Suddenly, Last Summer is a 1959 American Southern Gothic mystery film based on the play of the same title by Tennessee Williams. The film was directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and produced by Sam Spiegel from a screenplay by Gore Vidal (though Williams was officially given credit) with cinematography by Jack Hildyard and production design by Oliver Messel. The musical score was composed by Buxton Orr using themes by Malcolm Arnold.
The plot centers on a young woman who, at the insistence of her wealthy New Orleans aunt, is being evaluated by a psychiatric doctor to receive a lobotomy after witnessing the death of her cousin, Sebastian Venable, while traveling with him in Spain the previous summer.
New Orleans, 1937: Catherine Holly (Elizabeth Taylor) is a young woman institutionalized for a severe emotional disturbance that occurred when her cousin, Sebastian Venable, died under questionable circumstances while they were on summer holiday in Europe. The late Sebastian's wealthy mother, Violet Venable (Katharine Hepburn), makes every effort to deny and suppress the potentially sordid truth about her son and his demise. Toward that end, she attempts to bribe the state hospital's administrator, Dr. Lawrence Hockstader (Albert Dekker), by offering to finance a new wing for the underfunded facility if he will coerce his brilliant young surgeon, Dr. John Cukrowicz (Montgomery Clift), into lobotomizing her niece, thereby removing any chance that the events surrounding her son's death might be revealed by Catherine's "obscene babbling".
Mrs. Venable meets with Dr. Cukrowicz in the primordial garden ("like the dawn of creation") at her estate to discuss her niece's case, and their conversation eventually turns to Sebastian. Mrs. Venable describes him as a poet whose art was his sole occupation – even though he only wrote a single poem each year during the summer months and never published his work – and recounts her own previous vacations with him. Cukrowicz agrees to visit Catherine and begin his evaluation. Catherine has been confined to a private women's mental institution since returning from Europe several months earlier. When Cukrowicz interviews her, she struggles to recall the specific events that led to Sebastian's death and her subsequent breakdown, but expresses a sincere desire to do so.
Beginning to doubt that she has lost her mind, Cukrowicz decides to move Catherine into the state hospital for continued observation. Catherine's mother, Grace (Mercedes McCambridge), and brother, George (Gary Raymond), pay her a visit there and reveal that Sebastian has left them a considerable sum of money. Unfortunately, Mrs. Venable will not give them the inheritance unless they sign papers to commit Catherine to the institution and allow a lobotomy to be performed. Alarmed by this prospect, Catherine tries to escape. She accidentally wanders onto a catwalk suspended over the men's recreational area. With the door at the other end of the catwalk locked, she is forced to fight her way back past the men who are trying to climb up onto the catwalk and grope her, and returns to her room in defeat.
Later, Mrs. Venable drops by to check on the status of Cukrowicz's evaluation. The doctor persuades her to meet Catherine face to face. In the ensuing confrontation, Catherine tries to get her aunt to reveal the true nature of her relationship with Sebastian and the reason why she was left behind and Catherine chosen to take her place as his traveling companion, vaguely hinting that Sebastian used them as "bait" and that they "procured for him". Mrs. Venable responds to these allegations by fainting. Using this opportunity to slip away, Catherine finds another catwalk that runs above a room filled with women. She climbs the railing and leans out precipitously, considering the jump, but before she can release her hold, an orderly (David Cameron) comes up behind her, drags her back to her room and sedates her.
In a last-ditch effort to help Catherine, Cukrowicz brings her to the Venable estate where he administers a truth serum that will allow her to overcome any resistance to remembering what happened that summer. Before an audience consisting of her aunt, mother and brother, Miss Foxhill (Mavis Villiers), Dr. Hockstader, and Nurse Benson (Patricia Marmont), all of whom have gathered on the patio in the jungle-like garden, Cukrowicz begins questioning Catherine. She recalls how she and Sebastian spent their days on the beach in the Spanish town of Cabeza de Lobo. On one occasion, he drags her reluctantly into the water, causing the fabric of her white bathing suit to become transparent. A group of young men who had been watching her from the neighboring public beach start to approach but are intercepted by Sebastian. Catherine comes to realize that he is using her to attract these boys in order to proposition them for sex. Since the boys are desperate for money, Sebastian is successful in his efforts; however, he gradually becomes "fed up with the dark ones" and, being "famished for blondes", makes plans to depart for the northern countries. One scorching white-hot day, Sebastian and Catherine are beset by a team of boys begging for money. When Sebastian rejects them, they take up pursuit through the streets of the town. Sebastian attempts to flee, but the boys swarm around him at every turn. He is finally cornered among the ruins of a temple on a hilltop. In the meantime, Catherine has been frantically trying to catch up with Sebastian, but she reaches him only to see him overwhelmed at last by the boys. To her horror and revulsion, they begin to tear him apart and eat his flesh. She screams for help, to no avail.
