Good news for Tennessee Williams fans! Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) have both recently made their debut in high definition, cause for high spirits indeed despite the painful, hard-to-navigate nature of their plots.
Suddenly, Last Summer deals with cannibalism, madness and lobotomy. Slightly cheerier Cat on a Hot Tin Roof deals with alcoholism, fractured family relationships and cancer. Both films earned well-deserved multiple Oscar nominations, including back-to-back honors for Elizabeth Taylor, the star of both. In addition, each featured its own bit of off-screen drama and solid doses of controversy.
Directed by Oscar-winning writer/director Joseph L. Manckiewicz, the script for Suddenly, Last Summer, (originally a one-act play) was adapted for the screen by Williams and his friend Gore Vidal. Katherine Hepburn (nominated with Taylor for Best Actress) plays Violet Venable, a New Orleans matron who recruits Dr. Cukrowicz (Montgomery Clift) to perform a lobotomy on her niece Catherine (Taylor) in order to stop the disturbed young woman from sullying the name of Violet’s beloved son Sebastian, who died suddenly, last summer.
The film’s climax, of course, details exactly what did happen and the lead-up to that moment features some absolutely terrific performances from the two female leads. Montgomery Clift, unfortunately, showing the physical effects of the horrendous auto accident which disfigured and almost killed him—and which fueled his increasing drug addiction, is lost in their shadows.
In fact, it was only due to Taylor’s influence and friendship that Clift got the role. Apparently the actor was so continually berated by director Mankiewicz that an irate and sympathetic Hepburn actually spit on the director after the last take. Taylor was more forgiving—or at least more pragmatic—Mankiewicz would direct her in Cleopatra four years later.
Vidal and Williams reportedly hated the movie as well, mostly because of Mankiewicz’s supposed homophobia, but Suddenly, Last Summer showcases the same deftness and skill that he brought to his work including The Philadelphia Story and All About Eve.
Considering homophobia, it was Sebastian’s homosexuality—never stated but obvious even to the dullest viewer—that generated a lot of the controversy. One year later, in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof the subject would be even more muted, provoking grumbles from those critical of the perceived censorship.
Adapted from Williams’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1955 drama directed onstage by Elia Kazan, the film version of Cat was co-written & directed by 5 time Oscar nominee Richard Brooks (In Cold Blood), certainly no slouch even when compared to Kazan. Its worth noting that pressure from the Hays Office resulted in an even greater dampening of the original play’s homosexual subtext.
The first adaptation of Tennessee Williams to be filmed in color (reportedly to take advantage of Elizabeth Taylor’s and Paul Newman’s incredibly famous and gorgeous peepers), the action of Cat is largely confined to one evening in the plantation home of Big Daddy Pollitt (Burl Ives).
After a lengthy medical checkup, Big Daddy has been told that his painful abdominal disorder was only an intestinal stoppage. Everyone else, however, quickly learns that the fierce old bull of a man is actually home to die of terminal cancer.
His son Brick (Paul Newman) is an alcoholic ex-athlete with a busted ankle. Brick’s wife Maggie (Elizabeth Taylor) is desperate to have a child and revive their physical intimacy, but Brick is just as determined not to have her touch him.
Meanwhile Brick’s older brother Gooper (Jack Carson) and his obnoxious wife Mae (Madeleine Sherwood) have bred a passel of brats in hope of laying claim to Big Daddy’s estate. Echoing the unhappy marital theme, Big Momma (Judith Anderson) tries to convince herself once she and Big Daddy loved one another.
Tennessee Williams had trouble from the get-go with the staging of the play. In fact, it was due to Elia Kazan that Big Daddy was brought back in the third act of the play and movie—not Williams’ original concept—but one that was right, as the playwright himself acknowledged. Brooks’ version expands Big Daddy’s role even more and brings the film to a more positive, if not exactly happy, conclusion.
A big hit on its release despite Williams’ public grousing, Cat was nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture, Actor, Actress, and Director. Though it ended up winning none, Burl Ives did snag a Best Supporting Actor the same Oscar night for The Big Country.
Ironically, he wasn’t even nominated for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, in which he is even better.