Challenges to the Production Code in “Suddenly Last Summer” (1959)

Katharine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor struggle with the mysterious death of Sebastian, Hepburn’s son and Taylor’s cousin in “Suddenly Last Summer.”

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.

Confronting Violet.

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.

DOCTOR: 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.

Sebastian’s death.

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.


6 responses to “Challenges to the Production Code in “Suddenly Last Summer” (1959)

  1. I agree with you about the ending – what we see is disturbing, but what we imagine is waaaay worse. Very clever filmmaking, that.

  2. “Intensely raw” is an apt description for SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER. Though not altogether successful, it’s an intriguing film that hooks me each time I watch it. According to Gore Vidal, he has a heck of a time with the censors when adapting Williams’ play.

  3. I have been thinking for some time that I had seen all of Kate and Elizabeth’s films that were available but I have to admit that I haven’t seen SLS. I’m so confused because I thought that I had but after reading your review it doesn’t sound familiar at all.

    Of course your review, backstory and the info on it testing the boundaries makes me feel like I’m really missing out on something great. I would say that Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is one of my top 3 fav films for Taylor and getting to see her acting along side Kate sounds delicious. I’m going to look around and see if I can find it this weekend.

    Thanks for brining this film to mind. Boy, am I so far behind in seeing films, especially the ones that stirred controversy etc.

  4. Lara, I’m so happy to be back online and able to follow your wonderful blog. I watched this movie for the umpteenth time the other day — it’s wonderful. The music, the atmosphere, that GARDEN! Katharine Hepburn was ideal as the tragic mother, and Montgomery Clift mesmerizing as the doctor. I too had a little trouble with Elizabeth Taylor, although she did do a very good job. My problem with her in this role was mostly her voice — it has always seemed rather child-like to me, and when she screams it just goes through my ear like a gigantic mosquito’s whine. I’m not taking away from her acting ability at all — just a problem in some roles.

    Speaking of Tennessee Williams’ film adaptations, I remember reading about what Viven Leigh said while filming. “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Of course, in the play her young husband was homosexual, but the movies wouldn’t allow that mention, so her reasons for becoming hurt and disgusted at him didn’t make any sense. Leigh said that she felt ridiculous because it sounded like she spurned him because he wrote poetry. Pretty funny!

    Loved your post, Lara!

  5. Thanks Becky! I am really fascinated by this movie, there are so many things to be noticed! I think we forget how young Elizabeth Taylor still was in this movie–she grew up so fast that sometimes we the audience think she must be so far into adulthood–but she was still only 25 here. Twice divorced and a widow at 25, can you imagine? And it is her voice that gives her age away, I think. She always had a reed-thin voice but it did get slightly fuller and more mature in later movies like “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” And LOL about Vivien Leigh. I can imagine her saying how ridiculous she felt. Talk about a voice! Vivien Leigh had a voice like no other, I could listen to her read the phone book all day.

  6. You really should see this one! It’s really food for thought and important in the Liz/Kate pantheon. It plays on TCM pretty often, do a schedule search for it!

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