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Since the 1930s, the MPAA - the film industry's self-censorship organization - had been strictly enforcing its production code, which stipulated what could and could not be shown on the screen. But by the late '50s, public standards of morality were loosening, and filmmakers were pushing the boundaries of the code by dealing more frankly with once-taboo topics such as sex and drugs. One of the most daring productions was Suddenly, Last Summer (1959), which came at the end of the decade and served as a harbinger of things to come in the films of the '60s.
Based on a one-act play by Tennessee Williams, the film deals with then-shocking themes. Homosexuality, incest, lobotomy, even cannibalism are discussed or implied. The son of Mrs. Violet Venable (Katharine Hepburn) has died while on vacation in Europe with his cousin, Catherine (Elizabeth Taylor). Catherine knows what happened, and the knowledge has traumatized her. But what Mrs. Venable wants Dr. Cukrowicz (Montgomery Clift) to do to Catherine is just as unspeakable. As was the custom at the time, Producer Sam Spiegel submitted Gore Vidal's screenplay to the MPAA's review board before production began. But when the board expressed objections, Spiegel told them that he preferred to let director Joseph Mankiewicz shoot the film as written, and deal with the objections later. Although the board at first refused its seal of approval to the completed film, it was eventually granted after only a few minor changes were made.
During production, dealing with the grim subject matter of Suddenly, Last Summer was not made any easier by the equally grim moods of the participants. Elizabeth Taylor was still mourning the death of her husband Mike Todd, and realizing that her hasty marriage to Todd's friend Eddie Fisher might have been a mistake. Katharine Hepburn was unhappy about being away from her critically ill lover, Spencer Tracy, and furious that director Joe Mankiewicz was favoring Taylor over herself. Montgomery Clift was nearly catatonic from drug and alcohol abuse, and Taylor and Hepburn were angry that Mankiewicz was unsympathetic to Clift's problems. Mankiewicz was suffering from a painful skin condition that forced him to wear gloves at all times. Hepburn finally expressed her contempt by spitting at Mankiewicz. But consummate professional that she was, she waited until after the final shot to do so.
Critical reception of Suddenly, Last Summer ranged from disgust to raves. But the public was avidly curious, and the film was a popular success. Hepburn and Taylor both received Oscar nominations for their bravura performances. Arthur Knight, writing in the Saturday Review of Literature, was prescient about what it all meant: "The box office reception of this film will unquestionably have an important bearing on the future of adult films in this country."
Producer: Sam Spiegel
Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Screenplay: Gore Vidal, based on the play by Tennessee Williams
Editor: Thomas Stanford, William Hornbeck
Cinematography: Jack Hildyard
Art Direction: William Kellner; Set Designer, Scott Slimon; Production Designer, Oliver Messel
Music: Buxton Orr, Malcolm Arnold
Principal Cast: Elizabeth Taylor (Catherine Holly), Montgomery Clift (Dr. John Cukrowicz), Katharine Hepburn (Mrs. Violet Venable), Albert Dekker (Dr. Hockstader), Mercedes McCambridge (Mrs. Holly), Gary Raymond (George Holly).
by Margarita Landazuri