Southern Movie 52: “Suddenly, Last Summer” (1959)
Perhaps most well-known for its iconic scene of Katherine Hepburn descending in a wrought-iron elevator, 1959’s Suddenly, Last Summer is one among a series of Tennessee Williams plays made into successful films, though this one was directed not by Elia Kazan but Joseph Mankiwiecz. The black-and-white film is set in New Orleans and deals with the aftermath of Sebastian Venable’s death, as his obsessively overprotective mother tries to erase any and all factual understanding of her son’s closeted life and unseemly demise. Starring Hepburn, Montgomery Clift, and Elizabeth Taylor, this one is a classic that conceals a bizarre twist until the end.
Suddenly, Last Summer begins ominously with the credits playing in blocky white text in front of a very tall brick wall. Once the credits are complete, the camera pans slowly over to a small sign on this large wall, which reads, “Lions View State Asylum.” Inside the asylum, we see an assortment of haggard-looking women in a day room, some sewing, some catatonic, as one large woman shuffles across the room taking what she pleases, first an item from a table then a rocking chair from a woman already sitting in it. Once our focus leaves the silent bully, it moves to a young woman with a placid expression who is marveling at a baby doll as though it were her child. Two female nurses come in and kindly escort her out, but she is wary of them and clutches the doll to her chest. Quickly, we see her anesthetized for surgery and wheeled out on a gurney, the doll left on a bench.
She is going to a large room with a balcony encircling the upper part of it, a surgery table is at center, with people in white gowns prepping the patient. Above the operating room is a loud man in a suit, boisterous and bureaucratic, who is bellowing in his Southern accent that the room used to be a library, when the facility was a school, and before that, a sugar warehouse. But now it’s an “operating theater,” where spectators can watch the procedures. What the assembled men, all in suits, are about the see is a frontal lobotomy, the first ever performed in the state. The bureaucrat, who is Dr. Hockstader, introduces Dr. Cukrowicz (Montgomery Clift) from Chicago. He enters and gets ready to perform the surgery.
Dr. Cukrowicz works intently on the patient, but almost right away, one of the spectators in the gallery kicks loose a railing and mortar and dust sprinkle down onto the surgical area. Hockstader winces but doesn’t move to do anything about it. The surgery continues then, and as it is near completion, a light goes out. Hockstader winces again. As Cukrowicz finishes, he looks up to the watching men and tells them that they have just seen a delicate operation performed under very primitive conditions.
Exasperated, Cukrowicz goes to confront Hockstader, who runs the asylum. He storms into his boss’s office and asks the secretary there to leave. The two men argue, the surgeon berating the conditions and lamenting unkept promises, and the administrator reminding him of the financial facts of their status as a state hospital. But when Cukrowicz mumbles that maybe he should just go work somewhere else, Hockstader stops him and says, “Before you go, read this,” holding out an already-opened envelope.
Cukrowicz takes out the letter and asks, “Who is . . . Violet Venable?”
Hockstader replies, “You reveal your ignorance of our fair city.”
Violet Venable is the widow of the richest man in town, making her the richest woman in town. And she wants something from them. Hockstader sees dollar signs, so Cukrowicz must go at 4:30 that afternoon to honor the invitation that Violet Venable has extended, to discuss a “matter of some urgency.”
Across town, Dr. Cukrowicz is let into a large, elegant and ornate foyer by a black butler. Cukrowicz waits alone for a moment when an older, matronly woman in cat’s-eye glasses comes down the spiral stairs, and he says, “Mrs. Venable?” No, this is Mrs. Foxhill, her personal secretary, who directs him where to sit. Within seconds, we hear an elegant voice begin to speak about a son named Sebastian, and we see Violet Venable come into the foyer via an elevator made for one. She is middle-aged, exquisitely dressed, and reclined on the seat. Cukrowicz is visibly charmed, and she explains that her son loved “the Byzantine,” then shifts seamlessly into an anecdote about how, unlike the Emperor of Byzantium ascends over his subjects, she, living in a democracy, descends to meet hers. This woman is at once aristocratic and enigmatic, talking nonstop.
