In “Visual Pleasure in 1959,” his virtuosic reading of Suddenly, Last Summer (dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1959), D. A. Miller explicates the means by which the image of the homosexual in the text, the doomed Sebastian Venable, is displaced onto the body of Elizabeth Taylor, playing his traumatized cousin Catherine. According to Miller, Suddenly, Last Summer is not only about a love that dare not speak its name but also about a love that dare not show its face: we only glimpse Sebastian in blurry flashbacks, and always from behind (see below). Taylor’s Catherine thus acts as Sebastian’s front in more ways than one; she “procures” male lovers for him using bait-and-switch tactics, just as her body, seen head-on, becomes the verso to Sebastian’s recto.
Miller’s reading is so dazzling that it seems impossible to put forth a queer reading that could top it—so I won’t try. But I will suggest an additional way in which the film makes a queer substitution for the obscene (literally “off-screen”) figure of Sebastian. We should note that there is at least one other homosexual in this text: namely, Montgomery Clift, playing the doctor who, by playing detective, effectively unravels the mystery surrounding Sebastian’s death. More so than his fellow queer actors Farley Granger and John Dall, Clift spent his career avoiding material that might give the lie to his own homosexuality, but it turns out that he himself becomes the victim of a funny sort of bait-and-switch in Suddenly, Last Summer by being made a stand-in for Sebastian.
Internet rumors persist in claiming that Clift actually did stand in for Sebastian during the flashback sequences, though publicity stills suggest that Sebastian was, in fact, played by a different actor who remains to be credited (pictured, bottom). Nevertheless, characters keep taking Dr. Cukrowicz for the late Sebastian. “Such extraordinary eyes—so like his,” muses Sebastian’s devoted mother Violet, gazing at Cukrowicz; later, she invites him to have a seat in what used to be Sebastian’s chair. When characters aren’t confusing Cukrowicz with Sebastian, they’re trying to make a retroactive match between them. “I almost said you must meet my son Sebastian,” Violet tells Cukrowicz, as if she herself were still in the business of procuring lovers for her son. Populated as the film is by more than one woman with a thing for gay men, Clift becomes the de facto gay man toward whom their sexual energies get directed; they man-handle him as if by doing so they’re able to get in touch with Sebastian’s own body. Catherine can’t stop throwing herself at him, and at the end of the film Violet not only caresses him (see above), she actually speaks to him in her madness as Sebastian. Thus the queerness of a film like Suddenly, Last Summer seeps even into its most fervent attempts to ward it off. Much like the imaginary “truth serum” with which Catherine imagines herself being injected, the queer presence at work in the film seems to bring out the gay man in everyone.