Filmsite Movie Review
Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)
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Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) is director Joseph L. Mankiewicz' compelling adaptation by Gore Vidal of Tennessee Williams' 1958 Southern drama-one act play. This lurid, somber, ground-breaking and fascinating melodrama concerned terrible secrets that had to be toned down for the screen (homosexuality, insanity, murder, incest, pedophilia, and cannibalism). The Catholic Legion of Decency and others had considered it sickening and 'degenerate.'

The film's provocative poster teased: "...suddenly last summer Cathy knew she was being used for something evil!"

The Story

The dialogue-rich film was mostly set at the Venable mansion in the French Quarter of New Orleans in the late 1930s. The three main characters were:

  • Catherine Holly (Elizabeth Taylor), a very beautiful niece, institutionalized in a private women's hospital after suffering a nervous breakdown and threatening suicide
  • Mrs. Violet Venable (Katharine Hepburn), a rich widow, dowager and harridan, Catherine's wealthy and ferocious aunt
  • Dr. Cukrowicz (Montgomery Clift), (Cukrowicz means "sugar" in Polish), a psychiatric neuro-surgeon

Dr. Cukrowicz had been called in by Mrs. Venable to act as a psychiatrist in the case. He was to seek the truth, treat and interview her traumatized niece Catherine, and determine whether more drastic measures were necessary. He was urged by Mrs. Venable to perform a 'brain-cutting' lobotomy on Catherine, who had broken down and had seemingly become totally mad. A lobotomy would excise her memory of a past troubling incident and prevent mad ravings from occurring.

Catherine's tormenting illness was due to a horrifying event during the previous summer while she was traveling in Spain (in the beachside resort town of Cabeza de Lobo) for the first time with her cousin, Sebastian Venable, a failed poet. She had taken Mrs. Venable's place as his traveling companion, to Violet's dismay. The doting Mrs. Venable was now urging to "cut the truth" out of Catherine's brain to silence her "lies" about her son.

[Note: The character of Sebastian never spoke nor was he fully seen in the film, although he was wearing a full-white suit when attacked in the film's conclusion.]

Mrs. Venable was using pressure tactics and bribery on Catherine's close relatives (regarding Sebastian's inheritance money) and hospital officials to have authorities commit Catherine and perform the mind-numbing operation:

  • Grace (Mercedes McCambridge), Catherine's mother
  • George (Gary Raymond), Catherine's brother

Toward the film's climactic conclusion, Catherine began to describe her own account of what had happened the previous summer with her homosexual cousin. Mrs. Venable was obviously disturbed that she was no longer Sebastian's choice as a jet-setting traveling companion, because she was no longer attractive (after suffering a disfiguring stroke). Catherine bluntly told the doctor and her aunt how the predatory Sebastian had used her (and earlier Violet's) youthful and seductive beauty as a ploy or decoy. She described how both were used to lure males closer to Sebastian for his own pleasure (and for sexual favors):

Sebastian only needed you while you were still useful...I mean young, able to attract...Sebastian left her home like a toy he tired of. And he took me with him like a new toy. On his last voyage...We were decoys...For Sebastian. He-he used us as bait. When she was no longer able to lure the better fish into the net, he let her go... We procured for him. She used to do it in the smart, fashionable places they went to before last summer. Sebastian was shy with people, she wasn't. Neither was I. But we both did the same thing for him. We both made contacts for him...We were nothing but a pair of...

Then later, she and family members gathered in the Venable garden patio's sun-room, to listen to more of Catherine's account (after taking truth serum). She again told how Sebastian had selected her to go abroad with him for the summer, to visit foreign cities such as Paris, Barcelona, and Rome. She remembered how her cousin cringed one day at her non-sexual touch:

At Amalfi, high above the Mediterranean, in a garden, I took his arm... It seemed like such a natural thing to do, but he pulled away. I only did it to try and show my appreciation for his kindness.

An aspiring poet, Sebastian was suffering from writer's block, and his notebook's pages had gone blank. Catherine's lengthy account was illustrated by impressionistic flashbacks when she started talking about her recollections at the beach. Catherine became embarrassed when he dragged her into the water in order to attract attention ("I was procuring for him") - when her white one-piece bathing suit that he had bought for her became transparent:

He bought me a bathing suit I didn't want to wear. I laughed. I said, 'I can't wear that. Why, it's a scandal to the jaybirds.'...It was a one-piece bathing suit. Made of white something. But the water made it transparent. I told him I didn't want to swim in it but he just grabbed my hand and dragged me into the water - all the way in - and I came out looking naked.

Then, after their excursions to the beach stopped, there was another horrifying surreal incident on a very hot summer day. With an increasingly hysterical tone, she told how a sickly, fevered Sebastian was wearing a white silk suit, a white tie, and a white Panama on a blazing white afternoon. At their outdoor restaurant table, Sebastian was popping pills for his heart condition. Ravenous beggar boys ("hungry young people" making "gobbling noises with frightful grins") called out for "Pan, Pan" (bread), but were held back by a wire fence. They were loudly playing percussion instruments, drums and cymbals made with tin cans as they crowded around. It was hinted that these were boys that Sebastian knew - that he had earlier exploited - and now they were seeking revenge.

When the terrified Sebastian fled from the restaurant, the band of noisy kids gave chase and pursued and surrounded him. They followed him as he ran up a steep and hilly set of streets - gripping his chest with "palpatations." Catherine had suggested going the other direction to the harbor, but he decided otherwise. She watched as the gang of boys raced after him up the narrow rocky streets as he tried to escape ("the only way was straight up"). At the summit where there were the stone ruins of an ancient temple, the male youths overtook Sebastian, and literally tore him apart and devoured him during a cannibalistic homicidal attack. She watched his body being ravaged by the angry young boys. Catherine heard him scream as his outstretched hand was grabbed, and she screamed in unison with him:

He-he was lying naked on the broken stones. And this you won't believe! Nobody, nobody, nobody could believe it! It looked as if - as if they had devoured him! As if they'd torn or cut parts of him away with their hands, or with knives, or those jagged tin cans they made music with. As if they'd torn bits of him away and stuffed them in their own gobbling mouths! There wasn't a sound anymore. There was nothing but Sebastian, Sebastian lying on those stones, torn and crushed.

After listening to the gut-wrenching tale that was surely the truth, Violet Venable became mad and delusional (believing the doctor was her dead son) and suffered a nervous breakdown (she was unable to accept the truth about her son and his death). Crazed, she told Dr. Cukrowicz as he led her to her elevator lift - and kissed him:

Go rest, my darling. Look out for that fever. I'm going up to see the captain now and tell him to change our course for home. Oh, Sebastian. What a lovely summer it's been. Just the two of us. Sebastian and Violet. Violet and Sebastian. Just the way it's always going to be. Oh, we are lucky, my darling, to have one another and need no one else, ever.

By the film's end, Catherine was not going to be institutionalized or lobotomized. Catherine (referring to herself in the third person) told Dr. Cukrowicz that she had returned to a less painful present - and was now recovered:

Dr. Cukrowicz: "Catherine? Miss Catherine?"
Catherine: "She's here, Doctor. Miss Catherine's here."