Violet takes Cukrowicz arm-in-arm and invites him to the garden, though Mrs. Foxhill objects. Violet overrules her and explains to Cukrowicz that since her “tiny convulsion,” everyone is worried about her well-being. Cukrowicz inquires about the episode and is told that, since she had buried both her husband and her son recently, it should be understandable.
Cukrowicz is walked into the gardens, where a still-talking Violet leads him to a mass of jungle-like plants. She has picked up a small box and hints at feeding something, then moves them toward a Victorian glass cage, where she begins feeding insects to a Venus fly trap, before her segue into Dr. Cukrowicz’s specialty: the lobotomy. However, as Cukrowicz attempts to pick up what she has put down, she is off again, changing subjects and walking away. Violet is clearly in control here, and Cukrowicz is back on his heels, trying to follow where she leads, trying to discern why he is there.
After handing off the feeding duties to Mrs. Foxhill, Violet allows for a coherent conversation, for a moment, when Cukrowicz asks what Sebastian’s occupation was. She tries to explains that he was a poet, that “his life was his work,” but loses herself in despair and moves to the subject of the operation. Cukrowicz reminds her of the hospital’s financial needs, and she mumbles, “Yes, I know,” then reveals the “urgency.” Violet has a niece by marriage who has been struck with “dementia precox,” is institutionalized at St. Mary’s, and might be a candidate for a lobotomy.
Cukrowicz tries to reply, “But dementia precox is a meaningless . . .” but Violet’s loquacious rambling overtakes him. She begins to describe Sebastian again, ignoring Cukrowicz’s attempt to discuss the foundation she claimed in the letter to be founding, telling him that Sebastian was an artist who was above notions of commercial success or name recognition. So, in his wake, she will work to “memorialize” him.
After attempting to compare her son and Dr. Cukrowicz as people who use others, then procliaming that most people’s lives are nothing but “trails of debris,” Violet’s mood changes, lightens up. She then shares that her relationship with her son was not like mother and son, but more like they were a couple, as they gallivanted across Europe in style, always popular and always adored everywhere they went. This glimpse into the past is disconcerting because a mother and son are a pair we don’t think of as being a couple . . . But Violent seems not only insistent but happy about it. “Then, suddenly last summer . . .” she begins, her mood changing. “Your son died,” Cukrowicz says to complete her sentence.
Violet then becomes agitated, imploring the doctor to help her niece, who is mad, and finally getting to the detail that explains it all: she is saying terrible things about Sebastian. When pressed about what kinds of things she is saying, Violet is unable to produce an example, but instead refers to a he-said/she-said incident with the elderly gardener at St. Mary’s. Cukrowicz then admonishes Violet that the surgery is risky and that the pacifying effects could be permanent, and Violet seems to gets excited, almost licking her chops in anticipation. Take care of my niece, she intimates, and the money will come.
If Violet were not already frighteningly strange, she shifts her rambling banter to another anecdote about Sebastian seeing the face of God. Cukrowicz is captivated by now, his eyes wide, and she tells him that she has never told anyone the story before. The mother-son couple had gone to the Encantadas to watch baby sea turtles hatch and try to make it to the sea before being eaten by birds. She relays the narrative in the spookiest terms, turning an observation of natural phenomena into a life-changing religious experience that taught Sebastian about life and death. Sebastian saw the cruelty of the world there and translated into a theory of life. As she finishes, Violet and Cukrowicz are flanking a statue of Death, and she says again, “Suddenly, last summer,” she learned that her son’s ideas about the brutal experience were correct.
The pair leaves the garden to return to the house, and upon entering a study, find Mrs. Holley and her son George. The two are obviously simpletons compared to Violet. While George is loading suits out of a wardrobe, his mother is reading a letter that was left on a desk. They feign coy ignorance and greet Violet and Cukrowicz amiably, reminding Violet that she said that George could have Sebastian’s clothes. Violet is put off by the pair, asking them to get what they came to get and leave as soon as possible.
