Sunday, March 3, 2013

Sunday Viewing: Suddenly, Last Summer, 1959

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.
--Katharine Hepburn as “Violet Venable”

In 1958, Southern playwright Tennessee Williams, debuted a double-bill of one-act plays at an off-Broadway theater. The two plays were Something Unspoken and Suddenly, Last Summer and were presented under the titleGarden District (a reference to the elite neighborhood of New Orleans).

Suddenly, Last Summer was a dark play with disturbing themes that concerned a wealthy Southern family. Violet Venable—a domineering widow—was still reeling from the death of her only son, Sebastian. Her niece, Catherine Holly, was the last person to see Sebastian alive when he died “suddenly, last summer.” In order to silence Catherine’s less-than-flattering recollections of Sebastian’s last days, Violet has ordered that the girl be lobotomized. She contracts a gentle doctor, John Cukrowicz, to perfom the surgery. Soon, Dr. Cukrowicz finds himself embroiled in this sick family drama and realizes that it isn’t Catherine who needs the lobotomy.

When Columbia Pictures bought the film rights to the play and began to develop their cinematic production, Tennessee Williams was against the casting of Elizabeth Taylor as the vulnerable Catherine Holly. He stated, "It stretched my credulity to believe such a 'hip' doll as our Liz wouldn't know at once in the film that she was 'being used for something evil.” Nevertheless, Taylor gives one of her best performances—an achievement which brought her a Golden Globe Award for the role and an Academy Award Nomination.

Taylor urged director Joseph Mankiewicz to cast her long-time friend Montgomery Clift as Cukrowicz. Clift, who had been struggling with an addiction to pain killers and alcohol, was deemed too difficult and erratic to be a good risk for the studio. However, Taylor got her way. Joining Clift and Taylor is Katharine Hepburn who gives Violet Venable the necessary bite and wit. Hepburn and Taylor were very protective of Clift who was often mistreated by the director. At the end of the production, Hepburn politely asked if they were finished. When told that they were, she walked up to Mankiewicz and spit in his face, saying, “That’s for Monty.”

The behind-the-scenes drama continued as composer Malcolm Arnold walked off the project after finding the film too upsetting. His work was finished by Buxton Orr. Furthermore, the studio met with resistance from the Catholic Legion of Decency who objected to the many references to Sebastian’s homosexuality. By their command, these references were largely removed or made as vague as possible. Furthermore, you’ll notice that we never see Sebastian’s face nor hear his voice in any flashbacks. This was also due to the Catholic Legion of Decency who ordered that the character not be recognizable as any particular person.

Though it’s a watered-down version of Williams’ original play, the film is gripping and emotional. Spectacularly acted, it’s a film that, while disturbing, is one that everyone interested in cinematic history should see.

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