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Home » Culture and Criticism

Suddenly, Last Summer

Submitted by on June 7, 2008 – 9:27 AM24 Comments

The temperature in NYC today has finally made the 12 Days Of Summer Movies feel seasonal — 95 stinky degrees, ladies and germs — and it doesn’t get any more overheated than Tennessee Williams and Gore Vidal’s screenplay for Suddenly, Last Summer. To which Bunting says, “…Not suddenly enough, mofo.”

Mrs. Venable (Katharine Hepburn) is…how to put it? Somewhat overinvested in Sebastian, her late son. She’s equally overinvested in hiding the circumstances of his death (which in turn will reveal certain scandalous truths about how he lived), and to that end wishes to have the only eyewitness to Sebastian’s mysterious demise, his cousin Catherine (Elizabeth Taylor), lobotomized before she can spill the beans. It’s up to Dr. Cukrowicz (Montgomery Clift) to pull the truth out of Catherine, thus proving that she isn’t crazy, before Mrs. Venable can pressure Cukrowicz and his boss to put Catherine under the knife.

Summer Timeline: The movie’s title refers to the summer previous, so there isn’t really the traditional Memorial-Day-to-Labor-Day time period, although the last half hour of the film seems to take three months to unfold. But despite the fact that the “horrid,” “obscene” reality of Sebastian’s exit is couched so carefully for 1959 audiences — and overacted so screechily by Taylor — that it’s difficult for the audience to discern what really happened, Cukrowicz does complete his assignment, and from the looks of things he probably gets the girl as well.

Enviable Vacation Locale?: Well, let’s see: two mental institutions; the Venables’ garden, which symbolizes suffocation, obfuscation, and gnarled roots strangling the life out of blah blah Jesus is Tennessee Williams obvious; the merciless mid-summer sun under which Sebastian is brutally murdered…big ixnay on the “enviable.”

Coming Of Age?: Not so much. Coming to grips with unpleasant facts, maybe.

Quick-Burning Summer Romance?: Um. Here’s the deal: because you’ll have a hard time knowing for sure what’s happening if you see the film yourself, I’ll just break it down for you. The big secret is that 1) Sebastian is gay; 2) he used his mother, and then Catherine when his mother got too old, to “procure” men for him (using a woman as a decoy would not seem designed to turn up other gay men, but maybe that’s how they rolled back in the day); 3) after several weeks of liaisons with the Spanish Riviera’s local underage talent (including, it’s implied, some S&M), a gang of boys chases Sebastian up to an ancient ruin, sets upon him, and tears him to bits, including ripping his goolies off and stuffing them in his mouth. …Yeah. So, “quick-burning,” sure. “Summer,” yes. “Romance,” nooooo no no.

Best Summer Ever?: Creo que no.

Summer Fashions: Liz Taylor rocks some tiny-waisted dresses, but also one deeply unflattering (and see-through) white bathing suit. Other than that, standard-issue late-fifties dowd.

Worth The A/C?: Ish. It’s much too long, it doesn’t pay off the length with a juicy disclosure, and the acting is suspect — Hepburn does a good job with large quantities of purple exposition, and Taylor is quite nuanced prior to her big finish, but there’s entirely too much keening and fakey sobbing and hysterical (but careful, so as not to muss the coif) grabbing of the head. Montgomery Clift was allegedly in such an advanced state of alcoholism during filming that he kept blowing his lines, and it shows; Gary Raymond, who plays George Holly, must have had naked pictures of someone, because he’s awful, and not since Brenda Walsh went to Paris have I witnessed such wretched accent work — if you go by this movie, New Orleans is somewhere in western Massachusetts. Massachusetts, Quebec. That said, if your other choice is sweating balls in front of reruns, a peanut gallery and a six-pack of Bud tall boys could make it a worthwhile watch.

As A Summer Movie: Flat C. Slow, confusing, nobody takes their shirts off or blows shit up.




  • tulip says:

    Did you ever see the version on PBS with Maggie Smith, Rob Lowe and Natasha Richardson? I remember really liking it, as much as one “likes” a film that tries to make you feel as smothered and hot as the characters all do.

  • Jen S says:

    God, it’s strange what tricks time plays on movies. Back then, the BIG!HORRIBLE!SECRET! was that Sebastian was gay. Nowadays it would be that he was a freaking pedophile with a taste for long vacations with the local young boys. Of course, back then, being gay automatically meant you were a a child molester. But who better to for a gay man to travel with than The Liz? He probably spent hours doing her hair and nails.

  • Jaybird says:

    Good call on the horrifyingly bad accents. It’s always mystified me why Hollywood usually hires Foghorn Leghorn as dialog coach whenever a movie even tangentially involves the south. This movie, and Nicole Kidman’s “Theeyus WAwuh” hamfisting in “Cold Mountain” are two of the best examples, although GWTW does come to mind. Bleagh.