But Mrs. Holley just chatters and chatters, drawing tidbits and intimations out of Violet at Cukrowicz looks on. While George is gawking over his newfound treasures, Violet and Mrs. Holley banter about Katherine, the “girl” who Violet has called Cukrowicz about, and who is Mrs. Holley’s daughter and George’s sister. Mrs. Holley hears that Cukrowicz is a doctor and is concerned that Violet has had another of her “hysterical seizures,” but on finding out that he might help “Kathy,” she is glad (not knowing about his specialty, of course). Then, Mrs. Holley and Violet begin to discuss a picture that Cukrowicz has found, describing how it was the Mardi Gras ball and how lovely Katherine looked in clothes the Violet had lent her, but also acknowledging without details that it was not a happy evening. Violet soon grows weary of the mother and son, and tells them to leave. She calls them “neanderthals,” wonders out loud how such a family could have produced a jewel like Katherine, then begins again to praise Sebastian’s charm, wit, and sophistication.
It is in the moments after the Holleys leave that we get a better look into what happened to Sebastian. Cukrowicz remarks that Violet had not traveled with Sebastian that previous summer, and Violet retorts that Katherine did. And Sebastian died “of a heart attack,” she claims. Katherine was with him. She was not. And Violet returns the conversation to her primary mission: how soon can Cukrowicz see Katherine?
After the long conversation in the garden and the episode with the Holleys, we mustn’t forget that original issue of the money for Lion’s View. Before they part, Violet and Cukrowicz have one last conversation about the money. Cukrowicz wants to know that donation is not commensurate with his operating on Katherine, and Violet reminds him that people are always more interested in things that affect them personally. Cukrowicz understands. One last time, on his way out, Violet remarks on the garden and its prehistoric plants, using the fact to segue into this vaguely threatening comment: “The killers inherit the Earth. They always do.”
Next, we meet Katherine (Elizabeth Taylor). A weighty nun enters her little room, asks her to come along, then leads her through a medieval-looking building and into a library, where Cukrowicz is waiting but unseen. The two women sit but Katherine quickly jumps up, and the sister warns her for no apparent reason. Then Katherine sees something and darts toward it— it is a pack of cigarettes. She lights one and starts to smoke, but the sister tells her that smoking isn’t allowed. Katherine pleads to finish the cigarette but the sister demands that she hand it over, so Katherine sticks the lit end into the nun’s hand. Just then, Katherine see Cukrowicz who is watching calmly. The sister makes her case for being “deliberately burned” but Cukrowicz asks to be left alone with Katherine.
The two then engage in a conversation that is both bluntly honest and a cat-and-mouse game at the same time. Katherine finds out that he is from Lion’s View, a place she would rather not be, and he learns in bits and pieces about the conflict with Violet. Katherine calls her aunt “merciless” in the elder woman’s quest to keep her quiet and out of sight. New to the situation, Cukrowicz doesn’t know what’s going on, why this graceful and pretty young woman is being held as a raving lunatic, so he is all ears. Katherine weaves her way through the subject of Sebastian, who she describes as so charming that no one could resist him, and on to the subject of her Aunt Violet. She tells Cukrowicz that only recently Sebastian had decided to leave the world and become a monk; distraught, Violet had followed him into that life as a way to urge him back home, and while she was there, Mr. Venable had died, alone, asking only to see his wife as his last request. Violet had chosen Sebastian over her husband, a telltale sign of her devotion to him, Katherine says.
But since Katherine’s main problem is that her memory is gone, Cukrowicz asks to tell him about a memory, any memory, to get her mind going. she begins to talk about the Mardi Gras ball, an event that Violet had referenced with disgust, so Cukrowicz perks up. Katherine then sits and lazily begins to tell the story. She had gone to the ball with “a boy who got too drunk to stand up,” and when she wanted to go home, a man she’d never seen before appeared and offered to take her. But instead of taking her home, he took her to secluded place called the Dueling Oaks and had sex with her. Katherine claims that she hadn’t understood what was going to happen, but it did happen, then he took her home, remarking that they’d “better forget it” since he had a pregnant wife. Katherine didn’t accept that and returned to the ball, where she caused a huge scene— until Sebastian pulled her away.
