Suddenly, Last Summer (1959): Movie Review

Suddenly, Last Summer (1959): Movie ReviewBelieve 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.

Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)

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.

  • Joy

    I remember the first time I saw this movie I was startled not so much by its content but by Montgomery Clift’s perfomance. I found it rivetting…I was a teenager and it was all new to me. It’s a movie I never fail to watch when it comes around on TV again and again.

  • Grace

    HELP, I’ve seen this movie numerous times and I agree that it is definitly worth 4+ stars out of 5! But, what actually happened to Sebastian?? A lot is inferred, but nothing definite is really revealed.

    • Melis

      I went in to Session 9 with no eactpextion other than Oh God, David Caruso! . I don’t really care for the ending but it has some great creepy stuff in itSeth recently posted..

  • Ken A

    First saw this film when I was 16 way back in 1959. It immediately became one of my favorite films that year…Taylor and Hepburn were superb and I would have split the Oscar between them. It’s still great to watch and it amazes me that the film actually came out in the 50s…what a shocker it was! 5 out of 5 stars from me!

  • Robert Wills

    You say you won’t reveal spoilers yet you reveal 80% of the plot. Why do reviewers think viewers are so unintelligent? If it happens after the first 20 minutes, I don’t want to know. It’s a plot point.

    Oh,yeah. I have seen the movie and enjoyed it. Still waiting for a production of the play near me.

  • Gary Vidmar

    Suberbly underrated – a masterful nightmare movie that culminates in one of the creepiest monologues ever put on film. It makes the stale buildup and teasing melodrama that comes before it pale into an extended prologue, albeit handled with gothic menace by Gore Vidal. The film hits its stride once the prehistoic garden party begins and Hepburn becomes the matriarch of civilized depravity unable to put a lid on Taylor’s sexual magnetism. Lurid subjects for repression are alluded to in Jack Hildyard’s white-hot, crisp, monochrome cinematography: madness, incest, prostitution, disease and cannibalism. Leave the middle-class morality at the door.

  • Shemp Lugosi

    You fail to mention one of the film’s great strengths and that is the superb supporting performance of Mercedes McCambridge as Taylor’s mother.

  • MBF2020

    I was going to acting school in L.A. when the film came out. Every woman in school memorized Taylor’s monologue, the one that begins ” All I know is that suddenly last summer I wasn’t young anymore.”

  • Phyllis Sanborn

    Taylor is terrific in this, definitely the star and focal point who pulls off tremendously long exposition in a beautiful manner. Hepburn and Clift are perfect support.
    But this is one of the few Tennessee Williams efforts that doesn’t work for me. (The other is Sweet Bird of Youth.) Usually I find characters to identify with, some to love. And a strong message. I don’t get much of any of that from this one.

  • Trish

    GRACE: “But, what actually happened to Sebastian?? A lot is inferred, but nothing definite is really revealed.”

    SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT!

    It’s not inferred, it’s most definitly revealed. Catherine (Taylor) says the villagers chase him and kill him by ripping him to pieces…and eating him. Not a little too over the top, huh?

  • Jim S

    Actually, I don’t think Sebastian is literally killed by the ravenous boys. It’s made clear that Sebastian had some sort of heart trouble, was feeling pain and was fleeing them in the broiling tropical heat. I think his ticker gave out, and the lads decided–hey,there is such a thing as a free lunch!

  • Martin Stumacher

    It’s the cast that makes this film memorable. Taylor and Clift, that says it all. Let’s not forget Hepburn, McCambridge and the rest of the actors. It must have been difficult getting past the censors.

    • Zola

      There’s been a ptesor up for The Book of Kells for a couple of weeks now, and the trailer played in front of A Prophet both very good signs. I’m really excited to see it.

    • Gabrielo

      I think Dr Disney and his frnied had a pretty good tasting yesterday not sure there is enough left for you! Really sorry to hear about your delay.

  • John George

    One of the best things about this disturbingly powerful film in addition to those points already mentioned by others, is that the story was not given a “Hollywwod” ending(other than its not revealing the main reason the boys REALLY were out to destroy Sebastian)like other film versions of some of Williams’ plays. If you read the actual plays themselves, you find that Laura does not leave the house and get a job (Glass Menagerie); Brick and Maggie do not happily “re-hit the sheets” (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof); and learn what really happens to that sweet bird of youth on the hood of the car(or elsewhere)in the play of the same name.

  • Rita

    I have watched several movies of Elizabeth Taylor and enjoyed this gifted actress. One of my very favorite is National Velvet and also love her in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I personal think she had a soft spot for people that was needy. She had a strong personality and befriend people that need something and she seemed to chose her men the same. She was a beautiful woman and dam good actress to my way of thinking.

  • Dale Allen

    It’s good to know there are people in their 20s and 30s who appreciate Dame Elizabeth Taylor — may she rest in peace.

    Also, I agree with John George — “read the actual plays themselves.”

  • Jackie

    I have seen this film numerous times,but because it always started at midnight( in my area ) I never could keep myself awake long enough to see the ending.Also it always seemesd to come on a week-night and I have to be at work at 7:15 A.M. I finally taped it and I was still confused as to why the Islanders attacked Sebastian. Was he gay and the native people hated that..He did have a weird relationship with his mother( Hepburn ) did he not? She said over and over how they were always together.( Gay men have been married!)I assumed he was attacked by about a hundred of these (pygmies?/cannibals? ) and eaten! How grotesque!No wonder both women went mad.

  • runfar

    My friend insisted I see this film in 1994. He had an extensive video collection of early John Waters films and Elizabeth Taylor movies on VHS. He was also proud of a recording of a Diana Ross concert in Central Park where her hair was completely out of control.
    Once Suddenly Last Summer started I was hooked. I thought it was very wordy…so much dialogue from Katherine Hepburn, she amazed me. E. Taylor was flawless on so many levels. This film to this day haunts me. The ending, although not graphic visually, Taylor’s description of the event will stay with you forever.
    Incredible!

  • Belle-Michele

    Oh Gosh, I remember seeing this on late night tv (back when they used to show old movies and not informomercials or re-runs of recent god-awful tv shows) and I was mesmerized…I must have been 11 or 12… I lived in Charleston, SC, at the time when it was still in the last gasp of the genteel Southern Gothic era (and before it was turned into a tourist trap/movie set) so the whole Tennessee Williams, overdone dialogue and plot really resonated with me. That’s when I fell in love with Montgomery Clift… Elizabeth Taylor was hauntingly beautiful… Not a ‘perfect’ movie but probably more memorable than many so called ‘perfect’ movies…

  • Big Movie Fan

    Always a great Elizabeth Taylor fan, although she certainly had her none-too-glorious roles as well. She was a consummate actress and gave, I think, a stunning performance in Suddenly Last Summer. Certainly a dark movie, but Taylor’s performance, along with those of Hepburn and Clift, is a gem. She definitely deserved the Oscar for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf as well. Her private life may have been a shambles, but no one should doubt her acting chops, as displayed in Suddenly Last Summer.

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