    And also–has anybody, anywhere, EVER explained how that Catherine-to-Sebastian bait-and-switch was supposed to work? I thought that for the most part, gay man = not sexually entranced by chicks. The fifties were apparently pretty confusing, or maybe nobody really talked about the realities of gay vs. straight then. Openly, I mean.

  • Leslie says:

    *Steel Magnolias* is nothing but a collection of bad Southern accents, including Julia Roberts, who, lest we forget, hails from Smyrna, Georgia. Just talk, pretty woman. *That’s* a Southern accent. God!

  • dimestore lipstick says:

    I’d think that Elizabeth Taylor would make pretty good bait when trolling for gays–I mean, if you couldn’t get Judy or Barbra…

  • Moonloon says:

    To my great discredit, I SEE Hepburn and I THINK Janeway – and I just end up horribly confused…

    Loving your take on movies that have been part of my life for ages though, and long may it continue!

  • JanBrady says:

    How sad is it that I’ve seen this movie twice (granted, not start to finish, but I’ve seen the denouement twice), but never realized the bits about S&M or, uh, Sebastian’s bits?

    And yeah, I always just assumed Catherine-and-Sebastian would reel a potentially gay guy in–seems pretty harmless, hanging with a girl and her bro–and then reveal that hey! Seb was gay too. Whaddya know.

  • polly says:

    Re Jaybird’s question. Here’s how I assumed it worked. Other gay man on the beach notices Sebastian or vice versa. Glances are exchanged. However, it’s the 1950s, so neither Sebastian nor gay man are emitting signals quite clear enough to feel safe in proceeding directly to unambiguous chatting up. The consequences for getting it wrong can be serious. Liz Taylor is there as a self-explanatory heterosexual reason for chatting, and plausible deniability, allowing both to test the safety of the ground. She is better than a puppy, or a political-slogan T-shirt, in this regard because her presence allows a longer conversation, and more certainty to develop, as Sebastian wiggles his eyebrows meaningfully at the new chap, or whatever.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    @Jan: You wouldn’t necessarily get it from watching the movie; it’s hinted at so carefully that I had to go on the internet and confirm it. The screenplay is by Williams and Gore Vidal, so whatever darkness you think is lurking therein, you’re probably right, but because the movie was made in ’59, they couldn’t show any of it, or do much more than imply the means of Sebastian’s demise.

  • Keckler says:

    When I first saw this at fifteen, I was so traumatized about the way Sebastian died (with the scene of the shadowed swarming and the teeth and the limbs) that I thought *that* was the big secret. Not that he was gay.

    I also thought that Mrs. Venable’s panting ways of hiding her son’s sexuality — all that insistence that he was chaste but adored by all, but chaste! Chaste! CHASTE! — was the creepy part of The “Awful” Truth.

    And I have to admit, that death scene — as scanty as it was — still effectively freaks me out to this day. (The “They DEVOURED him!” part, not the gay part.)

  • Katie Powell says:

    I’m with you, Keckler. I always thought the secret was that the abused children ATE him. Ripping him to shreds doesn’t seem nearly as bad.

  • Jaybird says:

    @Polly: That works as an explanation, much better than anything I had thought of before. And I’m going to have “She Is Better Than a Puppy” put on a t-shirt, which I will then probably end up wearing to the beach.

  • Jaybird says:

    Meant to add that my hatred for every frame of “Steel Magnolias” burns hotter than any flame, brighter than any star. It’s revulsion on a submolecular level. The accents aren’t the only reason (hey, there. . .entire cast) but they surely don’t help.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    It was just on yesterday and, as usual, I couldn’t resist watching a few scenes. If those aren’t the worst unironically hideous bridesmaid get-ups in film history, they’re at least in the bottom three.

  • Jen S says:

    Gore Vidal talks about this one in the documentary “The Celluloid Closet”, laughing as he describes the kids chowing down on Sebastian– “Tennessee went over the top at times, admittedly…” But he does get exasperated with the movie system who wanted to make a film while eliminating the central point of the big reveal–“did Sebastian like boys or didn’t he???”

    He had a great time pointing out the cutting-into-oblivion of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof too. Another great Liz movie–all sweaty southern abandon, slips, and mint juleps. Yes, yes.

  • Jaybird says:

    IIRC, the lady who taught my first-grade Sunday school class (in Birmingham, AL) was the aunt or great-aunt of the guy who wrote SM. I imagine she learned to juggle or throw knives or something to distract people from that.

  • Sandman says:

    “Creo que no.” Hee.

    Thank you for the “screechily overacted by Taylor”, too. I’m with Keckler and Katie Powell on this one. I was far more traumatized by the fact that Sebastian was (possibly) EATEN by those poor kids than by anything else, except possibly the horrendous hammy work by Taylor and Hepburn.

    I know some things don’t survive their eras very well, but Williams’ work pretty much constantly hits that same note of near-hysteria, to me. I have real trouble understanding the reverence usually shown it. The other movie versions I don’t really get, (The version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with Jessica Lange and Tommy Lee Jones was far superior than the La Taylor squealfest, if you ask me) But this movie takes the suffocating, obnoxious, but CHASTE! cake. HAAAATE.

