Suddenly, Last Summer (1959): Tennessee Williams’ Gay Themed Melodrama, Directed by Mankiewicz, Starring Katharine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor in Oscar-Nominated Performances (LGBTQ, Gay)

In Joseph Mankiewicz’s Suddenly, Last Summer, based on Tennessee Williams’ one-act play, adapted to the screen by him and Gore Vidal, Katharine Hepburn plays Mrs. Violet Venable, a wealthy Southern matron and mother of Sebastian, a brilliant poet who became a victim of gory cannibalism under some mysterious circumstances.

Grade: B- (*** out of *****)

Suddenly, Last Summer
Suddenly, Last Summer.JPEG

Theatrical release poster

Dealing with homosexuality, though the word is never mentioned, the film contains one of the first male gay character in American film, even if he is invisible and his face is never seen; we do see him wearing a tight white bathing suit.

The character’s moniker, Sebastian, is significant, named after the saint whose multiple-arrow wound was the source of inspiration for many works of Renaissance art.

Gay Directors, Gay Films? By Emanuel Levy (Columbia University Press)

Grade: B- (**1/2* out of *****)

Sebastian had had no meaningful attachments to anyone–save to his mother. They were not known as mother and son, but as “a stunning couple.” They used to tour together foreign lands, as Violet says, “carving off each day like a piece of sculpture.” Each summer, Sebastian would write a single poem, which he dedicated it to him. In fact, Violet was not near her husband when he died, because she was touring Tibet with her son.

Violet suffers a mild stroke, when her son invites his cousin to travel with him. Indeed, unable to forgive her young and beautiful niece Catherine Holly (Elizabeth Taylor) for being chosen instead of her as a companion, Violet uses all her power and wealth to persecute her.

For her part, Catherine had been involved in a public scandal and dishonored, after having an adulterous affair with a married man, who brutally informed her that their sexual experience meant nothing to him.

While with Catherine, Sebastian meets his untimely death under strange circumstances. Refusing to believe the story, Violet has Catherine hospitalized in a private home for the insane. She pays Catherine medical expense and intends to operate on her brain so that it will “quiet her anxieties,” and at the same time, wipe out her fancies about his death. To that goal, Violet offers a one-million-dollar endowment to the hospital, to create a research foundation named after Sebastian, provided they operate on her niece.

Violet tries to persuade brain surgeon Dr. Cukrowicz (Montgomery Clift) to lobotomize her whacked-out niece, so that the young girl will forget that she witnessed a gang of beautiful Spanish boys devouring her gay son one hot day at the Cabeza del Lobo beach.

It is finally revealed that Sebastian had used his mother to procure for him, and when she was no longer young and seductive to attract young men, he switched to Catherine as his new bait. When the mother learns about it, she throws herself bodily on Catherine, trying to beat her into silence. Sebastian’s young friends from a nearby public sands, turned on him, beat him to the ground, mutilated and devoured him.

Her son’s immolation is more than Violet can stand. In the end, descending into sheer madness, Violet turns to the young doctor, fancying him to be her son. Violet is finally led away, as she babbles fondly to Dr. Cukrowicz of their wonderful experience together in the past.

By Williams’ standards, the text is trashy and replete with hysterical and overwrought confessional scenes. The idea was reportedly sparked when one of Williams’s psychiatrists advised the playwright to feel rotten about being gay. While Gore Vidal’s screen adaptation and Mankiewicz’s direction much improve on the one-act play, structurally, the climactic flash-backed confession about Sebastian’s homosexuality and violent death appear too late in the narrative and reveal too little.

Yet the movie flaunts magnificent moments, particularly in the lengthy monologues of Katharine Hepburn, who delivers a bravura performance as Violet Venable, the demented Southern matron, obsessed with her homosexual son. Her entrance, descending in a private elevator into her exotic garden, and her first line, “Are you interested in the Byzantine” (addressed to Clift) are unforgettable.

In yet another Oscar-nominated performance, Hepburn shines as the rich, spoiled, and domineering New Orleans widow, who’s trying to protect her son’s reputation at all costs. A vicious woman, still in love with her deceased son, Hepburn brings out both the egocentric matron and doting mother.

Visually, Mankiewicz and his cinematographer have opted for lengthy one-take scenes.

Scandalous production

The film’s production was almost as psychotic as its riske plot, with the shivering, alcoholic Clift repeatedly blowing is lines. Hepburn, disgusted by the whole affair and dissatisfied with Mankiewicz, spat in her director’s face after the last take.

Box-office success

The movie opened to mixed reviews, with some critics complaining about the “tedious talking” and “a terminal showdown that’s irritatingly obscure.” However, other critics admired “the beauty of language and the power of acting,” particularly of the two central women.

The high caliber of Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor’s acting, and the then shocking issues of homosexuality and cannibalism caused controversy that helped the movie’s immense popularity. The boxoffice success of “Suddenly, Last Summer” was overwhelming. Next to “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” it’s the second most popular movie based on a Williams play, grossing in domestic rentals $6.4 million, a huge amount in 1959.

Oscar Context:

Oscar Nominations: 2

Katharine Hepburn, Best Actress

Elizabeth Taylor, Best Actress

Oscar Awards: None


Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Screenplay by Gore Vidal and Tennessee Williams, based on Suddenly, Last Summer, one act lay by Williams
Produced by Sam Spiegel
Cinematography Jack Hildyard
Edited by William Hornbeck, Thomas Stanford

Music by Buxton Orr, Malcolm Arnold (Themes)

Color process Black and white

Production companies: Horizon Pictures; Academy Pictures Corporation Camp Films

Distributed by Columbia Pictures

Release dates: December 20, 1959 (LA); January 1960 (US)

Running time: 114 minutes
Countries United Kingdom
United States
Language English
Budget $2.5 million
Box office $9 million (rentals)

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