Suddenly, Last Summer

  • 1959
  • Movie
  • NR
  • Drama

This bizarre and often distasteful movie at the end of the 1950s was an omen of things to come, as it went far beyond prevailing norms of decency into a world that the average filmgoer had no idea existed. The one-act play on which the film was based consisted essentially of monologs by two women and was the second half of a Williams' bill known collectively...read more

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This bizarre and often distasteful movie at the end of the 1950s was an omen of things to come, as it went far beyond prevailing norms of decency into a world that the average filmgoer had no idea existed. The one-act play on which the film was based consisted essentially of monologs by

two women and was the second half of a Williams' bill known collectively as the "Garden District" when originally presented Off-Broadway (the opening half was entitled "Something Unspoken"). Robert Lansing starred in the role played here by Clift, Anne Meacham did the Taylor part, and Hortense

Alden was in the Hepburn slot. In 1958, when the play was produced, it was strong stuff, although since it took place in one set, it was mostly imagined, rather than depicted. Williams and Vidal adapted the play and expanded it to an overblown length. It's definitely "adult" material, although the

degeneracy is indicated far more than it is shown. Clift is a brain surgeon working in the tacky Louisiana State Hospital under Dekker. He specializes in lobotomies but finds it difficult going in these awful conditions. Dekker, the physician-supervisor of the facility, tells Clift that wealthy

Hepburn, a resident of the New Orleans millionaire's row known as "The Garden District," is interested in Clift and his methods. She also has indicated in her letter that she is more than cognizant of the asylum's financial woes and might be willing to help. Clift goes to Hepburn's ivy-covered

house where the widow says she is considering the establishment of a memorial fund in the name of her late son, Sebastian, who died suddenly last summer. He was a sensitive poet who wrote one poem each year, usually after coming home from his annual trip abroad. Hepburn had always accompanied him

on these journeys, but on that fateful trip, her son chose his cousin, Taylor, to be his companion. As Hepburn takes Clift for a tour of the house and environs, she tells him more about her dead boy. The annual poem he wrote was about their vacations and he was ever so talented. She goes over, in

patient detail, some of their experiences together and Clift just reacts, wondering why she has called for him to visit her. Now the truth emerges. Taylor came home from the trip in a maddened condition. She screamed and shouted and was vulgar, and a beefy nurse had to accompany her home on the

ocean liner lest she harm herself or anyone else. Since returning to Louisiana, she's been incarcerated in a private asylum. Hepburn wonders if Clift's work with lobotomies might be applied to Taylor. The poor girl has a terrible nightmare locked in her memory, and if the operation were

successful, wouldn't this be erased? Clift is not so sure, as the brain is a delicate organ. Hepburn tries to seal the deal by stating that she would be willing to donate a large sum to the state facility if Clift would operate on Taylor. Something about Hepburn's manner disturbs him and he

wonders how much of what she's told him is the truth. She had said that she couldn't take her son to Europe because of a minor stroke, although there is no vestige of it when they meet.

Later, Clift visits Taylor. She is lucid, not mad at all, and tells him that she went to Europe with her cousin because she was having some personal problems that had set tongues to wagging. Her cousin asked her to go with him (not because Hepburn had a stroke) and they went to a small town on the

coast of Spain. There Taylor realized what the Hepburn-son relationship was. (This is shown in flashback during a few visits from Clift.) Hepburn, knowing her son was a homosexual, used to find young boys for him to play with. She would use herself as bait, get the boys to where they were

passionate, then her son would move in and have his way with them. Clift listens with amazement, still trying to learn what it was that caused Taylor to have a temporary mental lapse. He decides against a brain operation, feeling that she is already on her way to becoming mentally stable.

Hepburn doesn't want to hear this and pressures Dekker. If Clift does the brain surgery, she'll come up with the money; if he doesn't, she won't. Hepburn begins to work on Taylor's mother, McCambridge, and her brother, Raymond, trying to get them to convince Taylor that she would be happier after

the surgery. Clift finally brings Taylor to Hepburn's home, where the denouement takes place. It seems that Sebastian (who is not billed in the movie and is only seen in a fleeting glimpse) had spent the summer debauching several young men and they'd finally had enough. They were poor, hungry, and

angry. They turned on him like a pack of wolves, ripped the clothes off his back, tore at his skin, and, Taylor says, "seemed to devour him." Once the truth is out, Hepburn's mind snaps and she begins talking to Clift as though he were her late son. The picture ends, and none too soon.

An incident like this supposedly did happen in Africa when some rich homosexuals were turned upon by the Moroccans they had been toying with. Clift was working on the movie with no insurance (which is usually required) because he failed two medical examinations due to his use of controlled

substances. He continued his drug use during shooting in England (on a magnificent set that evoked the New Orleans atmosphere perfectly); the result is a wooden, glassy-eyed performance. The speeches written by Williams and Vidal were long, and Clift had no ability to memorize or concentrate. At

the same time, Hepburn was away from her beloved Tracy and worried about his health; Taylor, despite having just taken Eddie Fisher away from Debbie Reynolds, was still mourning husband Mike Todd, who'd died in a tragic plane crash that also took the life of writer Art Cohn; director Mankiewicz

was suffering from a bad skin ailment that caused him to wear gloves during shooting. Dekker would make just three more films in the next ten years and then die in a strange way, hanging himself accidentally as part of a weird sexual practice. Hepburn and Taylor were both nominated for Oscars but

probably cancelled each other out in the voting, and Simone Signoret, who was better than both of them, managed to win for ROOM AT THE TOP. The picture was also nominated for Best Art Direction, but didn't win. Hepburn was good but seemed to be in a different movie than everyone else and was more

intent on delivering her lines than reacting to the other players. She had worked with Mankiewicz before on WOMAN OF THE YEAR, for Spiegel in THE AFRICAN QUEEN, and with cinematographer Hildyard in SUMMERTIME, so she should have been comfortable. The production design by Oliver Messel, the art

direction by William Kellner, and the set decoration by Scott Slimon were all commendable. It was the first time that homosexuality and cannibalism had ever been handled by a mainstream studio as a commercial venture. Let's hope that it remains the last time those two practices will be presented

in tandem.

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  • Rating: NR
  • Review: This bizarre and often distasteful movie at the end of the 1950s was an omen of things to come, as it went far beyond prevailing norms of decency into a world that the average filmgoer had no idea existed. The one-act play on which the film was based consi… (more)

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