This is the first of Chris' three-part series of influential films that helped him in his coming out.
One of my high school theatre teachers was a huge fan of playwright Tennessee Williams and actress Elizabeth Taylor. To expose us sophomores to the work of both, he showed us the 1959 film of Williams’ play Suddenly, Last Summerover two or three class periods.
One of Williams’ stranger plots (adapted for the screen by Gore Vidal), it concerns the machinations of wealthy Violet Venable (an Oscar-nominated Katharine Hepburn) to have her niece, Cathy (Taylor, who was also nominated for Best Actress), lobotomized. It seems Cathy has been saying unbelievably ghastly things about the circumstances surrounding the recent death of Violet’s son, Sebastian, while Cathy and Sebastian were on vacation together. It falls to a psychiatrist, Dr. Cukrowicz (played by Montgomery Clift), to sort out the truth and determine whether Cathy is insane.
While no characters come out of their own volition in Suddenly, Last Summer, the late Sebastian is definitely outed during the film’s coded but still shocking climax. I knew exactly what Cathy was revealing during her truth serum-induced extended monologue, as Taylor screams such increasingly hysterical declarations as “She was procuring them!” and “They were devouring him!”
Yes, I knew that we were being told Sebastian was a big mo even though it isn’t stated bluntly in the film due to the censorship of the time. Interestingly, the Catholic-controlled Hollywood Production Code office actually gave permission for the first time to the producers of Suddenly, Last Summer to depict a homosexual character on screen, albeit in a negative light and after specifying Sebastian’s face couldn’t be shown nor his voice heard. That being said, most of my high school classmates were oblivious to the true meaning of Cathy’s revelation and probably remain so to this day.
I was surprised then but now think it’s incredibly cool that our teacher showed us Suddenly, Last Summer rather than the safer Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, in which the pivotal topic of homosexuality is even more sanitized. I watched Suddenly, Last Summer again last year, and it remains a fascinating film that is well worth seeing if one never has.
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.