August 10, 2012

Queer Review: Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)

Suddenly, Last Summer
Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Writer: Tennessee Williams and Gore Vidal. Based upon a play by Tennessee Williams.
Cast: Elizabeth Taylor, Katharine Hepburn, Montgomery Clift, Albert Dekker, Mercedes McCambridge, Gary Raymond

An ugly mess. In spite of being written by two prominent gay writers (Gore Vidal and Tennessee Williams) Suddenly, Last Summer somehow manages to include almost every last queer bashing technique ever dreamed up by Hollywood.

Dr. Cukrowicz (Montgomery Clift) is asked by Mrs. Violet Venable (Katharine Hepburn) to perform a lobotomy on her niece, Catherine Holly (Elizabeth Taylor). However, when Dr. Cukrowicz interviews Catherine, he suspects that she is in fact perfectly sane, albeit severely traumatized by mysterious events surrounding the death the previous summer of Sebastian (Mrs. Venables' son). He also suspects that Mrs. Venable has an ulterior motive for wanting Catherine lobotomized.

The Queering
(This is an older film but I plan on discussing explicit details of the ending. For those who hate SPOILERS, you are now warned.)

If there is a gay bashing trope used by Hollywood that Suddenly, Last Summer does not somehow use, I am unaware of its' existence. The relationship details that Mrs. Venable shares with Dr. Cukrowicz show she and her son had a creepy, bordering on incestuous, relationship. Mrs. Venable also describes her son as being "fastidious" and other details reveal him to have been what could be described as a "nancy boy" (not that I think there is anything wrong with that). Catherine also, apparently justifiably, describes Sebastian as being an emotionally manipulative user.

For added bonus, Sebastian is suggested to not only have been an active pedophile, but the ending reveals that he was eaten alive by the same boys that he had preyed upon sexually. Yay!

How two gay writers were able to create such a homophobic crapfest is a little difficult to explain but not entirely. After all, 1959 was the same era that had the Mattachine Society attempting to argue that gay men were in fact mentally ill and that criminalizing homosexuality was pretty much the same thing as outlawing wheelchairs.

Suddenly, Last Summer is flawed in other ways besides being homophobic. The characterization of Catherine Holly is just awful. Catherine should be demonstrating symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but more frequently simply displays an amalgamation of Hollywood stereotypes about the mentally ill. To top it off, both Catherine's mother and brother are among the more irritating characters that I can recall having witnessed on the silver screen. Both ma and bro Holly suffer from what I shall call "Jar Jar Binks Meets Nails on Chalkboard" syndrome.

On the plus side of things, Katherine Hepburn gives a riveting performance as the Mrs. Venable. There is also some nicely composed cinematography. Make note of how a painting of Saint Sebastian is shown before being explicitly referenced by Mrs. Venable. I would also like to point out that there are several intriguing shots of skeletons (or statues of skeletons) which may or may not be intended as simple metaphors for death.

Unfortunately one good performance, a few nicely composed shots, and a couple of stabs at complex visual symbolism are not enough to undo the overall awfulness that is Suddenly, Last Summer

Only for those with a strong interest in the history of queer cinema. Everyone else would best serve themselves by suddenly seeing something else, be it summer or any other season.

The Rating
*1/2 out of ****


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  1. Don't forget that Montgomery Clift was gay and Katherine Hepburn bisexual. Elizabeth Taylor turned out to be a gay ally.

  2. I completely disagree and feel that you have completely misunderstood. Please note that Suddenly Last Summer is originally a play written by Tennessee Williams whose extensive amount of drama and short stories include themes of race, sexuality, desire and the 'Other' that were relevant both at the contemporary time and, I would argue, still now. To place extensive blame upon Williams and Vidal and not the director is to be blameshaming the wrong 'culprit' (if there is such one) even if the writers did have input during the film's production.
    I do however have my own faults with the film but I think in order to vilify one has to have read the play to realise and explain the differences that were made to the film. Notably, the film overrides the homoerotic tones by valuing to heavily the on-screen romance between Catherine and the Doctor.
    Contextually, think about why this has been adapted for screenplay and also why the homoerotic/racial themes are presented as underlying in both film and written play.
    Suddenly Last Summer has more to say about queer culture and 'humans using humans' than you first think.


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