Believe it or not, yours truly actually had this planned well before the unfortunate passing of Ms. Elizabeth Taylor. A co-worker strongly recommended the film to me a while back, and it sounded like something right up my alley, so after some time I finally got around to giving it a shot just a few days before Taylor passed. Better late than never, I suppose. It’s strange how coincidences like that occur sometimes. Anyway, as a young man, my only awareness of Taylor was that of the odd old lady who married a laughable amount of times and palled around with Michael Jackson. It wasn’t until later that I discovered and appreciated that she was a serious dramatic actress with an immense amount of talent. Additionally, any old film that was considered controversial for its day always intrigues me, and 1959’s Suddenly, Last Summer surely raised eyebrows, as subjects such as mental illness and taboo sexual practices were certainly areas where people just didn’t go back then. But, I’m getting ahead of myself. It’s sufficient to state that it’s about time I give the film its due.S
Suddenly, Last Summer is an adaptation of a one-act Tennessee Williams play by Gore Vidal. Williams was actually credited for adapting the story for the screen along with Vidal, but later claimed to have nothing to do with the film and denounced the movie’s production. In fact, even Vidal and director Joseph L. Mankiewicz have voiced some displeasure over how parts of the film turned out. They may be a bit too close to the material and are perhaps being too harsh. That’s a shame, because the effort—while not perfect—is actually pretty fantastic. It’s a bit minimalist (not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that) due to the tale’s original stage limitations, and it’s highly melodramatic, but it’s melodrama that’s done well.
Taylor stars in the film along with Katharine Hepburn and Montgomery Clift, who plays a renowned brain surgeon having success in the groundbreaking field of lobotomies in 1930s New Orleans. The problem is that the hospital where he’s doing research is severely under funded. The possible answer to his problem comes in the form of Hepburn, a rich and reclusive eccentric mourning the recent loss of her son, Sebastian. Hepburn will be more than happy to donate a hefty sum to Clift’s institution provided that he’s willing to perform a lobotomy on her extremely troubled niece (Taylor) who was present at the scene of her son’s death, therefore removing any memory Taylor had of the incident. However, Taylor—currently residing in a mental ward—doesn’t seem to be able to recall exactly what happened that fateful day, although some of the other things that she supposedly has been saying are deeply disturbing. Clift is open to the idea of this deal, but not before he has a chance to thoroughly examine Taylor and deem her clinically insane, so he plans to have her released to his care.
It’s after all this exposition filmed mostly in the Hepburn character’s palatial estate and sprawling garden that the production really starts to gain momentum. Of course, after interviewing Taylor, Clift discovers that even though she’s suffering mentally, there’s no definitive proof that Taylor is a lost cause or certifiably bonkers. Despite incredible pressure from Hepburn and his superiors to expedite the process, he refuses to go ahead with the operation until he can get to the bottom of matters. Upon further investigation, Clift learns that bizarre circumstances may be afoot, ulterior motives may be at hand, and that Hepburn could also have problems of her own. She’s very protective of her son (a sensitive poet) and his memory. Furthermore, the incident surrounding his death remains shrouded in mystery. Clift’s effort to learn the truth all culminates in a final sequence that features him injecting Taylor with sodium thiopental or “truth serum,” to help her remember the harrowing events just before they share a nice little make-out session (something that would be objectionable today, what with the doctor/patient relationship and all, let alone fifty years ago). Taylor then goes on to recount (don’t worry, I won’t spoil anything in case anyone hasn’t seen it) a sordid and gruesome story in the presence of her entire family, including Hepburn and Clift’s superior (Albert Dekker), detailing the truth surrounding her cousin Sebastian (whose face is never shown on screen, which actually makes the whole account seem more sinister somehow) and his death. This event initially involved a beach scene where Taylor was “implemented” as a young woman in an incredibly bold (for its day) white bathing suit. I’m sure this was yet another reason for censors to get all up in arms about this film. It’s actually surprising that, juxtaposed next to some of the unpleasantness in the movie, the “costume” was allowed at all. Kudos to the producers, etc. for pushing the production as a whole, even though, by 1959 the impact of the Production Code on the filmmaking business was really beginning to weaken. Nevertheless, I’m sure there were still plenty of maddening conversations that the producers had with members of the MPAA, since the office reluctantly gave the movie a seal of approval and special permission had to be granted to allow the inclusion of the Sebastian character (even though he’s never really seen).
OK, so the main problem with SLS is the sparse script, which again, stems from its meager beginnings as a simple stage play. There was only so much “punching up” that Vidal could do, and the result is a screenplay that really only includes a handful of scenes stretched over 114 minutes. This makes the film incredibly dialogue heavy, often in the form of long-winded monologues from Taylor and Hepburn that tend to stunt the film’s momentum, especially in the face of such lurid subject matter. The good news is that fantastic performances from the cast completely make up for this problem, especially from the female leads. After all, they deserve tons of credit simply for memorizing the copious lines, let alone the great performances they give. Taylor and Hepburn are brilliant and they both earned well-deserved Academy Award nominations. Hepburn plays the entitled and power-mad socialite with total aplomb, and Taylor’s convincing catharsis of troubled emotion is the true strength of the movie. Frankly, even though I was aware of her talent, I was a little surprised she had it in her. Even Clift is superb, though, many tend to downplay his performance, but that’s probably only because he’s overshadowed by his female co-stars and their characters.
The acting is especially impressive considering all the rumors that emanated from the set. One of the biggest was that Hepburn actually hated director Mankiewicz, and at one point spat on him. By this time, it was also known that Clift had an incredible drug and alcohol problem and was reportedly a ridiculous mess during production. Additionally, it’s no secret that around the time of filming, Taylor was busy stealing Eddie Fisher from friend Debbie Reynolds while grieving over the tragic loss of her husband Michael Todd in a plane crash. So, it’s safe to assume that it was a pretty heady time. It’s amazing that anything got done. The film, despite its lack of variety in set locations, is still beautifully constructed, earning another Oscar nomination for art direction (actually, interior design for a black & white film). Therefore, it looks like the cast and crew did about as sublime a job as they possibly could have. I’m going to give Suddenly, Last Summer four stars out of five just for the acting alone. RIP, Liz, it’s good to know you’ll be remembered for something more than Larry Fortensky.