Not so long ago, I found myself in an un-air-conditioned kitchen crushing pine nuts with a porcelain mortar and pestle. Sweaty and peevish, I turned to my boyfriend, who was standing over the sink, and asked, apropos of nothing, “Have you seen Suddenly, Last Summer?”
His eyes lit up: “Yazzz, that’s some scary shit!” I frowned slightly, taken aback at his gusto. He went on, “Ryan Phillippe is so hot in that.” I stared on at him, blankly. He persisted, “What, you’re more of a Freddie guy?”
I mean, I can’t disagree: Ryan Phillippe is so hot—in the 1997 slasher film I Know What You Did Last Summer. Before I could mount my high horse, two thoughts came to mind. First, both movies actually do feature skull-stabbing metallic objects. And second, I once launched a five-minute harangue against Philadelphia, only to learn after my triumphant mic drop that the topic of conversation was The Philadelphia Story. Wrong tea, spilt. Several seats, taken.
But putting all that aside, I get why Suddenly, Last Summer wouldn’t set off alarm bells of recognition. Unlike Billy Wilder’s madcap farce of gender pandemonium, Some Like It Hot, it hasn’t quite survived as an iconic queer film into the 21st century, and this cultural amnesia speaks to its fraught legacy.
This December will mark the 60th anniversary of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1959 landmark film—and the hailstorm of contempt that greeted its debut.
In retrospect, the electrified moral panic coursing through reviewers was a sign of the times. The censorial Production Code was being chipped away and would collapse entirely within a decade. Confronted with lurid new subject matter, reviewers recoiled in revulsion, but today, those protests sound more like death throes of a repressive prudery. John McCarten gave voice to this scolding, pearl-clutching outrage when he berated the film as a “preposterous and monotonous potpourri of incest, homosexuality, psychiatry, and, so help me, cannibalism.” Pass the smelling salts, John.
Needless to say, the Doris-Day-loving audiences of the 1950s are worlds apart from today’s savvy consumers of queer art and entertainment, but strangely enough, the film’s stock hasn’t risen. You might say it’s more known than admired.
By all rights, the movie should feature prominently in the pantheon of queer cinema. It was drawn from legendary gay playwright Tennessee Williams’s one-act source material and adapted by bon vivant Gore Vidal, whose queer bona fides already included his scandalous novel of homosexual self-discovery The City and the Pillar. The cast, moreover, was filled out by voluptuous, LGBTQ icon Elizabeth Taylor and closeted leading man Montgomery Clift, whose face bore the visible scars of a horrendous car wreck from only a few years prior.
Taylor had rushed to the scene and pulled a broken tooth from Clift’s throat, saving his life. On set, strung out on pills and knocked off-beam by alcoholism, he could only act in short, unsteady bursts. This sensational backdrop seems tailormade to ensure the film’s queer legacy. (And I haven’t even mentioned Katharine Hepburn’s defiant act of spitting in the director’s face when shooting wrapped.)
For all this, the film has never been embraced by LGBTQ audiences. The snub is all the more confounding when you consider its high-decibel, scene-chewing campiness. We’re not talking late-career Bette Davis, but still, it’s extra.
So, why the cold shoulder? I reached out to film scholar Barbara Mennel, who explained to me, “Suddenly, Last Summer was made at a time in Hollywood when writers, directors, and producers cast homosexuality through homophobic codes, asking spectators to read between lines.”
The result, viewed today, is a dated, cultural artifact saturated with self-hatred. The gay poet at the center of the story, Sebastian Venable, appears only as a faceless, looming, predatory pedophile—an unspeaking and unspeakable void that the narrative won’t make visible. Queer viewers can skirt the anti-gay animus by embracing the campiness of the portrayal, but the homophobic residue remains. Hence, Mennel tells me, “Suddenly, Last Summer is as appalling as it is seductive.”
So, Suddenly, Last Summer may be a “gay film,” but it’s simultaneously a homophobic film in how it affirms its own stigma. And though this may have been the best queer people could hope for in, well, the Eisenhower years, it obviously doesn’t, like, slay with contemporary audiences. In today’s world of GLAAD-vetted media, plot lines move us either to pity the tragic victims—think Brokeback Mountain—or to root for the acceptance of a character who was “normal” all along, as in Love, Simon. These sympathetic plot structures have become so de rigueur that, from where we stand in 2019, Suddenly, Last Summer can look not just degrading but even unrecognizable as a queer film.
But, maybe that shock of the uncanny is useful. Suddenly, Last Summer gives us a vantage point to see our own cultural moment with fresh eyes—and to recognize just how, well, didactic the arbiters of queer fare have become.
For example, it could be that GLAAD’s sweeping ambition—unquestionably well-intentioned—to reshape the LGBTQ media landscape into something that is affirming, accepting, and psychologically salubrious has tied the hands of writers. I call it the “role model” school of film criticism: if it’s not suitable for emulation by a 12-year-old, it’s not fit for the screen.
And bless their well-meaning hearts, but there really are, truth be told, decadent, callous, brutal, capricious, jealous, petty, and vindictive LGBTQ specimens among us. Maybe encountering a character that isn’t programmed to vindicate queer identity writ large is a breath of fresh air. At its best, art should be capacious enough to get at the good, the bad, and the ugly.
And perhaps Suddenly, Last Summer can get us to blink and break our myopic focus on the individual struggle for acceptance. After all, the real depravity at work here isn’t the solitary deviant but the supervising institutions. An entire psychiatric ward is devoted to drilling holes in skulls. The hospital administrator is so eager to pocket a bribe that he would maim a healthy woman in the process. And the pious Catholic nuns treat every infraction—even indulging in a cigarette—as a telltale sign of iniquity.
If last year’s Boy Erased made a pinprick indictment of conversion therapy, Suddenly, Last Summer makes a much more sweeping indictment: institutions of expertise serve the powerful by assigning wickedness to the innocent and eccentric. Handing over power to putatively benevolent caretakers is a risky venture. Those pining for administrative affirmation, take note.
Incidentally, I did eventually cajole my boyfriend into watching Suddenly, Last Summer—this after breaking the news that Sarah Michelle Gellar would, sadly, not be making an appearance. As Katharine Hepburn ascended into the ceiling and the credits began to roll, he leaned in towards me: “Wow. She looks a lot different in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” This time, he was in on the joke.