Perversion and greed, Tennessee Williams’ recurrent themes, are worked over again in Suddenly Last Summer. The play was concerned with homosexuality and cannibalism. The cannibalism has been dropped, or muted, in the film version. It has some very effective moments, but on the whole it fails to move.
Perhaps the reason is that what was a long one-act play has been expanded in the screenplay to a longish motion picture. Nothing that’s been added is an improvement on the original; they stretch the seams of the original fabric without strengthening the seamy aspects of the story.
The story is that of a doting mother (Katharine Hepburn) and her son. The son was a homosexual and his mother his procuress. When she had passed the age when she could function effectively in this capacity, he enlisted the services of his beautiful cousin, Elizabeth Taylor.
The question is whether Taylor is fancifully insane or ruthlessly sane. Hepburn wants a lobotomy performed on Taylor, to excise the memory of the son’s death, by detaching a portion of the brain. It is the job of Montgomery Clift, as the neuro-surgeon who would perform the operation, to decide if Taylor is deranged as Hepburn insists.
Hepburn is dominant, making her brisk authority a genteel hammer relentlessly crushing the younger woman. Taylor is most effective in her later scenes, although these have been robbed of their original theatricality. Clift is little more than straight man to the two ladies.
Although Joseph L. Mankiewiez’ direction is inventive in giving the essentially static narrative some movement and rhythm, it must be faulted for blunting Taylor’s final scene so it fails to match Hepburn’s opening monolog. (The play was actually only two monologs of almost equal power and length.)
1959: Nominations: Best Actress (Katharine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor), B&W Art Direction