Suddenly Last Summer

By Tennessee Williams

So, I watched “Suddenly Last Summer” the other night – I’d been meaning to watch it for a while because what a cast! Katherine Hepburn! Liz Taylor! Montgomery Clift! Also, what a plot – psychosis, lobotomies, and cannibals! I had no idea how all of this could fit into one two-hour movie, and I’m still not entirely sure, actually.

My first impression (spoiling the big reveal, but you’ve had over half a century to check this one out) was that this was one of the most homophobic movies I’ve ever seen, but then I was confused because the original play was written by Tennessee Williams, who was openly gay himself, and though he clearly had a wide variety of issues, I never thought his sexuality to be one of them. (It turns out I may have been wrong about this, actually.)

There was another, subtler theme of gods and sacrifices running through the play, though, and I wondered if that was more prominent in the original version, and a homophobic Hollywood played up the homosexual angle instead. All of this to say that I checked out the one-act play to see for myself.

So, I remain a bit confused. It is not wildly different from the movie. The first part is pretty much a monologue by the mother (Katherine Hepburn’s character), and it showcases Williams’ trademark Southern mother – overbearing, out of touch, and clinging to old-fashioned social mannerisms. There are some hints that Williams is also criticizing some artifice in the gay lifestyles of the time, though I haven’t gotten to the worst part yet (the end). The lobotomy aspect was rolled out a bit more subtly than in the movie (which wouldn’t have been difficult, since the movie opens on a lobotomy procedure), and is more conflicted about the process than the movie projected (the adulation of the lobotomizing doctor in the movie made me a little uncomfortable, as well).

The second part is mostly a long monologue by the cousin (played by Elizabeth Taylor), and this is where the most problematic parts of the movie come in, with her exposing her cousin’s homosexual and promiscuous lifestyle and how it ultimately lead to his downfall. In the end, I guess I would say that the movie switches the priority of themes from the book; the theme of a sacrifice-demanding god is somewhat more prominent than homosexuality in the written play. Though because the play is really just two monologues strung together by a bare minimum of structure, I would say that this is more of philosophical and/or psychological study than anything else, really. I’m still somewhat baffled by it all, but after doing some brief online research, it looks like I’m in good company; this play is still quite the cinematic controversy. (Also, the contemporary review of the file is a hilarious panning!)

 

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