Elizabeth Taylor in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1959 adaptation of Suddenly, Last Summer
Text/Book, the Toronto Standard‘s books column, is written by Emily M. Keeler and Chris Randle, plus occasional guests. This month’s is David Balzer.
Among the most important lines–and most ludicrous, most ironic, most poignant–in Tennessee Williams’ 1958 one-act play, Suddenly, Last Summer, is its last: “I think we ought at least to consider the possibility that the girl’s story could be true…” For those unfamiliar with the play, here is a précis of the girl’s story: last summer, the summer of 1935, she, Catherine Holly, vacationed to the geographically indeterminate Spanish resort town of Cabeza de Lobo with her fortyish cousin, the late Sebastian Venable–aristocrat bon vivant from New Orleans’ Garden District, where he lived with his daiquiri-aficionado mother, Violet, and tended a “fantastical” garden of prehistoric flora. He wrote one poem a year during his summer sojourns with Violet, sojourns which ended with Violet’s recent stroke and subsequent, ugly facial tic, and which continued, that summer of 1935, with the beautiful young Catherine.
Anyway. Last summer, of 1935, Catherine and Sebastian went to Cabeza de Lobo; they went to the beach; Sebastian forced her to wear a one-piece bathing suit of white lisle, which the water made transparent. She was, she soon discovered, his bait, “PROCURING for him”–at least initially. Then, the “homeless, hungry” young men under Sebastian’s keep grew legion, and angry. And one day, interrupting Sebastian’s regular pills-and-salad lunch, this mob, naked and dirty, lunged, pursuing him down the streets of Cabeza de Lobo, some playing tin-can instruments, and eventually rending and devouring him.
This is the truth of the girl, and the one at the centre of Tennessee Williams’ strange play, also made into a strange film in 1959 by Joseph L. Mankiewicz–a truth, such as it is, that only Williams could have told, full of his trademark paradoxes, both dunderheaded and profound. In the play, it is a truth that Sebastian’s domineering mother, Violet, wants “cut out” of Catherine’s brain via a lobotomy–an echo of Williams’ sister’s own lobotomy, done, he claimed, to prevent her from telling of their father’s molestation–blackmailing one Doctor Cukrowicz, the one who utters those last lines, after having drawn out Catherine’s tale.
It is, as well, a truth that stung the gay establishment that emerged after Williams’ improbable tenure as one of post-war America’s leading artists. For 1970s representationalists like Vito Russo, author of The Celluloid Closet, Suddenly, Last Summer was “the kind of psychosexual freak show that the Fifties almost demanded”: Sebastian Venable, the cannibalized dandy who only appears in Williams’ play as a spectre, dead from the beginning and given shape only by the conflicting stories of Violet and Catherine, was an invert-pervert who got what was coming to him. The famous documentary-film adaptation of Russo’s Celluloid Closet highlights the sequence of Sebastian’s demise in the 1959 film–remembered by Catherine, played by a luminous Elizabeth Taylor at the height of her early pulchritude, her face appearing and receding in a matte shot over views of a pursued Sebastian whose own face is never shown. In the documentary, this pursuit is intercut with another, that of Frankenstein in homosexual director James Whale’s The Bride of Frankenstein. “Since he lives as a monster, he must die as one,” says a woeful, admonishing Lily Tomlin in voiceover.
It is a facile interpretation–abetted, some say, by the bit of trivia that Tennessee Williams underwent psychotherapy around, among other things, his same-sex desire, the year before he wrote the play–and it positions Suddenly, Last Summer as a reprehensible text written by a self-loathing homosexual, however grandiose in ego. This interpretation is indeed so facile that it has not held water beyond the necessary politics of liberation that drove the gay movement forward in the 1970s, at the time of The Celluloid Closet‘s publication, and then in the 1990s, when the documentary was released, during the second decade of the AIDS crisis.
What contradicts this is the simple fact that gays have loved and do love Suddenly, Last Summer, tremendously. At a screening of the film last year at the Lightbox, I sat amid a row of 20- and 30-something friends, mostly gay men, all transfixed, yelping, sighing, clapping, screaming. There was an effusiveness competition afterward: who loved it most? In explanation of this phenomenon it is suitable to begin with the most obvious riposte to Russo: there is nothing more deliriously and proudly gay than Suddenly, Last Summer, despite or, indeed, because of Sebastian’s absence. This fact has inevitably been taken up by queer theorists that have emerged in The Celluloid Closet‘s wake. Sebastian is of course present, everywhere. Phrases like “the obsessive metaphorics of queer anality” have been used (in this case by Brett Farmer), and they echo the defiantly entertaining, even defiantly risible, qualities (gays used to call this sensibility “outrageous,” a subsidiary of camp) that permeate the text.
