“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
Suddenly, Last Summer is one of the great works of B-filmmaking. By all means it was billed as an A-level production, with major stars Katharine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift and four-time Oscar-winning director Joseph L. Manckiewicz of All About Eve fame. But its subject matter and its translation to the screen, have relegated/elevated Suddenly, Last Summer to the heights of camp — an art-form in and of itself.
Based on a play by Tennessee Williams, who was just coming off the theatrical and then cinematic successes of A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Suddenly Last Summer tells the tale of Catherine Holly, who served as boy-bait for her cousin Sebastian Venable. Following the death of Sebastian at the hands of some fine young cannibals, Sebastian’s mother Violet tries to keep Catherine from telling the truth by plotting to lobotomize her. Finally, under a truth serum, Catherine spills the beans over Sebastian’s gruesome end.
So it’s 1959 and how do you get that shit on screen?
Enter Gore Vidal. In a great article on Vidal’s and Suddenly, Last Summer‘s impact on Hollywood censorship, The Hollywood Reporter‘s Mary Grace Lord recalls meeting with Vidal before his death earlier this year at 86. They discussed how Vidal managed to sneak the sordid content of Williams’ play past the censors, who had more or less neutered the homosexuality inherent in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
Vidal met biweekly with a priest to go over the script — luckily he got “one of the dumb ones.” In adapting the play, Vidal also made some concessions to the censors by never showing Sebastian’s face and oblique mentions of Catherine and Violet “procuring” young boys for Sebastian’s “insatiable appetite.” Today, that’s so heavy with innuendo it’s practically dragging on the floor, but times were evidently different, to wit:
Still, a few months after the movie came out, Vidal received proof that he had preserved enough of the play for it to make sense. A policeman stopped him for speeding on the Taconic State Parkway and recognized him from his political campaign. “I just saw that movie you wrote,” Vidal recalled the policeman saying. “Was that guy a faggot?”
“I think he was, yeah,” Vidal told him. The policeman was exultant — because he had figured this out and his wife hadn’t.
Hepburn and Taylor were both nominated for Best Actress at the Academy Awards when the film came out, but Williams and Vidal attempted to distance themselves from it. Williams, who received sole writing credit after producer Sam Spiegel convinced him he’d win an Oscar, even publicly disowned it. Vidal, for his part, was a good sport about it:
“I contemplated suing,” he recounts in Vito Russo‘s The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies, “but Tennessee is a friend, and he said, ‘Ah mean, Go-wuh, it is mah play,’ to which I said, ‘Yes, all forty minutes of it, but the other sixty are mine.’” Vidal also took issue with Manckiewicz’s changes to the ending, saying “those overweight ushers from the Roxy Theatre on Fire Island pretending to be small ravenous boys” did them no favors.
Suddenly, Last Summer may not have held up so well over time with touches and occasionally bitch-slaps of melodrama, campy horror and hysteria akin to Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? — but like that other B-movie with A-list ambitions, it stands tall in the canon of queer cinema and all things camp.