Medicine in the Movies Blogathon: Suddenly Last Summer (1959)

What an intriguing topic: Medicine in the movies.  I must confess that my knowledge in this field is limited beyond that as a patient under a doctor’s care.  So, I want to thank Charlene from Charlene’s (Mostly) Classics for hosting this Blogathon; since, it has allowed me to add some knowledge to what little I already knew.

In addition to acquiring a bit more knowledge, I’ve been given a rare opportunity to view one of my favorite movies, Suddenly Last Summer (1959) in a completely different light. This time my focus is not just mindless pleasure; but, a analytical view concerning the illnesses and the cures within the movie itself.

Before, I was only in awe of this wonderfully crafted film with a sublime cast (Katherine Hepburn, Montgomery Cliff, and Elizabeth Taylor), based on an one act play written by Pulitzer Prize winner Tennessee Williams (Streetcar Named Desire, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof), screen play written by famed author Gore Vidal (Lincoln, Myra Breckinridge), directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz  (The Philadelphia Story, All About Eve, Cleopatra …), and produced by Sam Spielgel (On The Waterfront, Lawrence of Arabia, African Queen …).  It is a beautiful, artistic movie enriched with Southern American gothic overtones and set in the Garden District of New Orleans.

The Story

The Venables are the wealthiest family in New Orleans.  Violet Venable (Katharine Hepburn) is the matriarch of the Venable family and fortune along with her only son, Sebastian, who had died “Suddenly Last Summer” in 1937. Violet and her son, are extremely close, perhaps even suffocating. For years, they took all their vacations together.  People referred to them as “Vie and Sebastian” and not as mother and son. Sebastian was a sensitive poet who only wrote one unpublished poem a year; and, he wrote it only on his vacations with his Mother. Vie kept Sebastian’s collection of annual poems; until, they were to be published after his death, assuming his mother would survive him.

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Sebastian sensitivities only allowed him to be surrounded by beautiful people and things. He literally grew a wild jungle of natural beauty attached to their mansion in the center of town.  Buried in the center of this jungle, lies Sebastian’s  lovely studio. Vie refers to the jungle as the “Creation, before the dawn of man.”

After Vie has a stroke, the left side of her face is slightly “disfigured.” She has a slight tremble on that side. As a result, Sebastian decided she was not able to vacation with him that summer; so, he asked his beautiful, but poor cousin, Cathy (Elizabeth Taylor) to travel abroad with him instead. He paid for everything.  He even had dresses made for her when they travelled to Paris.

It was on a private beach in Spain that Sebastian had a “heart attack” and died. It was during his heart attack that Cathy has a nervous breakdown and must be escorted back to the states with a nurse. Vie has her placed at St. Mary’s Home for the Mentally Ill to try to help her with her mental break down. Poor Cathy, she keeps “bubbling obscene things” or “unspoken things” to Vie about her recently deceased son.  Vie is at her own breaking point with losing her only child and dealing with her own health problems. As luck will happen, she sees a community announcement in the paper from Lions View State Mental Hospital. A neurosurgeon is conducting a “new” procedure to the brain. However, the hospital has fallen into disrepair; and, there is not enough money to accommodate the 1,200 people who could benefit from this miraculous procedure called a lobotomy.

Violet sends the Head Director (Albert Dekker) of the state hospital a letter announcing her intention of setting up a million dollar memorial foundation in Sebastian’s name on the hospital grounds with the condition that she must meet with this young doctor Cukrowicz (Montgomery Cliff) and be assured that he can perform this new technique on her sick relative. Just like the Queen’s command performance, the doctor agrees to meet with her that very day.

Cukrowicz first hears Violent’s distinctive voice addressing him as she descends on an elaborate elevator in her mansion.  Even before she technically sees him, she is describing to him what Sebastian thought and liked about the Byzantine Empire. This is the first time I ever heard the words Byzantium and Byzantine used in the same sentence correctly. She explains to the doctor that unlike the Byzantine Emperor who ascends on his throne during an audience; she descends since it is much more democratic.  Instinctively, I laugh at this; but, I am not sure she meant it as a joke. As Violet gives the doctor her hand, she stumbles on his name. He pronounces his name, Cukrowicz, and explains it is polish word for sugar.  She then refers to him as Doctor Sugar.  Again, I laugh; but I was still not sure if she is being coy or condescending towards his polish heritage. Violet continues her one woman monologue as she bizarrely refers to her son likes and dislikes, his various views and his unique artistic abilities.

