AFI Catalog of Feature Films
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Suddenly, Last Summer
Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz (Dir)
Release Date:   Jan 1960
Premiere Information:   Los Angeles opening: 20 Dec 1959; New York opening: 22 Dec 1959
Production Date:   26 May--4 Sep 1959 at Shepperton Studios, England
Duration (in mins):   112 or 114
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Cast:   Elizabeth Taylor (Catherine Holly)  
    Katharine Hepburn (Mrs. [Violet] Venable)  
    Montgomery Clift (Dr. [John] Cukrowicz)  
    Albert Dekker (Dr. Hockstader)  
    Mercedes McCambridge (Mrs. [Grace] Holly)  
    Gary Raymond (George Holly)  
    Mavis Villiers (Miss Foxhill)  
    Patricia Marmont (Nurse Benson)  
    Joan Young (Sister Felicity)  
    Maria Britneva (Lucy)  
    Sheila Robbins (Dr. Hockstader's secretary)  
    David Cameron (Young blonde interne)  

Summary: In 1937, at the Lyons View State Asylum in New Orleans, Louisiana, Dr. John Cukrowicz performs a delicate experimental surgery known as a lobotomy. After the primitive conditions at the institution nearly derail the operation, however, John threatens to return to his practice in Chicago. In response, Dr. Hockstader, the head of Lyons View, shows John a letter from wealthy widow Mrs. Violet Venable, offering financial assistance in return for a meeting with the venerable surgeon. That afternoon, John visits Violet at her mansion in the Garden District, where she makes a grand entrance by descending in an elaborate, cage-like elevator. John is surprised by his benefactor’s relative youth and by her obsession with her deceased son Sebastian. In the mansion’s jungle-like garden, which Sebastian modeled after Michelangelo's “Dawn of Creation,” Violet asks John to perform a lobotomy on her niece Catherine Holly, who she claims is suffering from visions and hallucinations. Catherine has been confined at St. Mary’s, but has offended the nuns who run the hospital with her violence and obscenities. Violet is particularly distressed by Catherine’s babbling a stream of obscenities regarding her son Sebastian, who Violet asserts, has “seen the face of God.” After Violet describes a trip with Sebastian to the Galapagos Islands, where they witnessed flesh-eating birds devour newly hatched sea turtles, she tells John that she traveled with Sebastian every summer, except for the last one, when Sebastian went with Catherine and died of a heart attack on the day that Catherine lost her mind. Because Violet implies that her contribution to Lyons View is contingent upon Catherine receiving a lobotomy, John goes to St. Mary’s to interview his prospective patient. There, Catherine insists that she is sane and portrays Violet’s relationship with her son as unnatural. When John asks her about Sebastian’s death, Catherine becomes hysterical and is only able to recall a white-hot beach and the pounding noise of tin musical instruments. John arranges for Catherine to be transferred to Lyons View, where Hockstader informs him that Violet has agreed to donate $1,000,000 on the condition that John lobotomize Catherine. At Lyons View, Catherine is allowed to wear her own clothes and live in the nurses’ wing. When Catherine’s mother Grace and brother George come to visit her, Grace tells John that Violet was shaken after receiving a letter from the authorities regarding Sebastian’s death. After Grace asks to speak to her daughter alone, John leaves the room, and once he is gone, George confides to Catherine that Sebastian left them $100,000 in his will, but that Violet has decided to block probate until Grace signs the consent form for the lobotomy. Distraught, Catherine runs from the room and blunders into the men’s ward, where her presence sparks a riot. After being rescued by an attendant, Catherine asks John if he plans to lobotomize her, and he appeals to her to trust him. Once she is sedated, Catherine mumbles about Sebastian’s appetite for blondes and his treatment of people like “items on a menu.” Violet then comes to speak to John, and after handing him a volume of Sebastian’s poetry, explains that each year during their summer travels, Sebastian would write a poem. When John asks her about the letter from the Spanish authorities, she vehemently denies receiving it and says she was sent only a death certificate. John then asks Violet to see Catherine, who is just awakening from her sedation. When Violet accuses Catherine of usurping Sebastian’s affection, Catherine retorts that he used them both as procurers, and after Violet became too old and unattractive, he decided to use Catherine as his bait. Becoming hysterical, Violet implores John to “cut that hideous story out of Catherine’s brain,” then faints. Agitated, Catherine wanders onto the balcony of the women’s ward and is about to jump when an attendant restrains her. Pressured by Violet, Hockstader insists that John perform the lobotomy the following day, but John asks him for one last chance to jar Catherine’s memory. The next day, John, Hockstader and a nurse escort Catherine to the Venable home, where John has arranged to meet Grace and George. After administering truth serum to Catherine, John leads her into the garden and prods her to remember what happened that last summer. After recalling that Sebastian suddenly announced that he was taking her and not his mother to Europe, Catherine revisits the events of that fateful summer: As they traveled through Italy, Sebastian became increasingly restless, and by the time they reached Spain, he had abandoned his nighttime soirees for afternoons at the public beach. One day, Sebastian forced Catherine to wear a bathing suit that when wet, became transparent. As men came to leer at Catherine’s body, hungry young boys swarmed Sebastian, who passed out tips to lure them into the bathhouse with him. While Catherine and Sebastian were seated at a restaurant one blazing white day, hungry boys, barred from the establishment by a wire fence, began calling for bread. After Sebastian derided them as little beggars, the children began to serenade them with tin cans and brass plates. Agitated, Sebastian stormed out of the restaurant and started up a steep street, walking faster and faster in panic. Chased by the urchins, Sebastian became trapped in a maze of narrow streets. After ascending a “steep white street,” Sebastian found himself in some ruins at the top of a hill where he was overtaken and devoured by the frenzied crowd. Upon completing her recitation of that terrible day, Catherine finds that her memory has suddenly been restored. The revelation about her son’s true sexuality is too much for Violet, however, who loses her mind and comes to think that John is Sebastian. John calms Violet, then returns to the garden where he takes Catherine’s hand and hand in hand, they walk toward the house.