Once that story is done, Cukrowicz tries to move her even further forward. Katherine explains in fits and starts that she and Sebastian were close, but she stops short of revealing what happened when he died in Cabeza de Lobo (Spain) last summer. She says that she doesn’t remember but also doesn’t believe that he had a heart attack. However, that fairly peaceful moment turns quickly into something more sinister as Katherine half-recalls the clanging music played on the streets, which she wishes away until she finally screams and falls crying in Cukrowicz’s arms. The sister comes in to intervene, but Cukrowicz tells her to leave, then Katherine kisses him tenderly. And the mood shifts. She becomes peacefully again and speaks to him in a sultry way, before leaving the room. Over at Lion’s View, she remarks, she can wear nice clothes and look pretty for her new friend, the doctor.
Across town at the asylum, Hockstader takes Cukrowicz out on the balcony to look over a vacant lot full of debris and trash. It will become the site of the new neurosurgery wing, paid for by Violet Venable. Hockstader is ready to move forward and is glad that Cukrowicz will operate on Katherine so he can get the $1,000,000 for the building. But Cukrowicz is not certain that he will operate, and Hockstader wrinkles his brow. The stodgy old administrator wants that money. They are interrupted when a nurse comes in to say that Katherine is in her room, not in the main ward but the nurse’s wing, and that she has had her hair done and everything. Hockstader reminds the young surgeon that Violet believes that he has committed to do a lobotomy on Katherine, and Cukrowicz assures him that he knows she thinks that.
In the hallway, Cukrowicz then runs into Mrs. Holley and George who are on their way in to see Katherine, who is all fixed up and wearing a black dress. Everything is pleasant enough, but George changes the tone when he tells his mother that they have business to attend to. Katherine can’t imagine what they mean, but it does come out: to accept a $100,000 “inheritance” from Sebastian, Violet demands that Mrs. Holley sign paperwork that will allow Katherine to be permanently committed and lobotomized. The mother and son want the money for George’s future. Katherine is horrified.
She runs out of her room and into the hallway, but take a wrong turn onto an observation walkway above the men’s dayroom. Of course, the men go wild, some jumping up top grab her ankles. Katherine escapes quickly though, going back the way she came, and she is soon discovered by Cukrowicz and taken back to her room. There, they have a heart-to-heart about the plans as Katherine understands them, but Cukrowicz says that he isn’t sure whether he’ll actually operate. He asks her to hold on before making a judgment about him, and has a male orderly to come in and sedate her. As Katherine is getting her shot, she is rambling about how blondes were next, how Sebastian described people like menu items, explaining that he was tired of the dark ones and was moving to blondes next . . .
After Katherine has faded away, we see a long black limousine outside of Lion’s View, and we know that Violet has come. Cukrowicz escorts her into a sun room, and she gives him a give, a small bound volume of one of Sebastian’s poems. She explains that, every summer, he wrote poem. The rest of the year was simply preparation for that one poem. He always wrote one, every summer . . . until last summer, when he didn’t. Violet claims that, without her he couldn’t write.
“Without me, he died,” she says.
Cukrowicz then pushes Violet about the facts of Sebastian’s death, including a letter that Mrs. Holley had seen, but Violet insists that there was no letter, only a death certificate. As she tries to lighten the mood and leave, Cukrowicz pushes her again, this time about Sebastian’s person life. Violet is offended and insists that he was “chaste,” and that she was the only one who could meet his needs. We sense the grotesque nature of the relationship, and Violet’s obsessive need to be the only person in her son’s life.
Cukrowicz then suggests that she see Katherine, that it might help the young woman to remember. Violet is hesitant but agrees, feigning ease about it. In the little room, Katherine is waking up. She recognizes Violet and berates her for “forcing” her mother and George to sign the commitment papers to get the $100,000. Violet leaves, attempting at a graceful exit, but she is soon met again by Cukrowicz and Katherine in the sun room. The young woman again challenges Violet’s narrative of a maternal love that made their lives perfect. Katherine disagrees, at once talking at Violet and to Cukrowicz, saying that she and Sebastian simply used people. According to Katherine, Sebastian had asked her to accompany him in his summer travels because his mother was no longer attractive. Violet attempts to shut down this alternate narrative but Katherine continues, saying that Sebastian used them both as “decoys” to “procure for him,” to “make contacts.” Cukrowicz seems not to understand. It is never said, but still understood: Sebastian was gay and needed attractive women to help him meet men. Violet is appalled that her secret is coming out, but Katherine is relentless. After Violet faints, Katherine leaves the room, and Hockstader arrives to escort Violet out.