She leads the doctor into “The Jungle” where he witnesses Violet feeding flies to a plant, a Venus Fly Trap. The doctor looks shocked and amazed when he comments that this garden is “unexpected.” During their discussion, Violet revels two very important beliefs she now shared with her son. Since the gentle peace loving dinosaurs died off because they would not eat flesh, the world was left to the carnivores who did survive (Gators, lizards, cockroaches…) “and always do.”  The second belief she now shared with her son is that nature is cruel.  On one of their shared vacations, on the Galapagos Islands, Sebastian witnessed baby turtles being devoured by hungry birds.  The babies were too slow to escape the beach and flee into the ocean. The birds were trapped by their hunger and fed on the newest creations. Sebastian claims he saw the salvage face of God as the birds devoured these little baby turtles. Violet believes “killers inherit the earth; they always do.”

I know what you are thinking, this is pretty messed up thinking. However, the idea that “survival of the fittest” was and is still taught in schools today.  As a philosophical social teaching, it has influenced good and bad people for over 150 years, along with books like The Prince and The Art of War.

Finally, the doctor steers the discussion back to Cathy and what is wrong with her. Violet tells him her diagnosis is Dementian Praecox. As soon as he hears this term he tries repeatedly to explain that is just a general term that is meaningless and not a specific diagnosis.  Violet ignores his his comments.

Instead, she tells him how much she liked the way he described the new procedure in the newspaper article: A sharp knife To the mind kills the Devil in the soul. Even the doctor looked a bit embarrassed and admitted that he got carried away in describing it. Violet said it almost sounded poetic and reminded her of Sebastian ‘s “art in using people.” The doctor denies using people.  He claims that he is trying to help people. She further suggests that this technique gives the hopeless and unapproachable a chance for peace. She asks the doctor: Does it not? The doctor is very careful with his wording: it can bring peace but there is great risk and the patient will always be limited.  Violet replies: “What a blessing!  To suddenly be at peace ending the horrors and the nightmares.”

Violet pressures the doctor to commit to doing the surgery on her niece. He insists on meeting and establishing a correct diagnosis with Cathy before he gives his word to do the procedure. Violet tells the doctor that Cathy has fits of violence with hallucinations.  She even accused an elderly gardener of having sex with her. When the gardener was questioned, he denied it and said she made advances to him. Saint Mary’s decided Cathy could not stay there any longer; since,  they felt they could not give her the help she needed.

Later, at Saint Mary’s Mental hospital, the doctor observes Cathy interaction with one of the nuns as she is waiting for the meeting to begin with him. Cathy finds a pack of hidden cigarettes and begins puffing away. The nun demands the cigarette with an open hand. Cathy begs her to allow to finish the smoke. The nun becomes more insistent.  Cathy angrily thrusts the lit cigarette in her open hand.  The nun screams ands Cathy cries that she is sorry; but, she is so sick of being bullied. The doctor dismisses the nun and tells her to get medical attention for her hand.

During this first meeting, the doctor learns Cathy lost much of her memory before Spring of that year. He learns she is sane and totally cognizant of her surrounding. She explains she did falsely accused the hospital gardener of molesting her because that is what insane people do. He learns that she is charming and more importantly,  she is not hopeless.

Cukrowicz has her transferred to the Lions View, the state hospital where he works. He allows her to wear her own clothes and share a room with the nurses.  He wants her to trust him and feel as free as possible under hospital conditions. All goes well until Cathy’s mom and brother show up to tell her Sabastian left his fortune the their side of the family.

However, Aunt Vie is contesting the Will unless they agree to sign the papers to have a lobotomy done to Cathy.  They just came by to tell her the “good” news that they signed the papers and the inheritance will not be tied up in probate court. Her brother assures her that the surgery is nothing more than “like your getting her tonsils taken out.”  How any intelligence fell from this Darwin family tree is beyond me.