With Suddenly, Last Summer, Williams has created a sort of gay-style infection: actions of an effaced homosexual are visible in all characters, the world they inhabit becoming obvious as a bauble of his own making. This is, as Michael D. Klemm of CinemaQueer.com points out, brilliantly represented in the film version, in which, during Catherine’s story, Violet’s hand caresses a page of Sebastian’s notebook, the one containing the cumulative poems, only one per summer, that he writes every year. The page is Sebastian’s last, from 1935, and it is blank, but Catherine’s story and Sebastian’s actions suggest, of course, that what happened that summer, and what was his entire life for that matter, constitutes his final poem, in which everyone is implicated.
In turn, what film is gayer than Mankiewicz’s? Gore Vidal co-wrote the script with Williams; in addition to gay-icon Taylor, the doctor is played by Montgomery Clift, Taylor’s gay best friend, known for his martyred, Saint Sebastian—like characters, and here appearing after a disfiguring car accident, thus adding to that renown. Violet is played by Katherine Hepburn, who gobbles up every line and scene. What’s more, the film, as Gore Vidal points out in The Celluloid Closet, was oddly beloved by the then-collapsing Breen Code: it showed a homosexual ostensibly being punished for his crimes. Vidal then claims that the film’s so-called degenerate qualities–incest, cannibalism, pederasty, as identified with extreme distaste by The New York Times‘ Bosley Crowther–made straight, mainstream America flock to it in droves, to see that “something evil” that one poster’s tagline said that Catherine saw. Like Sebastian’s Venus flytrap, the text seems designed to ensnare, perhaps also to assimilate.
The task of articulating those aforementioned “obsessive metaphorics of queer anality” do not interest me terribly. It seems so exhausting, and the play and film give so much pleasure. I do believe in a distinctive gay-male aesthetic, but for me, however complex and rich it is, it is stubbornly intuitive, built on history as well as circumstance, and able to be understood and practiced by those who are not gay males. It is for this reason that I contend that Suddenly, Last Summer can be a very important gay-male text while still not having a gay-male character in its dramatis personae, and even having that character conjured and killed as a result of his decadence.
Let us return, as is my preference, to the text, and to Dr. Cukrowicz’s final lines, “I think we ought at least to consider the possibility that the girl’s story could be true….” Tennessee Williams disliked Mankiewicz’s film–this may be because of frenemy Gore Vidal’s having had a hand it, or the bad notices it got–claiming it “made unfortunate concessions to the realism that Hollywood is too often afraid to discard,” and that it is not a “literal” study of “such things as cannibalism…” Was he serious or just being petulant? Is Catherine actually, as Violet hopes, delusional? Where is the truth here? In an excellent twist, Catherine tells us that, at the start of traveling with her cousin, she began to use the third person in her diary. “I turned into a peacock,” she says later, referring to a Schiaparelli dress Sebastian had bought for her. “Of course, so was he one, too…” Clearly, the simultaneous resplendence and disturbance of artificial metamorphosis–the ability to transform oneself into a symbol, arguably something upon which queer, not merely gay-male, aesthetics turn–is at the heart of Sebastian’s cunning.
Sebastian’s own dramatizing of his naughtiness is another kind of delirious fiction in the play: “Cousin Sebastian said he was famished for blonds,” goes one of Catherine’s lines, one that tends to solicit admiring giggles from viewers of the film. The intonation–a declaration of intention couched in high drama–is not unlike Williams’ notoriously lavish stage directions, themselves clues to the play’s aims: “The set may be as unrealistic as the décor of a dramatic ballet,” begins Scene One’s notes. One might also point to some of the dialogue being written in all caps, or to the intrusions of music, which occur in almost every Williams script but are often left out by contemporary directors who see them as gauche. Here is the classic definition of melodrama: literally, drama with music. In Suddenly, Last Summer, it is “lyric” music of the “Encantadas,” the Galapagos Islands, where, as Violet relates at the beginning of the play, she and Sebastian had witnessed flesh-eating birds descending on a beach full of newly hatched turtles. In Williams, even the menace of raw nature–an absolute fixation of the playwright’s–cannot be related without nondiegetic flummery.
Thus the truth of Suddenly, Last Summer can only be the truth of its construction, of which Sebastian is the formidable spire. Williams, in his most famous play, A Streetcar Named Desire, gives a female character, Blanche Dubois–always, of course, strongly resonant to gay men–the rare chance to act as tragic hero in the Aristotelian/Shakespearean sense: hers is a pitiful and fearful demise, built on a sensational flaw, one she is allowed to have, and one with which she is, arguably, honourably bestowed. Sebastian, the rich ne’er-do-well, is more inhuman, but does a similar dance with morality and mortality. His death completes his desire to, as Catherine says, become “a sort of image.” And so his death is not a shrill condemnation, as Russo posits. Sebastian’s death, like his namesake saint’s, is glamourous, made all the more so by its inherent concealments, its insoluble mysteries, its blatant and hysterical fabrications.
David Balzer is an art and film critic and the author of the short-fiction collection Contrivances (Joyland/ECW Press). He reads from Contrivances on Friday, June 28, 2 pm, at Glad Day Bookshop, 598 Yonge St. Follow him on Twitter at @davidkbalzer.