 

Production Company: Horizon Pictures (G. B.) Ltd.  
Production Text: A Horizon Pictures (G. B.) Limited production in association with Academy Pictures and Camp Films
Sam Spiegel presents
Distribution Company: Columbia Pictures Corp.  
Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz (Dir)
  Bluey Hill (Asst dir)
Producer: Sam Spiegel (Pres)
  Sam Spiegel (Prod)
Writer: Gore Vidal (Scr)
  Tennessee Williams (Scr)
Photography: Jack Hildyard (Dir of photog)
  Gerry Fisher (Cam op)
Art Direction: William Kellner (Art dir)
  Oliver Messel (Prod des)
Film Editor: William W. Hornbeck (Editorial consultant)
  Thomas G. Stanford (Ed)
  John Jympson (Assembly ed)
Set Decoration: Scott Slimon (Set dec)
  Peter Dukelow (Const mgr)
Costumes: Joan Ellacott (Assoc cost des)
  Jean Louis (Miss Taylor's ward)
Music: Buxton Orr (Mus comp)
  Malcolm Arnold (Mus comp)
  Buxton Orr (Cond)
Sound: Peter Thornton (Sd ed)
  A. G. Ambler (Sd)
  John Cox (Sd)
Special Effects: Tom Howard (Photog eff)
Make Up: David Aylott (Makeup)
  Joan White (Hairdresser)
Production Misc: Bill Kirby (Prod supv)
  Elaine Schreyeck (Cont)
  Marguerite Lamkin (Dial coach)
Country: Great Britain and United States
Language: English

Music:
Songs:
Source Text: Based on Suddenly, Last Summer from Garden District by Tennesse Williams (New York, 7 Jan 1958).
Authors: Tennessee Williams

Copyright Claimant Copyright Date Copyright Number
Horizon Pictures (G.B.) Ltd. 1/1/1960 dd/mm/yyyy LP16407

PCA NO: 19409
Physical Properties: Sd: Westrex Recording System
  b&w:

 
Genre: Drama
 
Subjects (Major): Amnesia
  Homosexuality
  Jealousy
  Mothers and sons
  Obsession
  Psychiatrists
 
Subjects (Minor): Attempted suicide
  Cannibalism
  Gardens
  Hunger
  Inheritance
  Mental illness
  New Orleans (LA)
  Nieces
  Operations, Surgical
  Poets
  Psychiatrists
  Sanitariums
  Spain
  Truth serum
  Wealth
  Widows