  • La BellaDonna says:

    Heh. He was CHASTE, all right – chaste, caught, consumed!

    Notes to Self: 1. Beware of “all-consuming passions.” 2. Be judicious in the use of the phrase, “Eat me.”

  • Sarah says:

    Re: Kate and Liz “procuring” for Sebastian – my understanding was that the men/boys weren’t gay, they were poor and were having sex for money. Sebastian used the women as “bait” to lure the guys into conversation/dinner/a few drinks/getting high, and then exploited them either by offering money they couldn’t easily turn down, or taking advantage of them in some other way. That’s why they had to use the edge of the beach that bordered on the public beach where all the poor men were, and that’s why the locals vengeance is so violent – they are yelling out for “bread” and Sebastian (I believe) is throwing money at them – he’s established himself as this kind of monstrous sugar daddy but, since they are gathered together as a crowd rather than isolated and vulnerable, the locals have the power to take his money and then substitute vengeance and violence for the sex act he would have demanded. So the big secret is not just that Sebastian was gay, he was actually kind of a devil (as opposed to the charming sweet man everyone believes him to be). He knows it, though, and it’s his own self-loathing that leads him to hang around and get murdered, even tho Liz is begging him to leave.

    That’s my take on it, anyway. I’ve only been exposed to the butchered movie version, so there could be stuff in the actual text that blows my little theory out of the water.

    Also: woooord on the screechiness of Liz in her “hysterical” scenes. She’s so beautiful and so completely unwatchable in this that it ends up being kind of a fascinatingly repulsive performance…

  • Sandman says:

    “Far superior to the La Taylor squealfest,” I meant to say. Jeez. Sorry about that. Ire about Williams made me go crazy.

  • BSD says:

    I’ve got that Motels song stuck in my head now.

  • Maura says:

    I love Liz Taylor because…well, she’s Liz Taylor. But you never knew what kind of performance you’d see from her. She did plenty of screeching and was often really bad. I don’t care though, because she’s LIZ.

    It took me a long time to suss out that Sebastian was gay *and* how he died. I was probably 12 years old the first time I saw Suddenly, Last Summer. I didn’t know what the hell was going on. I’ve seen it several times, but not for many years.

    Jaybird said: Meant to add that my hatred for every frame of “Steel Magnolias” burns hotter than any flame, brighter than any star. It’s revulsion on a submolecular level. The accents aren’t the only reason (hey, there. . .entire cast) but they surely don’t help.

    I hated Steel Magnolias. The only reason I even considered crying was the time I lost watching it. Almost as bad as Beaches. Gah!

  • RJ says:

    I’m with Sarah on the explanation of what Sebastian was actually doing; it seemed implicit that he deliberately picked poor areas and preyed on young boys who were desperate enough to do anything for a little money (or after he’d plied them with liquor or whatever).

    It wasn’t so much Sebastian’s being gay that was the horrifying secret (although of course at the time, it was still the “love that dare not speak its name” or however they used to put it), but rather how he went about getting his jollies, so to speak. And the fact that his mother actually helped him get these young men and boys, and that he was willing to use her that way and then later use her cousin that way – it just shows what a depraved person he was. The see-through bathing suit bit emphasized how he exploited Taylor’s character to all degrees of humiliation to get what he wanted, and how that was his only focus.

    That said, my mother’s always hated this movie because of the death scene (not that she had any sympathy for Sebastian, but what it implies is just so gruesome). And of course this was filmed, I believe, post Clift’s car accident, so in addition to flubbing his lines his face always looked somewhat off.

    I’m a huge fan of Tennessee Williams, but this one was over the top, as far as I was concerned.

  • Isis says:

    I always enjoyed this movie and for some reason or another I knew Sebastian’s secret the first time I ever watched it. Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote used their work as a catharsis somewhat. For Williams there was always an aging southern belle, which I guess speaks to the relationship (or lack thereof) that he had with his mother. The homosexuality themes can be found in just about all of his work. Few teachers or professors are brave enough to address it, but in his most celebrated work, The Glass Menagerie, the main character Tom brings home a potential suitor for his sister that really isn’t for her, but for HIM. When we read this in high school, I always wondered why it was that Tom was so nervous and shy around the man, and why not Laura. Cat On A Hot Tin Roof dances around it as well.

    Liz Taylor and Audrey Hepburn are no strangers to acting in movies that hint at the “love we dare not speak of.” One in particular that Liz did that really makes no bones about it is “Reflections In A Golden Eye.” The acting isn’t anyone’s best, but it shows a lot of guts from Hollywood, even if it was made in 1967.

    Capote explored homosexual themes even in Breakfast At Tiffany’s but we never see this in the movie. I don’t know if the world could have handled something like that on screen during that era from one of the brightest stars in Hollywood, but “The Children’s Hour” really gets to the heart of the matter. Check out both of those and you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

    I’m also a Tennessee Williams fan, and I don’t think this was as over the top as much as Hollywood just needed to leave it alone. They simply don’t know when to quit.

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