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Hays’d: Decoding the Classics — ‘Suddenly Last Summer’

Hays’d: Decoding the Classics — 'Suddenly Last Summer'

The Motion Picture Production Code, also known as the Hays Code after censor/stick-in-the-mud Will Hays, regulated film content for nearly 40 years, restricting, among other things, depictions of homosexuality. Filmmakers still managed to get around the Code, but gay characters were cloaked in innuendo, leading to some necessary decoding.

Suddenly, Last Summer is one of the strangest tales to make it past the Production Code, though it made it only by the skin of its cannibalistic teeth. Based on a one-act play by Tennessee Williams, the story dealt with a number of taboo subjects, chief among them homosexuality and incest. Behind the scenes, however, the troubled production mirrored the horror on screen.

Williams’s penchant for Southern Gothic reached its Gothic heights — or depths, depending on who you ask — with Suddenly, Last Summer. The character Sebastian Venable is clearly a homosexual who dies at the hands of his “victims.” His death mirrors that of Frankenstein’s monster, but instead of torch-wielding villagers, Venable is killed by drum-playing rough trade.

Producer Sam Spiegel enlisted literary queen Gore Vidal to write the screenplay, and to ensure the film made it past the censors, Vidal had to meet with a priest biweekly to show him drafts of the script. Vidal, however, refused to make the film an anti-gay polemic, and so the film is rife with gay subtext. First off, Sebastian’s face is never seen in the movie — the monster must remain invisible, inhuman. Publicity shots, however, revealed his face, and he resembles a pre-accident Monty Clift.

On a May evening in 1956, while filming Raintree County with BFF/all-around five-star hag Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Clift crashed his car after leaving a party hosted by Taylor and then-husband Michael Wilding. According to Hollywood legend, Taylor actually saved Clift from choking on a tooth lodged in his tongue.

He required extensive plastic surgery on his once flawless face and as a result of the physical and emotional tolls of the accident — as well as his lifelong struggle with his sexuality — Clift became increasingly dependent on pills and alcohol.

On the set of Suddenly, Last Summer, Joseph Mankiewicz and Spiegel were reportedly unsympathetic to Clift’s continuing recovery and treated him terribly. Taylor and co-star Katharine Hepburn were appalled at the way Clift was treated and Hepburn — once her last scene had been filmed and she was assured she was no longer required for filming — spat in Mackiewicz’s face.

Violet, Sebastian’s mother (Hepburn) often refers to her son’s vulnerability; his great sensitivity — code words for “gay.”  Named after the “patron saint of gays” — a portrait of whom hangs in the Venable home…

…Sebastian was a poet, unpublished, and not at all prolific. He wrote but one poem a year, on the summer vacations he and she took together. Make no mistake: Sebastian and Violet Venable are the most disturbing mother-son combination in mid-century cinema, except for maybe Norman Bates and that drag voodoo mannequine he keeps locked away in the closet along with his sexuality.

Violet’s devotion to her son is nothing short of incestuous, to say the least.

They were a couple, and as such, she mourns Sebastian as a widow. She sees herself as a widow, because it’s the most fitting word for her condition.

Sebastian’s cousin, Catherine (Taylor), is also grieving, but she’s been locked away on Violet’s insistence. Catherine’s been running at the mouth about some crazy shit Violet doesn’t want anyone to know…

…and so she tries to get a brilliant young doctor (Clift) to lobotomize her. Violet wants the ugly truth cut out from Catherine’s brain. The truth that her son was not as pure as she would have others believe.

The truth that she and Catherine enabled his vices.

The truth that she and Catherine were basically whoring themselves out to attract young boys and men for him.

Pretty sordid stuff, right? So how did Vidal and co. get around the Code? Well, luckily, by Vidal’s own admission, that priest he met with was as dumb as a vial of holy water. And 1959 was a simpler, more naive time. Speaking before his death in 2012 with The Hollywood Reporter, Vidal discussed running into a policeman shortly after the release of Suddenly Last, Summer:

I just saw that movie you wrote,” Vidal recalled the policeman saying. “Was that guy a faggot?”

“I think he was, yeah,” Vidal told him. The policeman was exultant — because he had figured this out and his wife hadn’t.

Of course,Vidal never tells us what Sebastian does with the boys he has his ladies “procure” for him. And the fact that he dies, and dies brutally, was good enough for the Production Code, which gave the film special dispensation to portray Sebastian because it “illustrates the horrors of such a lifestyle” and “can be considered moral in theme even though it deals with sexual perversion.”

Vidal distanced himself from the script after the film came out, particularly criticizing the ending, which Mankiewicz had tacked on: “We were also not helped by … those overweight ushers from the Roxy Theatre on Fire Island pretending to be small ravenous boys,” he told the Village Voice in 1973.

The film nonetheless proved a hit due to its outrageous subject matter and both Hepburn and Taylor garnered Best Actress nominations at the following year’s Oscars. Clift continued to decline and the period after his accident until his death in 1966 has been famously described as “the longest suicide in Hollywood history.”

Clift’s own sexuality and tragic end thus add another layer to Suddenly, Last Summer. In a way, he was Sebastian Venable — sensitive, beautiful, talented — protected by his women, but devoured by his demons.

With all the queer men involved in its creation — Williams, Vidal and Clift — the film also works as something of a gay parable. As in A Streetcar Named Desire, there’s an emphasis on youth and beauty. Sebastian’s death comes about because Violet is no longer young enough…

And neither is he.

He’s fastidious in his appearance and wanton in his behavior.

Sexual desire resulting in destruction is a prevalent theme in the history of the LGBT community and despite Vidal’s intentions, Sebastian still stands as a cautionary example. His voracious sexual appetite proves his undoing.

So in effect, Suddenly, Last Summer ends up being a more morbid Death in Venice — a Death in Cabeza de Lobo, if you will — an aging poet transfixed by the beauty of youth and dies in the pursuit of it.

Moral of the story: the young ones always getcha.

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