Filmsite Movie Review
Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)
Pages: (1) (2) (3)
Background

Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) is director Joseph L. Mankiewicz' compelling adaptation by Gore Vidal of Tennessee Williams' 1958 Southern drama-one act play. This lurid, somber, ground-breaking and fascinating melodrama concerned terrible secrets that had to be toned down for the screen (homosexuality, insanity, murder, incest, pedophilia, and cannibalism). The Catholic Legion of Decency and others had considered it sickening and 'degenerate. Its main themes included death, madness, and savage behavior.

It featured a fascinating plot, about an already-deceased character named Sebastian, who was the central figure of all of the film's drama and action. However, Sebastian never spoke nor was he fully seen in the film, although he was viewed wearing a full-white suit in the hot summer sun when attacked in the film's conclusion.

Almost every other character in the film was defined by him: his mother Mrs. Venable (Katharine Hepburn) who had illusory beliefs about him, his companion and cousin Catherine (Elizabeth Taylor), and Catherine's mother Mrs. Holly (Mercedes McCambridge) and her brother George Holly (Gene Raymond) who expected an inheritance after Sebastian's death.

Another central character, brilliant State Asylum neuro-surgeon Dr. Cukrowicz (Montgomery Clift) was detached and unaffected by the curse that Sebastian brought on others. He had been summoned to serve as a psychiatrist, confer with Mrs. Venable, and determine a diagnosis for Catherine. The truth about the real character of Sebastian was finally uncovered by the film's end.

The scriptwriters (Vidal and Williams) and director Mankiewicz decided to open up the original novel's set (the Venable house and tropical gardens) by expanding to other locales only described in dialogues or monogues in the play (i.e., Catherine's sanatorium with its 'snake pit' wards and horrific conditions, and the scenes of Sebastian's demise during a "last summer" vacation in Cabeza de Lobo in Spain).

The film's provocative poster teased: "...suddenly last summer Cathy knew she was being used for something evil!"

The Story

A Revolutionary Lobotomy Operation Performed by Dr. Cukrowicz on a Patient at the 'Primitive' Lions View State Asylum:

The dialogue-rich film opened, in the year of 1937 during the opening credits, with a view of the name plate on the very tall brick wall surrounding New Orleans' "Lions View State Asylum." The female ward was filled with many disturbed, catatonic and haggard-looking patients. One of the patients who was lovingly clutching a baby doll was approached and kindly ushered out - to be prepped for surgery (anesthesized) and wheeled out on a gurney to an operating room.

The newest revolutionary treatment method for the seriously-ill and mad asylum sufferers was psycho-surgery. In a newly-refurbished operating theatre with an upper balcony (that was previously a library and a sugar warehouse), the hospital's main bureaucratic administrator Dr. Hofstader (Albert Dekker) boisterously spoke to reporters and others who were about to witness the work of the newest asylum staff member. The talented Chicago-based Dr. John Cukrowicz (Montgomery Clift) (Cukrowicz means "sugar" in Polish) was a sensitive-minded, brilliant psychiatric neuro-surgeon who was about to perform a frontal lobotomy on a female patient - it was the first psycho-surgery operation in the state "on the brain of a woman suffering from acute schizophrenic withdrawal." With flickering lights and other structural deficiencies in the structure, plus poorly-trained personnel, the state hospital was obviously makeshift, "primitive," and seriously under-funded, and the newly-arrived doctor was exasperated. After the surgery, Cukrowicz confronted and berated Hostader in his office, and threatened to return to Chicago after six months of empty promises about improving the facility.

Dr. Cukrowicz's Garden Meeting with Foundation Donor Mrs. Violet Venable:

Hope for the hospital's financial viability, according to Hofstader, would come from Mrs. Violet Venable (Katharine Hepburn), a prominent, rich and elegant Southern belle widow, matriarch, dowager and harridan in the community. A 4:30 pm appointment had already been scheduled that same afternoon between Dr. Cukrowicz and Mrs. Venable in her luxurious, Byzantine mansion-estate in the French Quarter - their meeting was considered to be "a matter of some urgency." After his arrival in the foyer, the doctor was greeted by Miss Foxhill (Mavis Villiers), Mrs. Venable's fastidious and matronly secretary. Soon after, the chatty Mrs. Venable descended while regally seated in an elevator into her column-lined, ornate, marble front lobby to meet with the doctor and discuss her foundation's financial gift.

