For some Suddenly, Last Summer plays like the Holy Grail of Classic Hollywood cult films. It’s a bit like seeing those old Warner Bros. Studio clips of famed actors muffing their lines and then proceeding to blurt out obscenities. It breaks all illusions for those who have a certain perception of what these old movies represent, whether it’s something twee or a sort of refreshing simplicity.
Somewhere between Tennesse Williams and Gore Vidal, we find the origins of something with the carnal instinct of a venus flytrap. Fitting, as the curious plants become one of the film’s earliest portents. One Mrs. Violet Venable (Katharine Hepburn) keeps them well-fed in her arboretum. Really, the space — like an overgrown Eden in her backyard — is in memoriam to her dearly beloved son Sebastian.
He’s never seen in the flesh, but he haunts this picture like a male equivalent to Mrs. Rebecca De Winter. The memory of him is kept alive by those closest to him almost to the point of obsession.
But to understand this we must start earlier. At Lion’s View State Asylum in 1937, a brain surgeon (Montgomery Clift) has made strides in lobotomy to provide relief to schizophrenic patients. It’s a primitive solution and his facilities are subpar at best. As a state institution, they lack the funds to take care of their growing population of patients.
Their savior might just come in the form of the same Mrs. Venable who is looking for some aid for her niece (Elizabeth Taylor), a young woman who has recently been interned at St. Mary’s hospitable. She’s purportedly prone to obscene outbursts and other unseemly behavior.
The way it’s described, she might as well be as mad as a hatter. Meanwhile, the way the lady talks about her departed son to the good doctor you would think the former poet was almost like a god. She sees both men’s art — that of surgeon and poet — as supremely powerful and grandly creative. What’s more, there’s no pretense. She’s absolutely infatuated with the memory of her dead son.
She’s further obsessed with everything she witnessed on her travels with Sebastian the year before: particularly birds devouring baby sea turtles. Nature is not known for its compassion, and we are all trapped in a devouring creation. In this world, the face of God is not a supreme being but a horrible inescapable truth. If anything, God is made in our own image and it’s a terrifying reflection.
Elizabeth Taylor finally makes her entrance, and she’s as alluring as ever. She’s hardly the world’s idea of an unhinged ward patient, done up as she is in her typical Hollywood glamor, with a slight redux free of charge.
As she meets Dr. Cukrowicz (Clift) and becomes accustomed to his calming presence, there’s an uneasy trust being formed. But if anything, it might as well play off the close friendship of Liz and Monty offscreen. He doesn’t do much — at least in a histrionic sense — and she commands most of the scenes, still, it only works if they are together. For all the struggles Clift endured after his career-altering injury, in tandem with the likes of Hepburn and Taylor, he works quite well.
Of course, there is no real pretense to believe this story is really concerned in any regard with mental health. Catherine goes wandering around the facility only to terrorize herself. If she’s not “mad,” it might all be subjective anyway. At any rate, it feels like a high-profile precursor to Shock Corridor.
However, in that film, the shock befits the low-profile punchiness of Sam Fuller more than Mankiewicz and his A-list cast. Here it feels more than a little dimorphic, bearing two forms that don’t fit together. To be sure, Suddenly, Last Summer transcends mediocrity altogether. It’s arguably something far better or something far worse than it seems.
These long, drawn-out scenes loaded to the gills with theatrical dialogue meet their piece de resistance as Taylor goes off — divulging all the secrets she’s been holding onto. However, if any of this gives off the putrid stench of convention, rest assured the finale is as striking as it is genuinely perturbing.
It paints in oblique language, clouded images, and the drone of Taylor’s own voice as we watch her terrorized face recount the horrors she witnessed. Suddenly, Last Summer reaches the summit with clanging drums and music, cobblestone streets, and streams of lecherous feet chasing after their prize. Here again the overgrown gardens, venus fly traps, and flesh-eating birds have renewed significance.
It takes her to the brink — a cinematic equivalent to visual insanity — and the precipice of reality, leaving her all but ready to jump off. Whether it’s totally effective or not, above all, it leaves a polarizing impression. Thus, the most surprising reaction to the picture would be one of total indifference.
What sets it apart from its brethren and even other Tennessee Williams pictures is how it’s able to lay into its themes even more overtly, almost on the encouragement of The Production Codes. Because it’s preaching a message of the twisted roads humanity can take, paths that ultimately lead to destruction. And yet with all those involved, there is this subversive sense of something else — something more, its screenplay’s skin is crawling with all sorts of undercurrents.
In what universe do Elizabeth Taylor, Katharine Hepburn, and Montgomery Clift star in a picture helmed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz culminating in cannibalism and interwoven with any number of delectably salacious taboos? It happens here. And yet more perverse still is how God or hope or meaning, in any form, is absent. From a worldview perspective, there is no such thing as Truth (or is it truth serum?). Take your poison.
Either is fitfully terrifying until it gives way to a meaningless apathy. No wonder the asylums are so full of patients. It might be the safest place to be in a world such as this. Our initial fear is poor Elizabeth Taylor receiving a lobotomy. Rest assured we get something far worse: a senseless, devouring world. It’s poised and ready to eat us all up.