Summer Camp

Suddenly, Last Summer’s Campy Trip From Stage To Queen Screen

“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.

Photo: Wikipedia

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  • Michael in Toronto

    Saw this when I was just a kid, and KNEW it had some kind of message for me — which I later figured out. The message was this: YOUR’E GAY!

  • Felix

    I wouldn’t call it a B picture.

  • loafersguy

    Certainly not a “B” movie. And in the opening titles both Gore Vidal and Tennessee Williams are credited with writing the screenplay.

  • ramonh

    Stopped reading after this “journalist” said Suddenly, Last Summer was a B movie. For starters, when this movie was made, Liz Taylor was the Queen of Hollywood, Katharine Hepburn was considered a living legend, Montgomery Clift was hugely famous and Tennesse Williams was at his peak, so this movie was never thought of as a B movie production, and on its release, NOBODY thought of it as a B movie, on the other hand, it was considered a top notch, Grade- A film.

    Furthermore, Suddenly, Last Summer is NOT a movie which enjoyed A film status but is in fact a B film at its core like many other classics like The Seven Year Itch, no sir.

    Suddenly Last Summer STILL STANDS as one of the greatest films ever made. Elizabeth Taylor’s monologue at the end of the film is not only a virtuoso acting performance, but the TECHNICALITY OF IT, the score, the frames, the silent movie editing elevates it to one of the greatest sequences in the history of filmmaking.

    This “journalist” clearly doesn’t know what he is talking about and should refrain from making ill judgements of art that he doesn’t understand.

  • Eddie

    I agree with you all. This film isn’t a B movie ! How can you make a B movie with all those stars ? Camp ? No, because there isn’t excess. All there is presented in a proper manner. If this film is camp, how can we call the sh*t people do nowadays ? The diference between reality and fiction is that in fiction all has to make sense and this film has this quality.
    Where are today artists like Mont Clif, Liz Taylor, Hepburn ? Those names were respected and beloved all around the world. I know it because I’m not american. Today no one cares for those kids and wierdos that movies show. They can be substituted. Not those from the past.

  • ramonh

    @Eddie: I agree with you Eddie, Suddenly, Last Summer is probably the LEAST CAMP FILM EVER, it is SO DARK AND BROODING, AND VISCERAL, how can ANYONE call Suddenly, Last Summer camp?? Like I said, the author of this article knows nothing.

  • D.B.

    Completely agree with the comments above — “Suddenly Last Summer” could never be considered a B movie.

    I don’t think the author of this post understands the definition of the term — a B movie was a film made during the studio era, with a shoestring budget and “lesser” talent in front of and behind the camera. B movies were often paired with A-list productions in theaters, or used by theaters to fill-out a schedule between A-list offerings. In general, they were not well written or acted, so the end result was often a sensational, over-the-top artificiality, that to today’s audiences often reads as “camp.”

    Perhaps the author meant to say that “Suddenly Last Summer” is an A-list production that perhaps ended up with more of a B movie sensibility. That’s an opinion that can be reasonably argued, although I personally don’t agree. But with talent like Clift, Taylor, Hepburn, Vidal, Williams, and Mankiewiz, this film will always be A-list.

  • ramonh

    @D.B.: Even 50 years after its release, Suddenly, Last Summer still remains an A-list film, by sheet power of its cast and the master film editing and direction it has.

  • Analog

    There’s an astonishing version of this from the early ’90s with Maggie Smith as Violet.
    It’s a bit stagey and it does have Rob Lowe in it, but it’s very good, if only for Maggie’s entrancing performance.

  • Steve

    It’s a pretty silly film of an overheated play that works in the theatre because it’s not literal. The movie shows too much and not enough. I suppose it can be called a B movie for its sensibility, its too-muchness. I always found the ‘Doomed Queers’ denouement both ridiculous and puritanical. Hepburn has a marvelous entrance but can’t really do much with that rôle and Taylor is pretty swell.

    If you put this beside one of the other films that put Taylor together with Clift, A Place in the Sun, this film’s lack of substance is more apparent.

  • ramonh

    @Steve: There is nothing silly about it, and the movie shows enough, it’s a great movie that stands on its own very well when compared to A Place In The Sun or other Taylor movies.

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