KATHARINE HEPBURN MONTH
SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER ( 1959 )
Tennessee Williams is perhaps the worlds most legendary playwright from the 20th century, and ranks among other renowned names such as Eugene O’Neill and Arthur Miller. During the annals of his career, he has published an array of dramatic literature that has evolved into stage plays and later being adapted to the screen, where his flair for strong American drama shined in a string of successful films that are now recognized as masterpieces.
One of his greatest works for cinema is the 1959 classic “Suddenly Last Summer”, starring Katharine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift, under the immaculate direction of Joseph L Mankiewitz, who served as one of Hollywood’s prominent directors, that pioneered his way through several notable films that received triumphant results and Academy Awards.
“Suddenly Last Summer” was not actually based on a full stage production. In truth the idea for the film initiated from a one act play by Tennessee Williams, titled “Something Unspoken”, a short segment that was part of the 1958 Off Broadway double bill “Garden District”. This particular part piqued an interest in Gore Vidal, who saw this as great movie material, and wanted to adapt the work for the screen, so he set about trying to attempt constructing the narrative as a small number of very long scenes, echoing the structure of the play.
Like “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof”, two of Williams previous plays that drew critical acclaim, “Suddenly Last Summer” also delves into the same subject matter of homosexuality, though with the Motion Picture Production Code, the explicit content wasn’t as evident in the first two as it was clearly depicted in the latter, but since they were working in conjunction with the National Legion Of Decency, they were in the disposition to illustrate Sebastian Venable’s sexual perversion without breaking the moral code. That being said the character of Sebastian Venable is never seen in the film and can only be spotted in publicity stills that show Sebastian as a handsome man dressed in a white swimsuit. The reason for this is because Williams wanted Sebastian to appear as a rather mysterious character who’s death was esoteric, and since he is absent from the screen his presence is more strongly felt.
In 1959, Elizabeth Taylor was Hollywood’s greatest asset with a popularity rating that had reached it’s highest pinnacle. With all her power she chose “Suddenly Last Summer” to be her first project since her contract with MGM had ended, and it was because of her influence that Montgomery Clift starred in the film. If it weren’t for Taylor, Clift wouldn’t have even been considered for the role of Dr. John Cukrowicz, as at the time he was heavily dependent on drugs and alcohol, which was sending him on a downward spiral, often leaving him unable to work, but Taylor had faith in him to carry out the role, and because he was unable to find a doctor to attest his insurability, the films producer, Sam Spiegel decided to go ahead and accept Taylor’s demands of him being cast.
Once filming commenced, Montgomery Clift found the task to be onerous. The long scenes were that exhausting that he had to have the longest scene shot in multiple takes. This led to him feeling insecure, which would result in his performance being rather shaky at times, so much that it began to show in his work, and after witnessing several days of this, Joseph L Mankiewicz implored Sam Spiegel to replace him for another actor that could handle the role. Fortunately most of the crew were sympathetic towards Clift, especially Katharine Hepburn, who didn’t tolerate the poor treatment that he was receiving from Mankiewicz, that as soon as production came to a cessation she asked him to confirm that her services were no longer required, and according to many sources, she apparently spat in his face when he said she’s not needed anymore.
Along the way the crew struck multiple altercations. If it wasn’t Montgomery Clift and the troubles he was facing, it was the musical score being interrupted when Malcolm Arnold abandoned the job and had to be replaced, or Elizabeth Taylor, who burst into tears during her final monologue and couldn’t be consoled.
“Suddenly Last Summer” takes viewers on a journey of mysterious happenings in the lives of three different characters. Katharine Hepburn plays Violet Venable, the eccentric mother of the deceased poet, Sebastian Venable, who died under questionable circumstances during a Summer holiday in Europe with his cousin Catherine Holly ( Elizabeth Taylor ) who witnessed the death of Sebastian, and is institutionalized for severe emotional disturbance. In the middle of all this is Dr. John Cukrowicz ( Montgomery Clift ) a young psycho surgeon from a New Orleans hospital, who is desperately in need of funds, and accepts Violet’s invitation to meet her at her estate to discuss with him about performing a lobotomy on Catherine to prevent her from defiling the memory of her son.
