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Theatre / Suddenly, Last Summer

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"My son, Sebastian and I constructed our days. Each day we would carve each day like a piece of sculpture, leaving behind us a trail of days like a gallery of sculpture until suddenly, last summer."
Violet Venable

Suddenly Last Summer was originally a 1958 one-act play written by Tennessee Williams. The play is very simple in its structure, with the bulk of its text consisting of a pair of monologues (with frequent interruptions), one by Catherine and the other by her aunt Violet, concerning the death of Catherine's cousin Sebastian during the previous summer.

In 1959, it was adapted by Williams and Gore Vidal into a film directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and starring Elizabeth Taylor, Katharine Hepburn and Montgomery Clift. The film, which added a comma to the original title, expands the story and plot quite a bit.

New Orleans, 1937. Dr. John Cukrowicz (Clift) is a brain surgeon specializing in lobotomies, who has recently been hired at the State hospital to perform his procedures on patients. However, because the equipment and operating conditions are very poor, he is having a difficult time fulfilling his duties. A wealthy widow named Violet Venable (Hepburn) offers to fund the hospital so that it can build a new wing. However, there is one condition: Cukrowitz must agree to perform a lobotomy on her niece Catherine Holly (Taylor).

Catherine is currently in a mental hospital after returning from a disastrous trip in Europe with her cousin Sebastian. Their trip in the summer had ended rather badly with the death of Sebastian. Catherine, who is suffering from dementia, cannot remember exactly how he died. But, she knows a dark secret about him that Violet wants to keep hidden away.

Tropes used in Suddenly, Last Summer:

