I’ve included Suddenly, Last Summer not so much for its intrinsic virtues (of which it certainly has some) but more as a case study in how complicated auteurism can become; how a variety of cooks with different recipes might muck up the soup.
The project appears to have started with Sam Spiegel, then on a roll with two Best Picture Oscars (for Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront and David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai) and soon to be handed a third (for Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia). Spiegel wanted the film to be built around Elizabeth Taylor—newly freed from her MGM contract and Hollywood’s biggest box office draw—who was then on her own roll with Giant, Raintree County, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, on the verge of her own pair of Oscars, and soon to star in Cleopatra, for which she would be reunited with Joseph L. Mankiewicz.
Enter Joe Mankiewicz, kid brother of Herman J. Mankiewicz of Citizen Kane fame (co-Oscar-winner with Orson Welles for Best Screenplay). Joe’s own roots had been humble: providing English intertitles for UFA silent films in Weimar Berlin, writing Million Dollar Legs for W. C. Fields, scripting Diplomaniacs for Wheeler and Woolsey, etc. By 1959, however, he had written major films for Fritz Lang, Frank Borzage, and George Cukor, and he had won his own directing and writing Oscars for A Letter to Three Wives and All About Eve. Add to the mix yet more Hollywood royalty: Katharine Hepburn (for whom Mankiewicz had written her comeback role in The Philadelphia Story) and Taylor’s brotherly soul-mate, Montgomery Clift, then recovering uncertainly from a traumatic automobile accident, coupled with what one critic has called his “conflict of unsettled sexuality.” (Whatever limited credibility Clift brings to the role of a brain surgeon in Suddenly, Last Summer, I think he’s magnificent in his next film, Elia Kazan’s brilliant Wild River, opposite the luminous Lee Remick.)Now we come to Tennessee Williams (who would have turned 102 next Tuesday), who wrote the one-act play that was the genesis of the film. Williams had had mixed experiences with Hollywood, he was censored but certainly duly honored by A Streetcar Named Desire, and, like his plays, the later films derived from them would be a kind of mixed bag, however lucrative. (He and Taylor were reunited for Joseph’s Losey’s Boom, and I had occasion to be at the Kennedy Center in 1980 for the opening of his Clothes for a Summer Hotel, Williams’s riff on the Fitzgeralds, a performance also attended by a still-striking Taylor and her then-husband, Senator John Warner. I don’t remember much about the play, which I suppose means it was forgettable, but I remember the playwright laughing loudly—and solo—at his own jokes.) The one-act play on which Suddenly, Last Summer was based was certainly personal to him, as his sister, Rose, underwent the devastating operation around which the drama revolves. (Like America’s other candidate for greatest playwright, Eugene O’Neill, Williams used personal family tragedy in his work, as O’Neill did in Long Day’s Journey into Night, Sidney Lumet’s film, also starring Hepburn.) Whatever good qualities Mankiewicz had as a writer, his work tends toward loquacity—one of his films is called People Will Talk—so I was taken off guard to find that Williams’s original had only a single act. To remedy this, Gore Vidal enters the frame.
Let me make clear that I consider Vidal to be one of the most trenchant commentators on contemporary events, a sort of George Carlin/Bill Maher/Maureen Dowd all rolled into one. His plays, screenplays, and novels are fine, but he was also a master of nonfiction essays and a man of exquisite judgment. Spiegel persuaded Williams to share co-screenplay credit by essentially telling the playwright he could win an Oscar without doing any work, even though at least two-thirds of the film is attributable to his friend, Vidal. The actual production apparently tended to be unpleasant. Hepburn was appalled by Mankiewicz’s brutal treatment of the fragile Clift, and she allegedly spit in the director’s face immediately following the end of shooting. Needless to say, they didn’t work together again. (Clift’s protector, Taylor, however, did do Cleopatra.) In her progressive madness, Hepburn’s character, as written by Vidal and directed by Mankiewicz, seems at times to be channeling Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond from Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, made a decade earlier.
Added to all these complications, the film had to find a way to deal with the triple-whammy of homosexuality, incest, and cannibalism without violating the still-in-force Production Code. It cheats a bit, but Taylor more or less brings off her split-screen monologue at the end of the film, implicitly telling the audience enough about Hepburn’s son’s proclivities without bringing down the wrath of the guardians of morality. As the Legion of Decency concluded, “Since the film illustrates the horrors of such a lifestyle, it can be considered moral in theme even though it deals with sexual perversion.” As Vito Russo wrote in The Celluloid Closet, “Hollywood achieved the impossible; it put an invisible homosexual on the screen.” Vidal (who had just previously succeeded in fooling Charlton Heston’s Ben-Hur into thinking that he hadn’t really had a teenage affair with Stephen Boyd) complained less about Williams taking credit for his screenplay than about Mankiewicz’s ending with “those overweight ushers from the Roxy Theater on Fire Island pretending to be small ravenous boys.”