason not to continue to support my Patreon or Ko-fi!