  • Adaptation Expansion: The film adds extra scenes of Catherine imprisoned in the mental institution, as well flashback to the fateful trip to Spain her and Sebastian took last summer.
  • Adaptational Sympathy: In the play, Aunt Violet attempts to assault Catherine with a cane after she reveals the truth about Sebastian’s death, but in the film she quietly slips into insanity and is calmly escorted out of the greenhouse.
  • Adults Are Useless: It seems as though Catherine's mother is more concerned about looking respectable and impressing Violet than about important matters like her daughter's peace of mind.
  • Alliterative Name: Violet Venable.
  • Arc Words: "...Suddenly, last summer..."
  • Bowdlerize: The movie screenplay was carefully scrubbed of any overt mention of homosexuality or cannibalism.
  • Broken Bird: Catherine. The girl is used as bait for young men for her cousin to seduce, she witnesses him getting slaughtered, she's kept in a sanitarium where the nuns and the janitor abuse her, and now her rich aunt is trying to get her lobotomized so everyone can dismiss Catherine as some lunatic speaking crazy stuff about Sebastian.
  • Bury Your Gays: Sebastian didn't just die, he was devoured. And since he’s a Depraved Homosexual, he kind of had it coming.
  • Cloudcuckoolander: Violet. She seems to be living in a rather idealized world view of her and Sebastian when he was alive. She later regresses into that world after The Reveal. She even goes on to call Dr. Cukrowicz "Sebastian" after she remarked how similar they looked earlier.
  • Color Motif:
    • The color white is associated with danger and death. For example, white is Sebastian's favorite color, he was wearing a white suit when he died and Catherine describes the day Sebastian died as being "white-hot".
    • Also the revealing white swimsuit Sebastian made Catherine wear to attract the local boys.
  • Depraved Homosexual: Sebastian. His trips every summer are not just for writing poetry. He uses his mother, later Catherine, as bait to attract local boys and young men so that they will have sex with him.
  • Devoured by the Horde: The death of Sebastian is described: a large group of underprivileged kids from the Spanish town he was visiting descended upon him and ate him. Or so his companion at the time insists.
  • Did Not Die That Way: Violet initially insists that Sebastian's cause of death was a heart attack, it was revealed by his cousin Catherine that Sebastian was cannibalized by a group of local homeless boys.
  • The Faceless: In the movie, Sebastian's face is never clearly seen in the flashbacks.
  • Fag Hag: Violet and Catherine are particularly dramatic versions for Sebastian.
  • Gaslighting: Violet seems to be an expert in this, manipulating her in-laws into signing papers to surrender Catherine and trying to undermine Catherine's testimony. Luckily for Catherine, the young woman proves to be quite assertive and strong in fighting her argument.
  • Go Mad from the Revelation: What happens to Violet when she learns the truth surrounding Sebastian's death.
  • Greed: Catherine's mother and brothers' motivations for money from Violet, lead to them being duped by Violet into signing papers that would allow Catherine be lobotomized.
  • Heroic BSoD: Catherine goes through one after she is raped and then another one after she witnesses her cousin's death at the hands of cannibals. And all of this before the movie even begins.
  • I'm a Humanitarian: Sebastian is killed being beaten and eaten by a large crowd of poor island boys.
  • Incest Subtext: Violet’s recollections of her son seem more like those of a wife or lover than those of a mother. But it’s only hinted at, never outright stated.
  • Interrupted Suicide: Catherine's suicide attempt at the hospital after her meeting with Violet.
  • I Was Quite a Looker: Violet. Before Catherine, she was used by Sebastian for attracting young men to him, he only quit because she supposedly didn't look as beautiful as she used to be (and because she had a stroke).
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Sebastian's fate; he does attract several hungry young men, only for those boys to go on a rampage and hack him to pieces with their bare hands.
  • Laughing Mad: The female patients at the insane asylum laugh and cry hysterically at Catherine when they see her.
  • Lobotomy: Violet wants Dr. Cukrowitz to perform one on Catherine.
  • Manipulative Bitch: Violet Venable is this, trying to undermine every assertion of feelings that Catherine had about her situation and using the greed of her relatives to surrender their daughter/sister to lobotomy.
  • Men Get Old, Women Get Replaced: In-universe. Catherine reveals that Sebastian used his mother Violet to attract men, and that when she got ill and old, Sebastian moved onto the younger Catherine.
  • Ms. Fanservice: Enforced and played for drama in-universe; Catherine is forced to wear the infamous white swimsuit by Sebastian, and given that Catherine is played by Elizabeth Taylor, the resulting visual proves to be a mesmerizing one.
  • Parental Incest: It is hinted that Violet's love for Sebastian was more than familial.
  • Posthumous Character: Sebastian and how he died and why proves to be very important.
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: One of the screenwriters, Gore Vidal, had to re-work the play in a way so Sebastian's character is more ominous and so people can interpret the implications of his sexuality for themselves to get past the Production Code.
  • Rape as Drama: Implied to be what happened to Catherine at the Dueling Oaks.
  • Rich Bitch: Violet. Of course that doesn't cover a wealthy woman trying to pay off her relatives and some doctors to perform a lobotomy on her healthy niece.
  • Southern Gothic: Given the movie takes place in New Orleans, it's exactly you'd expect from a Tennessee Williams story.
  • Title Drop: Several times by both Katherine and Violet.
  • Third-Person Person: After the traumatic experience, Catherine started writing her diary in the third person.
  • Trauma Conga Line: Cathy goes through before and during the movie beginning with her rape at the Dueling Oaks. Things seem to be looking up when her cousin, Sebastian, takes her with him on a trip to Europe only to discover that he was using her lure men in order to proposition sex from them and then witnessing that same cousin get beaten and eaten alive by enraged village boys, the same ones he used for sex. She has a nervous breakdown and is confined to a mental institute, only to once again be sexually assaulted by one of the male personnel. When she tells the sisters, they don't believe her and instead believe she was the one who tried to seduce him. Then she gets transferred to a state hospital where she discovers that her mother and brother are planning to have her committed and eventually lobotomized in order to collect her cousin's inheritance from her aunt. And the doctor whom she is just beginning to trust and develop feelings for? He's the one who is going to perform the lobotomy. All so her aunt could conceal the sordid truth about her son's personal life. Yeah, it really sucks to be Cathy. Fortunately for her, the doctor comes to believe her.
  • Truth Serums: Dr. Cukrowicz uses one on Catherine so she remembers what happened to Sebastian.
  • Villain in a White Suit: The predatory Depraved Homosexual Sebastian is described as wearing an all-white suit on the day of his murder.
  • What Beautiful Eyes!: Both Catherine and Violet comment on how lovely and blue Dr. Cukrowicz's eyes are.
  • White Shirt of Death: Sebastian is described as having worn an all-white suit when he died, or more accurately, was consumed by the horde.
  • Yandere: Violet for her son, Sebastian. She is jealous and resentful of her niece when he elects to take her with him for the summer, instead of his mother whom he previously traveled with. And she is ready to have Catherine lobotomized in order to protect her son's seedy, personal life.

Alternative Title(s): Suddenly Last Summer