Magnum photographers have, over more than seven decades, captured pivotal moments in popular culture as much as historic events and societal sea changes. Working behind the scenes on sets of many classic films, they have captured not only iconic stars at various stages of their careers, but also documented the changing nature of cinema and film production. Sets, equipment, and special effects that once seemed futuristic are, with the passing of time rendered disarmingly romantic.
Here, we look at Burt Glinn’s work on the set of the Southern gothic, Suddenly Last Summer, which led to the nomination of both Katherine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor for the Academy Award for Best Actress. A selection of images, made on the set of Suddenly Last Summer, are available as fine prints on the Magnum Shop, here.
You can see other stories in the Magnum On Set series, here.
In 1959, Magnum photographer Burt Glinn set foot on the production of Joseph Mankiewicz’s Suddenly Last Summer, adapted for the screen by Gore Vidal from Tennessee Williams’ 1958 one-act play of the same name. Glinn’s work on the set of the movie – a Southern Gothic drama following a young socialite traumatized by her cousin’s mysterious and violent death (last summer) – offers a window onto a production that was fraught with tension.
Little went according to plan during the production, which took place between May and September that year. Elizabeth Taylor was reportedly behind the hiring of Montgomery Clift, an actor the studio hadn’t originally considered for the film. At the time, Clift was self-medicating on drugs and alcohol because of a car crash three years earlier. The director allegedly asked producer Sam Spiegel to fire the actor several times, due to his jittery performance. Taylor, in so many words, reportedly said, “If he goes I go”. According to Clift’s biography, Katherine Hepburn was so disgusted with Mankiewicz’s treatment of him during theproduction that the moment the film was in the can, and her service was no longer required, she spat in the director’s face.
Glinn followed the cast and crew from Shepperton Studios in London to S’Agaro in Spain, photographing the actors both off camera and mid-scene. He captured then 25-year-old Taylor in intimate moments – stretching in her dressing room at Shepperton, kissing her new husband, Eddie Fisher, on a Spanish beach. At the time, Taylor was the biggest box office draw in Hollywood, and this was her first film following the death of her third husband, Mike Todd, in a plane crash.
Despite the on-set disputes, and despite the mixed bag of reviews (the New York Times said “it should have been left to the off-Broadway stage”), both Hepburn and Taylor received nominations for the Academy Award for Best Actress.
A selection of images from the set of Suddenly Last Summer are available as fine prints on the Magnum Shop, here.