Coming on like a perfect precursor to the diva heavy Gothic horrors of the ‘60s and ‘70s (including Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and many others), 1959’s Suddenly Last Summer gave the divine Katherine Hepburn a chance to bring a wickedly flawed character to the screen in the form of the matriarchal, incredibly wealthy Violet Venable.
As Venable uses all of her considerable influence to insure the lobotomization of her niece Catherine Holly, played with busty emotion by Elizabeth Taylor, Hepburn does add sympathetic touches to her portrayal (as any fine craftswoman would). Still, she doesn’t shy away from the uncontrollably evil nature of her character, ultimately creating a detailed look at a society matron compelled to carry out one of celluloid history’s more heinous acts.
Based on Tennessee Williams’ grotesque one act play, Hepburn’s own androgyny adds to the overriding gay mystique this piece offers up, as well. The screenplay here was not only adapted by queer literary icon Gore Vidal, but co-star Montgomery Clift, a performer whose sexual attraction to men has been well documented in various books on film history, gives it an inclusive vibe, as well.
Nicely, horror lovers on all sides of the spectrum can appreciate the visual background for the first meeting of the characters played by Clift and Hepburn. As Venable lays out her plans while walking through the mondo crazed garden of her estate, viewers can almost feel its macabre presence, entering them into a world akin to the twisted creations of Clive Barker and HR Giger.
LGBTQIA fans, though, will be glad that characters like Sebastian Venable, the unseen homosexual son of Venable who controls the plot from beyond his grave, are becoming rarer and rarer. A twisted individual who used both Hepburn’s grand dame and Taylor’s innocent minx, his is an example of the other at it’s most perverse, another artifact of how our community was considered to be akin to chosen sickness and disease for decades.
Hepburn, meanwhile, embraced the eccentricity of roles like Eleanor of Aquitaine (The Lion in Winter) and Countess Aurelia (The Madwoman of Chaillot) in the coming decades, but never again reached the divine fervor of her exquisite, unapproachable work here.
Until the next time, SWEET love and pink GRUE, Big Gay Horror Fan!