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“Marrying Nick had been so easy, so like a fairytale. Everything was lovely; my parents, everyone approved- too perfect, too picturesque, too ideal. When I left him, it was to be the first divorce in our family, and I was totally crushed. I was afraid of sympathy or understanding from anybody. I was afraid of myself. I was afraid to go back to Nick. I was afraid of my total failure. I was afraid of the disappointment to my parents and his parents. I was afraid to be alone.” Elizabeth Taylor reflecting on filing her first divorce at age eighteen from Nicky Hilton, after being severely emotionally and physically abused by him.

This week in my year-long Katharine Hepburn film marathon: “Suddenly Last Summer”

First, the facts

Dr. Cukrowicz (Montgomery Clift), a surgeon specialized in performing lobotomies on the mentally insane, works in a state hospital where he has to work under primitive conditions. Violet Venable (Katharine Hepburn), a rich widow, promises to give financial support if Dr. Cukrowicz performs a lobotomy on her niece Catherine (Elizabeth Taylor). The girl has gone mad after traveling with Violet’s son Sebastian the summer before, where he died under mysterious circumstances. Cukrowicz first wants to get to know the girl before she is taken in for surgery and he discovers that she suffers from memory loss and that she’s not mad as Violet wants to make him believe. In fact, Violet doesn’t want anyone to discover the truth about her son. When Catherine starts to remember what happened, Violet can’t bear the truth and loses her mind.

‘Suddenly Last Summer’ was based on the play by Tennessee Williams. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, whom Kate had worked with on ‘The Philadelphia Story’ and ‘Woman of the Year’, directed the picture. Unfortunately, shooting the film was not an enjoyable experience for Kate. She didn’t hit it off with Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift, who had had a serious car accident a few years before, was addicted to painkillers and often unable to play his scenes. Kate tried to help him out, but she was furious about the way Mankiewicz and producer Sam Spiegel treated him. She also felt uncomfortable with the character she was playing. Tennessee Williams, who was credited as screenwriter, later denied having any part in writing it. He did praise Kate’s performance in the film. ‘Suddenly Last Summer’ earned both Katharine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor an Oscar nomination for Best Actress but they lost out Simone Signoret.

Why you should watch it

If you’re familiar with Tennessee Williams’ plays (A Streetcar named Desire, The Night of the Iguana…), you will know that they always deal with heavy subject matter. This is also the case with ‘Suddenly Last Summer’, where some major themes are homosexuality, cannibalism and insanity. Of course, as this film was made in the 1950s there is no explicit discussion of any of these themes. The dialogue is also rather heavy at times, especially the speech Kate gives about the sea turtles. ‘Suddenly Last Summer’ features great performances by Elizabeth Taylor and Katharine Hepburn and is definitely a film worth seeing. One of my favorite things about this picture (besides the performances of course) is Violet’s garden. I always feel a chill running down my spine when I see it for the first time in the movie. If you like Williams’ other plays turned into movies, I’d definitely suggest giving this one a try.

Treat

Here are a few images from the set of ‘Suddenly Last Summer’.

Next time another movie based on a play: ‘Long Day’s Journey into Night’. Eugene O’Neill’s autobiographical tale of his life earned Kate another Oscar nomination.

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“Elizabeth is extremely intelligent though she lacks in formal education- how can you possible be educated at MGM? I tried her out with I.Q. tests and she is well above the average. The thing I can credit myself with is increasing her awareness of the world. She has an extraordinary interest in poetry and I thought she just read to make me happy. Now I know that she enjoys it for herself. She grew up with art, has a great knowledge of painting and is herself a considerable painter. We have contributed to each other: I dismissed paintings as bad photography before I met Elizabeth.” -Richard Burton