This film is another example of movie making to perfection. It is a great Southern Gothic production filled with Brilliant, florid dialog and two wonderful, long soliloquies by both Katharine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor, who both attained Oscar nominations for their performances.
Katharine Hepburn delivered one of her most culminating performances in her career with her meritorious portrayal of Violet Venable. This role is very complex, and not many actresses would be able to pull it off to the extent that Hepburn did, but with all the magic that Katharine had acquired, she executed the part perfectly. As an actress, Katharine was very expressive. She could demonstrate such raw emotion, even in a role that didn’t call for it. Her character of Violet Venable is a person that is filled with a gloomy and morbid aura, and Katharine was able to accomplish Violet’s moods by using expressions that tell a story, without having to resort to using histrionics.
When witnessing Katharine’s thunderous performances in heavy dramatic roles like this, it’s sad to realize that there are so many people who are ignorant of the fact that Hepburn was indeed one of the most versatile actresses to ever grace the silver screen. Sadly many people have the assumption that Hepburn only played close to her own skin, which I have never been able to fathom why they think that. In truth, Katharine was very adept at every genre, and obtained a multitude of accolades for many diverse roles.
Elizabeth Taylor, who is mainly recognized for her exquisite looks and her marriage to Richard Burton is pretty much overlooked for her acting potential, but there was much more to Elizabeth than her sexual beauty. She was a fully seasoned actress, who had come a long way since her days as a child star, appearing in such memorable classics like “Lassie”. This is a fine example of Taylor’s acting prowess. She shined in her role of Catherine Holly, a part that is not easy to portray, especially for someone as young as Elizabeth Taylor was at the time.
Montgomery Clift is another actor that I’ve always admired. Despite his dependency on drugs and alcohol, he was one commendable actor, who was superb in everything he did. While watching his performance in this, you wouldn’t be able to tell that he suffered in real life from severe alcoholism.
“Suddenly Last Summer” is a film that will keep audiences enthralled for many decades to come. From the mysterious death of Sebastian, the alchemistic characters, and Violet’s primordial garden that resembles a jungle, this haunting classic is everything a mystery thriller should be.
One of the few classic films to address smoking as an addiction that can affect the mood or attitude of the smoker.
Vivien Leigh rejected the role of Violet Venable before Katharine Hepburn was cast.
Patricia Neal played the lead role to so much acclaim on the London stage she was sure she would be given the part in the film adaptation, even without her agent promoting her the job. She then woke up in shock to find Elizabeth Taylor had been assigned the role.
The shooting for the film took place between May and September 1959, at Shepperton Studios in England.
Violet Venable: “My son, Sebastian and I constructed our days. Each day we would carve each day like a piece of sculpture, leaving behind us a trail of days like a gallery of sculpture until suddenly, last summer.”
Violet Venable: “Most people’s lives, what are they but trails of debris – each day more debris, more debris… long, long trails of debris, with nothing to clean it all up but death.”
Violet Venable: “Strictly speaking, his life was his occupation. Yes, yes, Sebastian was a poet. That’s what I meant when I said his life was his work because the work of a poet is th elife of a poet, and vice versa, the life of a poet is the work of a poet. I mean, you can’t separate them. I mean, a poet’s life is his work, and his work is his life in a special sense.”
Violet Venable: “I’ve buried a husband and a son. I’m a widow and a… Funny, there’s no word. Lose your parents, you’re an orphan. Lose your only son and you are… Nothing.”
Catherine Holly: “Is that what love is? Using people? And maybe that’s what hate is – not being able to use people.”
Katharine Hepburn: Born Katharine Houghton Hepburn on May 12th, 1907 in Hartford, Connecticut. Died: June 29th, 2003 in Fenwick, Connecticut. Aged 96.
Elizabeth Taylor: Born Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor on February 27th, 1932 in Hampstead Garden, London. Died: March 23rd, 2011 in Los Angeles, California. Aged 79.
Montgomery Clift: Born Edward Montgomery Clift on October 17th, 1920 in Omaha, Nebraska. Died: July 23rd, 1966 in New York. Aged 45.