She took the arm of the esteemed doctor as she conversed about her problems of perpetual aging, and ushered him toward her son's outdoor garden. She explained how she was now being treated as an "invalid" because of minor health issues ("a slight - a tiny convulsion of a tiny blood vessel"). She added that she was also suffering from a "malady of living," and was in a state of perpetual mourning due to the recent loss of her son:

After all, I've buried a husband and a son. I'm a widow and a (pause). Funny, there's no word. Lose your parents, you're an orphan. Lose your only son and you are nothing.

Mrs. Venable mentioned that her beloved, deceased son Sebastian - whom she idolized, had died in Europe during the previous summer (in the month of July).

[Note: Sebastian was the only character never fully visible in the film, but the central figure nonetheless - the very disturbed, young son of the wealthy Mrs. Violet Venable.]

As they emerged outdoors, she continued to memorialize her adored but deceased son Sebastian. She described him as charismatic and with a poetic nature: ("All poets, whatever age they may seem to others, die young. It's unexpected"). The garden was a savage, tropical, primordial garden with large leafy plants (created to be "like the dawn of Creation"). The doctor was stunned by the strange private garden and called it "unexpected...and a little terrifying." Each of the plants was labeled with its Latin name printed on tags. In one large glass-enclosed case, she spoke about one of the oldest plants on Earth - Sebastian's "Wicked Lady" plant known as a Venus fly-trap. As she fed the "hungry" plant a house-fly with tweezers and then called upon Miss Foxhill to assist, she told how it was "a devouring organism aptly named for the goddess of love."

Mrs. Venable - who was continually changing topics, went on to admit that Sebastian was little known to the public as a poet - his hidden vocation. He had only written one poem each year, during the summer months, and never published his writings from his poetry book. She confusingly lost her train of thought while trying to describe his life and work:

Strictly speaking, his life was his occupation. Yes, yes, Sebastian was a poet. That's what I meant when I said his life was his work because the work of a poet is the life of a poet, and vice versa, the life of a poet is the work of a poet. I mean, you can't separate them. I mean, a poet's life is his work, and his work is his life in a special sense.

Talk About An Experimental Lobotomy - A Possible Diagnostic Treatment for Violet's Insane Niece Catherine:

Her main objective was to ask the doctor about his expertise on experimental lobotomies (while referencing "the sharp knife in the mind") - he added the phrase: "That kills the devil in the soul." He mentioned that his surgical work was hampered by the urgent need for a more advanced operating room at the Lions View State Asylum. She briefly brought up her own institutionalized niece (by marriage) - Catherine Holly (Elizabeth Taylor) - who was being treated at a private women's sanatorium known as St. Mary's ("a custodial home for the insane"). The loquacious and forever-rambling Mrs. Venable claimed that Catherine was madly insane with "dementia praecox," but ignored the doctor's dismissive response that it was "a meaningless phrase."

She was vaguely promising to have her foundation deliver a financial gift to Lions View, to help "memorialize" her son Sebastian's name: ("You see, Sebastian had no public name as a poet"), even though when he was alive, he refused to seek commercial success and name recognition. After showing off Sebastian's studio at the end of the garden, she mentioned how most people's lives were nothing but "trails of debris." However, she recalled how her many previous vacations at fancy hotels (the Lido, and the Ritz) with Sebastian were more productive, and how they were popular and adored everywhere they went. She regarded the two of them as not a mother-son relationship, but as a 'famous couple' ("Sebastian and Violet"):

We left behind us a trail of days like a gallery of sculpture - until suddenly, last summer.

Her mood changed as she then described how her niece Catherine needed help due to her illness: "Madness. Obsession, memory...visions, hallucinations. It all started last summer." Mrs. Venable recalled how her neurotic young relative had suffered a nervous breakdown and threatened suicide following the death of her cousin Sebastian in Spain a few months earlier during the summer. She returned to the US like a "wild animal" - locked in a stateroom on the Berengaria, a cruise ship, and was immediately incarcerated in St. Mary's upon her arrival in Louisiana. And then Mrs. Venable broached the real reason for summoning the doctor - her wish was to keep her family's mental breakdowns shielded from public view, and curtail the terrible things that Catherine was saying about Sebastian.

