Suddenly, Last Summer Still Shocks

Tennessee Williams' Suddenly Last Summer packed a punch in 1959. Today it carries an additional amount of gravitas

One of the first movies I saw ever saw in a film class was Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly, Last Summer. At the age of 18, a lot of the subject matter flew right over my head. Re-watching it again at 32 after having dealt with my and my friends own personal struggles with mental illness and the rise in discussion regarding LGBTQ issues, it packed an incredible wallop. I even had to stop the film at one point to process certain elements a little better.

SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER, Montgomery Clift, Katharine Hepburn, 1959

Having premiered in 1959, it’s amazing to see a film that was so ahead of its time. The fact that specific topics which were considered so taboo, including rape, overt sexuality and homosexuality, were not discarded or only subtly alluded to, is astounding. Still, this doesn’t mean the film was not tampered with. Producer Sam Spiegel came under intense scrutiny from Production Code head Geoffrey Shurlock, eventually bowing to the pressures and deleting now-lost and unknown material in order to be approved. Even with these changes, the film still holds considerable shock value today.

Other problems plagued the production long before it even wrapped. Montgomery Clift, who had been in a life-changing car accident three years earlier (where he was saved by co-star Elizabeth Taylor), had issues being insured by the studio due to his alcoholism. He had trouble remembering his lines and his scenes would have to be shot in a piecemeal fashion. Director Joseph Mankiewicz consistently complained to producer Sam Spiegel, trying to get Clift fired, but ultimately, Clift kept his job. Katherine Hepburn was so enraged by his treatment that after she was assured she was finished shooting, she apparently spat on or at possibly both Spiegel and Mankiewicz (sources differ in regards to this tale).

It’s unknown as to whether all the behind-the-scenes drama contributed to the tense atmosphere and sense of unease the film keeps throughout; if it did, it certainly shows onscreen. The film has a visceral, almost horror film-like quality to it. Young Catherine (Taylor) has a frightful encounter in Spain in which she witnesses her cousin Sebastian’s death. Her aunt Violet (Hepburn) is insistent that she be lobotomized and uses her considerable wealth to make sure that young doctor John Cukrowicz (Clift) performs the surgery. However, after meeting Catherine, he decides that she is not actually crazed, but is suffering from a sort of PTSD type of syndrome. Trying to get to the bottom of it proves to be difficult; everything Dr. Cukrowicz tries is met with pushback from either Violet or his boss, Dr. Hockstader (Albert Dekker). Eventually, the truth comes out in a riveting scene involving a sort of truth serum used on Catherine.

Taylor, one of the most iconic stars of all time, is a revelation in the film. At times throughout, she is somehow able to seem both crazed, yet sympathetic. She plays a sweet, naïve, young lady, who has had many horrors put upon her by men over a very short period of time. The mood swings she shows were largely real, especially during her final monologue. Bravely using method acting to bring up the emotions she endured after the death of her third husband, Mike Todd, she reportedly became inconsolable in real life and could not stop crying after the take was finished. It was a bold move, which could not have been an easy choice to make. This made her performance legendary, and for good reason.

Released on Blu-ray by Twilight Time, Suddenly, Last Summer is presented in a 1080p High Definition Transfer, the film beautifully remastered. Special features include the original theatrical trailer, and an isolated music and sound effects track. While I don’t usually understand the point of an isolated track, it’s a good move here, as the music and sound in this film are just as engrossing and important as any of its dialogue. Included within is a booklet, with an essay by Twilight Time’s Julie Kirgo.

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