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Let’s just say Cathy did not take it well. There is an attempted suicide, more therapy, and some revelations about the family beliefs.  Love is being used by someone you love. No sane person can hate.  Hate is not being used.  A sane person cannot hate. The doctor also learns the real reason Sebastian took his mother or Cathy with him to vacation: He used them as “bait to procure” men and boys.  Remember homosexuality was considered an illness in the 50s. According to Cathy,  Sebastian would refer to people like food on a menu: that one looks delicious or I am famished for blondes. According to Vie, Sebastian was chaste.

Finally, the doctor with find more answers with the aid of socpolamine hydrobromide (truth serum).  During a budding romance between the doctor and Cathy, there are more family’s revelations discovered and finally,  an absolute shocking death scene. How this movie ever passed the movie moral codes of the 1950s is a miracle in and of itself. Everything is implied; but, it does not need interpretation for the mature audience.  I hope you see this classic, if you haven’t seen it. My only complaint is that it is a bit too long: one hour and fifty six minutes to be precise. So, be prepared to take a short break or two.

What  I learned

1) Tennessee Williams based this one act play, like many of his plays, on his personal life. He was raised in staunch puritanical home. This is a home where his own homosexuality would never be accepted.  He went through years of psychoanalysis to cure his homosexuality, depression, anxiety, and paranoia. While away at school, his sister, Rose, started to babble “unthinkable things” about their father.  His mother had her institutionalized where she was lobotomized. It forever silenced and incapacitated her. Williams always felt guilty that he was not there to stop it. He never forgave himself or his parents. His play “The Glass Menagerie” was written with her in mind. Williams’ sister Rose reminds me of another sister who name was Rose: Rosemary Kennedy who was President John F. Kennedy’s sister.  Rosemary was a shy and easygoing child but grew up to be a rebellious and moody teenager.  When she reached the age of 23, she had a lobotomy that left her with the mentality of an infant. She spent most of her life institutionalized.  The Special Olympics was founded in her name.

2) Lobotomy is a surgery that uses a thin brain needle (ice pick) that is inserted into the frontal lobe of the brain. It causes permanent brain damage. The United States has conducted over 50,000 of these operations between 1946 and 1956 on record. That is the most surgeries done than in any other country. It was used as a “cure” for anything from depression, compulsive disorders, epilepsy, schizophrenia etc…

3) Frontal Lobe is the part of the brain that controls:

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Some have referred to a lobotomy as “Soul Surgery.”  In many countries, it is illegal.  Some like the United Kingdom still perform a few of them under extreme conditions. It is said that a successful lobotomy alters the emotional state. However, it never improves cognitive abilities; but, it can make them worst.

3) American Actress Frances Farmer did not have a lobotomy.  Her biographer lied. She was scheduled to have it done; but, her father intervened and put a stop to it. She did suffer from acute alcoholism which led to being institutionalize several times during her life. Alcoholism destroyed her career and life.

Behind The Scenes

Montgomery Cliff was in a serious car crash in 1956.  He should have died from his injuries. Thankfully, he did not; but, he was left with multiple surgeries over the span of his life to fix his damaged body. This led him to alcoholism and addiction to prescription drugs.  He was in constant pain for years after this accident.  Because of that, he could not physically work for long periods of time.  He needed constant breaks.  Apparently, the Director and Producer hated him for this; and, they might have been a homophobes too.  They were extremely condescending and  demeaning to him.  Katherine Hepburn tried to defend him, along with Taylor. The Story goes that Hepburn was so annoyed with the director that when the film was finished, she stood up and walked in front of him; then, she spat in his face.  I always liked the grit in Hepburn.

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There so much more that could be written about this film’s medical issues and the presumably cures; but, that cannot be done adequately in a one blog format. So, I hope you too view this film with a fresh pair of eyes and discover more medicine that I have missed. This film does provide a Hollywood romance and happy ending.  It it not so dark to depress the audience; but, it does make one contemplate many issues that arise in the movie. Just for it’s artistic elements alone, I would recommend it; but, also for a bit of history and the medical mindset of the 50s too.