Her goal was to silence Catherine's "dreadful obscene babbling" about how and why her son died during a summer vacation trip with him to Spain ("Fantastic delusions and fantastic babblings of an unspeakable nature, mostly taking the form of hideous attacks on the moral character of my son, Sebastian"). She then tried to persuasively hint and suggest that Dr. Cukrowicz proceed with a lobotomy operation on Catherine. Her aim was to prevent Catherine from ruining the family's name by claiming that she was deranged, and hoping to have her lobotomized in order to pacify her. The doctor was being urged to perform a 'brain-cutting' lobotomy on the traumatized Catherine, who had broken down and had seemingly become totally mad. A lobotomy would excise her memory of a past troubling incident and prevent mad and hysterical ravings from occurring. The doting Mrs. Venable was now urging to "cut the truth" out of Catherine's brain to silence her "lies" about her son.

Dr. Cukrowicz was immediately reticent to perform a risky and drastic experimental operation on Catherine: "You must realize the operation I do is only for the unapproachable, for the hopeless." Mrs. Venable stressed that the operation was urgently necessary and appropriate for Catherine, after she was put on notice that her niece was about to be moved out of St. Mary's in the next week. Allegedly during a he-said/she-said incident, Catherine had propositioned an elderly gardener at the facility, and needed to be restrained by four nuns after a violent outburst. Violet urged that if it was possible, Catherine could be transferred to Lions View where the doctor would then be able to confer with her. Obviously, Mrs. Venable doted on her deceased son, and was using pressure tactics and bribery on Dr. Cukrowicz to have authorities commit Catherine and perform the mind-numbing operation. Mrs. Venable tied her lascivious desire for Catherine's operation to her philanthropic financing of Lions View:

At this very minute, my lawyers are working on the Sebastian Venable Memorial Foundation to subsidize the work of young people like yourself who are pushing out the frontiers of art and science, but who have a financial problem.

The doctor repeated her reluctance to perform a lobotomy on Catherine: "Whenever you enter the brain with a foreign object, even a needle-thin knife in the hands of the most skilled surgeon, there still is a great deal of risk." Mrs. Venable eagerly interrupted to emphasize the positive effects: "But it does pacify them, I've read that. It quiets them down. It suddenly makes them peaceful." Dr. Cukrowicz agreed, but feared whether the benefits of the operation outweighed the risks.

Recollections of a Summer Voyage to the Encantadas Islands (the Galapagos):

Their conversation sequed into another lengthy recollection following Violet's brief tangential comment about a nightmare involving "a sky filled with savage, devouring birds." She then described one particular summer voyage a few years earlier to the Encantadas (or Galápagos Islands) that she had taken with Sebastian, who was "looking for God." As Mrs. Venable began to spin her spooky tale for the doctor, she stated that "Sebastian saw the face of God." Before the visit, she described how Sebastian had read out-loud Herman Melville's account of his trip to the South American islands, prompting the two to venture there one summer.

They chartered a four-masted schooner and witnessed the annual event of great sea turtles crawling to the shore to lay their eggs, and then returning half-dead and exhausted to the sea. Once their newborn progeny emerged from the sand, they faced a perilous journey to the water. Sebastian and Violet watched in horror as the newly-hatched little creatures made a "desperate flight to the sea." She vividly described the terrifying site of the cannibalization of the young turtles by flesh-eating birds:

The narrow beach, the color of caviar, was all in motion, but the sky was in motion too, full of flesh-eating birds. And the noise of the birds, their horrible savage cries as they circled over the narrow black beach of the Encantadas while the new-hatched sea turtles scrambled out of their sandpits and started their race to the sea...To escape the flesh-eating birds that made the sky almost as black as the beach....The birds hovered and swooped to attack and hovered and swooped to attack. They were diving down on the sea turtles, turning them over to expose their soft undersides, tearing their undersides open and rending and eating their flesh. Sebastian guessed that possibly only a hundredth of 1 percent of their number would escape to the sea.

She summed up how the brutal, real-life lesson had taught Sebastian a transcendent religious experience about life and death. In particular, the event emphasized how life was cruel, and the "horrible" and "inescapable truth" that death was everywhere:

Dr. Cukrowicz: Nature is not created in the image of man's compassion.
Mrs. Venable: Nature is cruel! Sebastian knew it all along, was born knowing it, but not I. I said, 'No, no, those are only birds, turtles, not us.' I didn't know then it was us. That we are all of us trapped by this devouring creation. I couldn't, wouldn't face the horror of the truth....
Dr. Cukrowicz: Do you believe he saw God?
Mrs. Venable: He saw the whole thing there that day on the beach. But I was like you. I said no. I refused to believe until suddenly, last summer, I learned my son was right. That what he had shown me in the Encantadas was the horrible, the inescapable truth.


Next Page