Manuel Betancourt

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Suddenly Last Summer (1959): or How the angel of death claims another young queer boy

August 12, 2014 · in Film, Queer

This article is a contribution to The Film Experience’s Hit Me With Your Best Shot series.

Nathaniel will be happy to know the last time I wrote about Suddenly Last Summer was in October 2007 for his very own Monty Clift blog-a-thon (remember blog-a-thons? They seem like a relic of an online world gone by!). What’s below is a reworking of that Monty article reframed to reflect my own “Best Shot.”

Suddenly Last Summer (1959)

For anyone familiar with the drama of Tennessee Williams the fact that Suddenly Last Summer works to represent delusion as a mechanism for self-defense is not uncommon. Williams’ characters (mostly his Southern Belle heroines) are trapped in an infinite theatricality that sustains and destroys them. It is no wonder that, on top of William’s own sexuality, his plays and characters have been taken up by the queer community as bastions of our own conversations over creating coherent narratives of our lives. Much more grim than that other gay iconic narrative of going “over the rainbow,” Williams seems to offer us a story where we are always dependent on the kindness of strangers… and sadly, in the instance of Sebastian Venable that doesn’t lead to a place where bluebirds sing, but on the contrary, a sandy white beach where Liz Taylor screams.
Suddenly Last Summer 04

Kate, coming down from the heavens. As it should be.

What is interesting to see at work in Suddenly Last Summer (the film) is of course the censoring of the queer aspect of Sebastian – which quite interesting at a meta-textual level, is left to Montgomery Clift (playing ‘Dr Sugar’) to unearth. This is not to say the film shies away entirely from presenting Sebastian as anything but a queer aesthete. It is quite obviously left implicit in the movie we knew Sebastian liked boys: we’re told Sebastian met with “bright, young, beautiful, sophisticated people,” and that at the time when he died he was famished for blonds and used both his mother (played exquisitely by Hepburn) and his cousin (the luminous Liz Taylor) as decoys to attract what we later see are scantily clad men. Sebastian’s sexuality can be reconstructed, of course, by tapping into these tiny details, but I am interested in the ways in which Montgomery Clift’s Dr. Cukrowicz is brought in not just to re-create this narrative of sexual deviance, but also to re-formulate it: “He would’ve been charmed by you,” he’s told by Mrs Venable and in that first act he is positioned in her eyes as one of those “bright young boys” Sebastian would have been attracted to. And yet, this runs parallel to the way in which Mrs Venable also constructs Dr Cukrowicz as Sebastian (both artists of some sort, both now taking care of Mrs Venable and Kathy) – something her delusion at the end of the movie all but confirms.

Suddenly Last Summer 05

Taylor’s performance, captured brilliantly (note the different shadings of anxiety that color her face depending on the angle of view)

What I find intriguing most of all is how this is mediated by the movie: Clift’s Doctor is for most of the movie an audience – indeed his profession (a neuro-psychiatrist) demands he listen to Aunt Violet’s stories of Sebastian, to Kathy’s past memories: he is the way in which Williams’s play (and Gore Vidal’s screenplay rewrites the film as a Freudian talk-session wherein repressed memories get unearthed and seemingly expelled. Ultimately the movie works towards making the entire cast an audience for Kathy’s final exposition (which Mankiewicz is quick to turn into a flashback, highlighting our own audience-function). Clift is then left with the brunt of reactionary performance – he is stoic, poised and maintains an almost inexpressive exterior when he is propelled against the melodramatics of Hepburn and the antics of Taylor, and it is there that his performance of Dr Cukrowicz begins to turn into Sebastian. With his “beautiful, blue and frightened eyes” Clift becomes for the two women in the play a tabula rasa – a blank slate where the memory of Sebastian (as retold by Violet, by Kathy, as represented by the summer poems, the white clothing) can be projected and inscribed onto the doctor, so that by the end it drives Aunt Violet to the delusion that he is Sebastian, and where one can take that last scene (and his lack of resistance when encountering Aunt Violet’s initial identification of him as Sebastian) as a way of placing himself in Sebastian’s shoes – delusion is appropriated and (re)assembled as truth, if only momentarily to allow the credits to roll.

Suddenly Last Summer 01

My favorite shot in the film.

Visually, Mankiewicz arranges this blurring of Dr. Sugar and Sebastian through the figure of the “Angel of Death” statue (the art direction in this film is near impeccable, beautifully tapping into the heightened Gothic stylization that Williams’ characters call for) which we first see in Sebastian’s garden while Violet and Dr. Sugar walk around discussing Kathy and the possible money Violet is willing to donate to the doctor’s exciting new research. That image, of a terrifying skeleton/angel framed by Clift and Hepburn, always strikes me when I watch the film. It’s so blunt yet beautiful; it frames one of the many triangles that make up the film’s relationships while invoking the specter of death that pervades all talk of Sebastian.

Suddenly Last Summer 02

Sebastian, being chased by the beach boys.

Note: It was only this past June, when I saw the film for the very first time on the big screen (courtesy of Queer|Art|Film’s summer of drag series) that I noticed the angel comes back in the pivotal Kathy flashback scene, and only when I tried to screen-grab it for tonight did I notice that Mankiewicz includes the statue only during the brief scene of Sebastian running away from the hungry boys, immediately being substituted in Kathy’s memory (or in this cinematic recreation of it) with a simple, decorative sign-post in what is arguably the very same dirt road. What it does then, is visually connect Dr. Sugar and Sebastian while wrestling Kathy out of her morbid catatonia.

Suddenly Last Summer 03

Kathy runs after Sebastian.