For more blogs on medicine in the movies, please use the link below:

https://charsmoviereviews.wordpress.com

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References:

http://www.cinemaqueer.com/review%20pages%202/suddenlylastsummer.html

http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0002068/bio

16 thoughts on “Medicine in the Movies Blogathon: Suddenly Last Summer (1959)

  1. Hi Katrina,Enjoyed your blog, and have watched Suddenly last summer, I love all the 3 that was stars in it. ,so heartbreaking to read it is a true story based on Tennessee Williams actually life ,had no idea of that and the medical terms, your blog is very enlightening, I knew Lobotomy,s was done back then but is shocking to find out over 50,0000 were performed in 10 years,what a scary thought that is.and didn,t know about Montgomery went through what he did during filming of the movie and so glad Katherine and Liz took up for him, terrific blog ,loved it.<3

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Sharon for the comments and thanks for reading the blog. I know it is shocking how often it was done. In some countries it is still performed. Scary thought for sure. Yeah, I have always admired Hepburn and Taylor. They knew how to speak their minds. Both were nominated for Oscars for this movie. I think this was Taylor’s best work, except in National Velvet 😊

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  2. Interesting blog. The family, in order to silence this poor girl, were willing to take away her cognitive abilities forever. She knew a scandalous secret and had to be silenced. Her family was willing to destroy her for money. I had no idea William’s own sister had a Lobotomy. How sad and tragic. I had also read about Rosemary Kennedy. What an awful thing. The father refused to allow her name to be brought up or visit her after it was done. What an awful man to destroy your child. Rpse Kennedy didn’t visit her daughter once until after the death of her husband. Makes one wonder why anyone would have chosen this procedure for their loved one. I was happy to read Frances Farmer was spared. At least her father loved her enough to stop it. Good one.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. When did you learn that about Joe Kennedy? I am saddened by how cruel he was to do that to his own daughter, his wife and the rest of the family. Some people’s ambition for power has no limits…thank you again, Debbie for taking the time to read the blog and commenting xx

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  3. I didn’t know how prevalent this procedure was used to stop unwanted behaviors. And how cruel people can be to love ones in order to be not bothered by their afflictions. Life is stranger (and sadder) than fiction. Thanks for hosting Charlene…it was very interesting topic to examine😊

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  4. Thanks Debbie
    I didn’t know that about Joe Kennedy. Wow! People sure was “different” back then. I can’t imagine a parent trying to forget their child in such a cruel way. I am glad Farmer’s father had the sense and love to stop her surgery. Thanks for commenting.😊

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  5. Interesting as usual Katrina. I don’t tend to care for Katharine Hepburn movies as she often plays dark characters .I also find Elizabeth Taylor roles when she’s young to be bizarre. I guess I like the happily ever after plots and characters. It’s hard to believe lobotomies were used so matter of factly eh? Sad but true. Guess they were setting the scene foe electroshock therapy in the 60’s.

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    1. Thanks for reading and committing on this post Joanne. Xx Hepburn can go a bit deep and dark at times but for the most part,I truly enjoy her work as an actress. It is hard to believe how far they are willing to go to find peace or to stop annoying behaviors that a family refuses to tolerate. Definitely, not something someone should have to be put through today. 😊

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    1. Thank you for reading this post and commenting😊 Please let me know what you think….yes, I have seen “Inside Daisy Clover” It too is excellent. Christopher Plummer was so good in that also. A few scenes in that film always reminded me a little of Judy Garland’s experiences on the set of The Pirate (1948), from the stories I have read. Again thanks and have a lovely Sunday.

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  6. This is a disturbing and well-acted film. Like you said, it is a little long, but that doesn’t weaken its message.

    Thanks for sharing the behind-the-scenes stories, especially the tension between Montgomery Clift and the producer & director. I didn’t realize there was so much conflict behind the scenes.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. As you know, there is always drama in the drama of making a movie. This one was particularly mean; so, I mentioned it. There is so much stress and work in making a movie. Sometimes, as an audience we forget that.
      Thanks for reading this post and committing xx🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  7. What a fantastic post, Katrina! I definetely learned a few things about brains today!
    Suddenly, Last Summer is a beautiful but sad film. All the players are outstanding, and so is the text. I never knew Williams had so many personal connections to these themes!
    Thanks for the kind comment!
    Kisses!
    Le

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Le🙂
      Thank you for your kind comments. I really learned a bit myself when viewing this film from a different perspective. I am so glad Charlene (Charlene’s mostly Classics) hosted this Blogathon.
      I liked your post too. And learned much from your comparisons of Hemmingway’s Farewell To Arms. I tried to comment to. It I couldn’t tell if it went through. Have a lovely day xx

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