In the hallway, Katherine wanders for a moment, then lets herself into a door leading to the balcony above the women’s day room. The women slowly go into hysterics as she climbs over the rail, ostensibly to kill herself, but quickly a male orderly sneaks up on her and wrestles her back onto sure footing.
The bureaucrat Hockstader is now livid. He catalogs Katherine’s sins as evidence of her mania and implores Cukrowicz to agree to the surgery, We know: he wants the building, and he wants the money, and he wants Cukrowicz to operate on Katherine so he can have them. Cukrowicz, however, asks for more time, so Hockstader gets on the phone, trying to reach another doctor. But Cukrowicz stalls him. He wants to try something, tomorrow, at Violet Venable’s house.
That something is hypnosis. The final half-hour of the nearly two-hour film consists of Katherine telling the story of Sebastian’s death, which she witnessed. She is hypnotized by Dr. Cukrowicz and breaks into a dreamy story about her previous summer with Sebastian at Cabeza de Lobo, a term that means ‘head of the wolf.’ The whole cast sits on pins and needles as Katherine tells what happened in a breathy voice, heavy with anxiety. Going off Katherine’s earlier proclamation that she was there to attract men for her closeted cousin, she tells the onlookers – much to Violet’s chagrin – how they were at the beach and Sebastian had made her wear a white, see-through bathing suit. Additionally, Sebastian had drawn the attention of a group of boys who were street urchins and who played a raucous kind of “music” by clanging on homemade metal instruments. There, the combination of the heat, the tension over Katherine’s bathing suit, and the pressures of the begging boys had gotten too much for Sebastian, who fled the little restaurant where they had tried to take refuge. However, as Sebastian ran through the steep streets, chased by the boys, he eventually collapsed on a hill, where the hungry children pounced on him and chewed at his flesh— just like the birds had attacked the turtles in the Encantadas. Katherine, of course, is mortified by seeing her cousin cannibalized. We now know the reason for her madness, and the reason that Violet wants the memory of what happened to her supposedly celibate son erased. Sebastian did not have a heart attack, he was eaten alive in broad daylight.
The film closes with Cukrowicz escorting Katherine out, and with Violet ascending in her elevator, back to that world-above where she does not have to face the truths of real life.
While the sensationalism of a story that ends in cannibalism may draw many viewers’ attention to that awful matter, as a Southern story, Suddenly, Last Summer is also a heady commentary on being a homosexual man in the South in the first half of the twentieth century. It is clear from each side’s version of events that Sebastian’s jaunts to Europe every summer were so that he could be himself, whether that meant being a poet (to Violet) or being gay (to Katherine). Certainly, in the episode at the Mardi Gras ball, where Katherine gives herself willingly to married man who she doesn’t even know, Sebastian saw a companion who could “procure” for him better than his aging mother could. And though it is never overtly stated, most critics agree that the street urchins knew him from his paying them for sex. Ultimately, it was this lifestyle that led to his death, though I wonder whether Tennessee Williams – a Southern gay man himself – wanted us to see that demise as his comeuppance.
Suddenly, Last Summer had to be set in New Orleans and required the unseemly attitude of self-righteousness displayed by some among the upper classes. Unlike Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, this one couldn’t have played out in the rural idylls of a Mississippi plantation. It needed the seedy, lurid reputation of the Crescent City to prop up its back story. Here, too, we’re dealing with the privilege of very wealthy people to exercise their will on those without means. Violet didn’t earn the massive wealth that gave her such privilege, but her husband’s money allows her to have whatever truth she wants in her presence. She has protected her gay son from the harshness of a homophobic Southern culture by instilling in him a sense that people are simply there to be used, that their lives and their feelings don’t matter. However, when he is faced with desperate poverty (in the form of the starving street urchins) and with having to consider other people’s feelings (as he had to when Katherine did want to wear a see-through bathing suit), Sebastian Venable could not cope. With the façades created by his mother broken down, Sebastian Venable could not continue living. A harsh commentary on the attitudes of Southern aristocracy.
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