At this point in telling her astonishing account of Sebastian's demise, Catherine has collapsed upon the ground, sobbing. Her mind undone by the shock of hearing Catherine's tale, Mrs. Venable closes Sebastian's last book of poems, the pages of which are blank, then slowly rises from her seat and takes Cukrowicz's arm. Calling him "Sebastian", she tells him not to be out in the sun for too long and that they should go inside the boat and inform the captain that they want to leave. Mrs. Venable is led away and Cukrowicz returns to check on Catherine, who has recovered. They both walk into the house together.
Suddenly, Last Summer is based on a one-act play by Tennessee Williams that was originally paired with Something Unspoken as part of the 1958 off-Broadway double-bill, Garden District. The work was adapted for the screen byGore Vidal; though Williams also received credit, he would later say that he had nothing to do with the film. Vidal attempted to construct the narrative as a small number of very long scenes, echoing the structure of the play.
Following A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), Suddenly, Last Summer was the third of Williams' plays to be adapted for the screen that dealt with the subject of homosexuality, although it was far more explicit in its treatment than either of the previous films were allowed to be under the Motion Picture Production Code. Working in conjunction with the National Legion of Decency, an organization primarily affiliated with Catholic Church, the Production Code Administration gave the filmmakers special dispensation to depict Sebastian Venable, declaring, "Since the film illustrates the horrors of such a lifestyle, it can be considered moral in theme even though it deals with sexual perversion." Publicity stills of Sebastian were shot – showing him as a handsome, if drawn, man in a white suit – but his face is never actually seen in the released film. Williams asserted that no actor could convincingly portray Sebastian and that his absence from the screen would only make his presence more strongly felt.
Elizabeth Taylor selected Suddenly, Last Summer as her first project after having recently ended her contractual commitment to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. At the time, she was the biggest box office draw in Hollywood, and she used that power to insist that Montgomery Clift be hired for the film. As a result of a May 1956 car crash near the home of Taylor and her then-husband Michael Wilding, Clift had become heavily dependent on drugs and alcohol. When he was unable to find a doctor willing to attest to his insurability, producer Sam Spiegel approved his casting and went ahead with filming anyway.
Clift found the long scenes exhausting and had to have his longest scene shot in multiple takes, one or two lines at a time. His shaky performance led director Joseph Mankiewicz to ask Spiegel several times to replace the actor.Most of the crew were sympathetic toward Clift, but Katharine Hepburn was especially resentful of the poor treatment to which Mankiewicz subjected him. Indeed, Hepburn found Mankiewicz's conduct so unforgivable that as soon as he called the final "cut" of the film, she asked him to confirm that her services were no longer required, and when he did, she spat in his face. Sources differ as to whether she also spat in Sam Spiegel's face.
Problems beset the film's musical score, as well. Malcolm Arnold was originally retained to work on it, but he apparently found certain aspects of the story so disturbing that he withdrew from the project after composing only the main themes. Buxton Orr was brought in to complete the score.
Taylor, following her final monologue wherein she describes Sebastian's murder, burst into tears and could not be consoled: using Method acting techniques, she had tapped into her grief over the 1958 death of her third husband, Mike Todd.
Production on Suddenly, Last Summer took place between May and September 1959. Interior scenes were shot at Shepperton Studios in Surrey, England. The "Cabeza de Lobo" sequence was filmed at Majorca in the Balearic Islands and at Begur, Castell-Platja d'Aro, Costa Brava, and S'Agaró in Girona, Catalonia, Spain.