Note: The film’s opening and closing cast credits differ slightly in order. Suddenly, Last Summer was one of the two one-act plays by Tenneessee Williams that opened off-Broadway under the title Garden District . The other one-act play was entitled Something Unspoken . Williams’ play was more explicit in dealing with “Sebastian’s” homosexuality and his cannibalistic death. In a 25 May 1959 letter from PCA head Geoffrey Shurlock to producer Sam Spiegel, contained in the film's file in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, Shurlock told Spiegel that due to the homosexuality of the leading character, the explicit cannibalism and the blasphemous attitude toward God voiced by Sebastian and his mother, the film would be denied a seal of approval. In that letter, Shurlock suggested taking the finished picture to the appeals board for approval. Spiegel responded by saying that the homosexual "pays for his sins with his life," that all references to cannibalism would be eliminated (in the film, the word "devour" replaces references to cannibalism), and that no offense should be taken on religious grounds because the mother and son are "obviously psychopaths." Although the PCA file does not contain any specific references to the nature of the cuts, a Nov 1959 NYT article noted that Spiegel deleted unspecified scenes to win code approval, eliminating all explicit mention of homosexuality and cannibalism. Approval was finally granted after the matter was brought before the MPAA Code Review Board. According to a Dec 1959 HR news item, the National Catholic Legion of Decency criticized the MPAA for approving the film on the grounds that it involved “perversion.”
       According to HR news items, Vivien Leigh, who was initially to appear as “Mrs. Venable,” bowed out of the production to star in a West End London revival of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House . Following Leigh’s departure, Margaret Leighton was considered for the role. A May 1959 "Rambling Reporter" item in HR states that producer Sam Spiegel planned to have Bobby Helpman play the role of Sebastian. In the film, Sebastian’s image, photographed from the back, appears briefly as “Catherine” describes his death. Because his face is never shown, Helpman’s appearance in the film cannot be confirmed. Although a Mar 1959 item noted that Steve Forrest was cast, he does not appear in the film. Although HR news items add the following actors to the cast: Sandra White, Sheila Raynor, Rory McDermot, Brenda Dunrich, Roberta Woolley and Joseph Arthur, their appearance in the released film has not been confirmed. Modern sources add Jake Wright Asst dir to the crew, but the extent of his participation in the film has not been determined.
       According to a Dec 1959 HR news item, location filming was done along the Costa Brava in Spain. A 1960 article in The Daily Mail noted that the village pictured in the film was the village of Bagur in Catalonia, Spain. The HR item noted that all references indicating that the film was shot in Spain were deleted at the behest of the Spanish government, which objected to the depiction of local youths devouring a man.
       The film was nominated for the following Academy Awards: Katharine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor were both nominated for Best Actress, and the film was also nominated for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration. According to modern sources, Hepburn did not get along with director Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Hepburn objected to Mankiewicz's treatment of Montgomery Clift, who was suffering from alcoholic depression at the time of the production. She also objected to her washed-out appearance in her final scene, which was created by the director's insistence that she be shot in a harsh light without the benefit of makeup. Modern sources add that in a letter to Williams, contained in a collection of his unpublished letters sent to the playwright, Hepburn wrote that at the end of the production, she spit on the floor to express her contempt for the "botching of his play."
       In 1992, Columbia Pictures Television remade Williams’ play as a television movie, directed by Richard Eyre and starring Maggie Smith, Rob Lowe and Natasha Richardson.
 

Bibliographic Sources:   Date   Page
Box Office   21 Dec 1959.   
Box Office   28 Dec 1959.   
Daily Mail   1960.   
Daily Variety   16 Dec 59   p. 3.
Film Daily   16 Dec 59   p. 6.
Filmfacts   1960   pp. 319-21.
Hollywood Reporter   4 Mar 1959   p. 2.
Hollywood Reporter   16 Apr 1959   p. 4.
Hollywood Reporter   21 Apr 1959   p. 4.
Hollywood Reporter   18 May 1959   p. 2.
Hollywood Reporter   19 May 1959   p. 2.
Hollywood Reporter   21 May 1959   p. 4.
Hollywood Reporter   1 Jul 1959.   
Hollywood Reporter   28 Aug 1959.   
Hollywood Reporter   6 Nov 1959   p. 1, 3.
Hollywood Reporter   4 Dec 1959   p. 1, 6.
Hollywood Reporter   8 Dec 1959   p. 1, 10.
Hollywood Reporter   16 Dec 59   p. 3.
Motion Picture Herald Product Digest   19 Dec 59   p. 524.
Los Angeles Times   20 Dec 1959.   
New York Times   6 Nov 1959.   
New York Times   23 Dec 59   p. 22.
Saturday Review   2 Jan 1960.   
Time   11 Jan 1960.   
Variety   16 Dec 59   p. 6.

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The American Film Institute is grateful to Sir Paul Getty KBE and the Sir Paul Getty KBE Estate for their dedication to the art of the moving image and their support for the AFI Catalog of Feature Films and without whose support AFI would not have been able to achieve this historical landmark in this epic scholarly endeavor.
 
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