A few months ago I was out to dinner with a friend of mine, chatting about (you’ll never believe it) another delicious role of Katharine Hepburn’s. When I finished gushing over Miss Hepburn’s entrance by way of a gated elevator, my friend told me that she couldn’t wait to read about it on The Ticket Booth. Far from sudden, I finally figured out why it’s taken me some time to get to this one — this was undoubtedly a film I wanted to write about but do my best to say very little. If I can entice any who have not yet seen it, allow me to flash a little leg: Suddenly, Last Summer has an ending that shocked the euphemism out of me.
Recently I was out with the same friend who had allowed me to fawn over Miss Hepburn all those months ago, and a wonderful conversation about classic films, fashion, celebrities, writing, and martinis made the minutes fly. Naturally I brought up the fact that my piece on Suddenly, Last Summer had been taking me so long to write, and that led us into a dandy discussion of one Miss Elizabeth Taylor. A few hours later, after my friend and I parted way, Elizabeth Taylor died at age 79.
Set in 1937, the adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s play features Montgomery Clift as Dr. Cukrowicz, a surgeon who’s asked by Violet Venable (Katharine Hepburn) to perform a lobotomy on her niece Catherine, who she has deemed mad as a hatter. Should the good doctor agree to perform the surgery on her niece (a 26-year-old Elizabeth Taylor), Mrs. Venable will build a memorial to her son who died the previous summer, a project that would be of great help to Cukrowicz’s hospital. Lesson the first: crazy people with money and Venus Flytraps make the world go ’round.
When Katharine Hepburn makes that regal entrance by way of an elevator, rambling about her dearly departed son, she asks Montgomery Clift, “Are you interested in the Byzantine, doctor?” All I can remember of the Byzantine is that it was on seventh-grade exams, and along with so many other lessons, I forget about it immediately after I was tested . . . if education hadn’t felt so competitive, I may have absorbed a fact or two! Luckily I’ve learned it all from Miss Hepburn, a woman who can hold my attention longer than any history teacher. Lesson the second: as she descends, Violet Venable explains that the emperor of Byzantium, when he received people in audience, had a throne which during the conversation would rise mysteriously in the air to the consternation of the visitors. This and how to flip people off (by way of On Golden Pond) is the invaluable education Katharine Hepburn has provided me. Lesson the third: with all the class and elegance you can muster, flash your middle finger and howl “Buzz off!”
It’s a wonderfully hopeless case — my addiction to Katharine Hepburn will never be cured, and I seek no help from anyone . . . I just can’t stay away from her. And yet Suddenly, Last Summer seems to be one of the few about which she later said very little. “I’ve made 43 pictures. Naturally I’m adorable in all of them . . .” While I was scrolling through my books on Katharine Hepburn for a bit of insight into Suddenly, Last Summer, this sentence in her autobiography made my eyes smile. She goes on to list the ones which she seems to remember, and I was a bit surprised not to find Suddenly, Last Summer among the lovable list. I understand that autobiographies are just as capable as biographies of stretching, shading, and sprucing up the truth, but there was a degree of authenticity lost when I returned Me to the bookshelves and pulled out just another Kate or Hepburn.
The bits and pieces of background I’ve heard about this one was that it was not the most pleasant of experiences for Katharine Hepburn or dear Montgomery Clift, for whom a horrific auto accident was a recent memory. There were always rumors of director Joe Mankiewicz’s cruelty towards his cast, especially Mr. Clift who seems to fade into the background of every scene. There are times when I almost forget he’s there, even if I’m starting directly at him. True or not, the stories of Miss Hepburn spitting in the faces of, towards, or near Joe Mankiewicz and producer Sam Spiegel are hilarious in any form. And although some have said she simply didn’t understand the homosexual aspects of the plot, her Violet Venable had the approval of one of the few who mattered: playwright Tennessee Williams.
Despite Mankiewicz’s cruel direction or the Hays Code censoring material that would have probably tripled the film’s profits, Suddenly, Last Summer brought Katharine Hepburn her eighth Academy Award nomination as Best Actress in a Leading Role, alongside costar Elizabeth Taylor. Although neither went home with Oscar in 1960, there are indeed some scenes in which I love Miss Taylor — it’s hard not to like a character who puts out her cigarette in a nun’s hand. Other scenes she seems to be overacting just a smidge, but over-the-top can be enjoyable in its own campy, bring-me-the-axe kind of way. Still and always, I find the recently departed Elizabeth Taylor a pleasure to watch in a velvet kind of way. But lesson the fourth is perhaps the oldest in our schoolbook: not even sweet little Miss Taylor or her eyebrows can steal my attention away from Katharine Hepburn.