The works of Tennessee Williams are notorious for their stark dealings with sensitive subjects. Prostitution, incest, adultery, and homosexuality were regular themes in his works, and yet, interestingly, despite the strict production code in place from 1934 to 1968, his were some of the most frequently adapted plays in classic Hollywood. Williams’ plays have been held in high esteem by Hollywood directors, who often had to invent creative means by which to sneak the “immoral” material past the censors, who would veto any outright mention of behavior going against mainstream Christian values. From A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) and Night of the Iguana (1961), the movies have nearly all become giants of cinema, due in large part to the source material and the skill of the directors in conveying meaning in subtle ways.
After years of gradual erosion, the 1950’s saw films that tested the code outright, questioning the values set down by Joseph Breen in 1934. Suddenly Last Summer (1959), directed by the great Joseph L. Mankiewicz, was a direct hit at those values, barely veiling the original intent of Tennessee Williams in the stage version.
Violet Venable (Katharine Hepburn) is a New Orleans woman who lost her son, Sebastian, in a mysterious accident the summer before. The only person who knows what happened is Violet’s niece, Catherine (Elizabeth Taylor) who is confined to a sanitarium after going insane after the incident. A kindly doctor (Montgomery Clift) who is a specialist on frontal lobotomies is summoned by Violet to analyze her niece for the procedure. He visits Catherine, who likes and trusts him, and when Violet and Catherine get together with the doctor, it is clear that they have animosity. Catherine begins to verbally attack Violet, and in doing so, a portion of Sebastian’s life becomes clear. Slowly, a story begins to emerge of a mother who loved her son intensely and obsessively, and a young man who used his mother and cousin to attract the attention of men.
The subject of what is termed “sexual perversion” was explicitly prohibited in the production code, with the inference of prohibition on the subject of homosexuality and incest, both of which, of course, are central to this story. With dialogue such as this bit, seen in the trailer at the bottom of the page, the audience is left to extract the meaning, which is inherently clear.
CATHERINE: Sebastian only needed you while you were still useful.
CATHERINE: I mean young. Able to attract.
VIOLET: She’s babbling again. Babbling and lying.
CATHERINE: He left her home because she–
VIOLET: Because you stole him!
CATHERINE:–lost her attractiveness!
DOCTOR: What does attractiveness have to do with the son and the mother?
CATHERINE: You see, Doctor…we were both decoys.
Though the subject of homosexuality was not new to cinema, appearing notably, though in in extremely subdued ways, in such movies as Gilda (1946) and Rebel Without a Cause (1955), up until this point it is rarely stated as explicitly as in this film. Catherine’s statement “We were both decoys” all but says to the audience, and the censors, “Sebastian was interested in men.” The fact that it was not cut out, nor the film shut down altogether, is a testament to the weathering of the power of the censors over a film’s content.
One of the final scenes, in which we are privy to the actual circumstances of Sebastian’s death, is quite disturbing, and features Catherine recounting in total graphic detail what happened. This scene is noteworthy in that the character is telling us exactly what circumstances led to her cousin’s death, but the visuals are left to the imagination. What we see is a mild, watered-down version of Catherine’s story, and what we imagine is much worse. In that sense, the scene runs much like it would onstage, and this was, perhaps, Mankiewicz’s way of creatively evading the censors.
The reception of the film initially was mostly negative. Tennessee Williams denounced the writing and thought Elizabeth Taylor was a horrible choice for Catherine. However, both Taylor and Hepburn went on to Academy Award nominations for their work, and today the film is seen as a great showcase of the talents of both these screen legends.
Suddenly Last Summer plays relatively often on TCM, and it is certainly an interesting film to watch as one that stretches the bounds of the restrictive production code. It is a must-see for fans of any of the three stars, and it keeps you on the edge of your seat for the entirety of the intensely raw story.