Judge Brendan Babish fondly remembers a time when Elizabeth Taylor was young and innocent and only been married three times.
Our reviews of Best of Warner Bros. 20 Film Collection: Romance (published April 17th, 2013) and TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: Romantic Dramas (published February 19th, 2009) are also available.
This is Maggie the Cat…
Cat On a Hot Tin Roof is the cinematic adaptation of Tennessee Williams' Pulitzer Prize-winning play of dipsomania, sexual frustration and family dysfunction in the humid, sweaty South. Though the movie is widely considered to be a classic, Williams famously denounced the film upon its release. So, who's right, the general public or the playwright?
Facts of the Case
Brick (Paul Newman, Slapshot) and Gooper (Jack Carson) are the sons of the obnoxiously rich Harvey "Big Daddy" Pollitt (Burl Ives). Gooper, the elder son, has dutifully found employment as a lawyer and spawned three children. Brick, the younger and favored son, found fleeting glory in athletics, but now, at age 30, is a sexuality ambivalent alcoholic. His wife, Maggie (Elizabeth Taylor, Butterfield 8), loves her despondent husband, but her affections only seem to inflame his ire. She has also earned the enmity of Brick's extended family by failing to produce any progeny.
When "Big Daddy" gets diagnosed with an inoperable malignant tumor, Gooper and Brick, with wives in tow, flock back to the estate. While Mr. and Mrs. Gooper both work to charm their way into Big Daddy's will, Brick seems content to hole himself up in the bedroom and drink. Maggie must somehow get her husband to put down the bourbon, reconcile with his emotionally distant father and, if it's not too much trouble, satisfy her sexual needs. Well, at least that last one shouldn't be too hard. This is Elizabeth Taylor we're talking about here.
Though it was a massive success upon its release in 1958, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was also highly controversial. This was largely due to the film's frank portrayal of sexuality, sexual ambiguity, and family dysfunction. In an early scene, Maggie pleads for Brick to take her to bed and describes, however obliquely, his satisfying sexual technique. Later, when Maggie describes Brick's close friendship with former teammate Skipper, she implies, again obliquely, a homosexual tryst. While provocative storylines may have turned off conventional viewers in 1958, in the 21st century it is the movie's honest depiction of these very human situations that keep it relevant.
But make no mistake, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof does not remain relevant purely because of its raciness. In the past few decades the stakes of family dysfunction have been raised so high that an alcoholic, possibly gay son and his sex-starved wife barely raise an eyebrow. What elevates Cat on a Hot Tin Roof beyond mere tawdriness are its powerful performances and a brilliant script largely culled from Williams's play.
Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman both entered their prime with this movie. Taylor was just 26 years old, though she had been making films since she was 12. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof provided an opportunity for the actress, who previously had starred in family fare such as National Velvet, to move into more adult and mature projects. Taylor seized the opportunity and turned in one of the best performances of her career. She was so determined to succeed in this role she refused to drop out even after her husband, Michael Todd, died in a plane crash shortly after filming began. Oh, and she looks unbelievably lusty here. For those younger viewers whose Elizabeth Taylor frame-of-reference comes from the Larry Fortensky years (or beyond), bring a drool towel because she looks good.
Paul Newman brings an equal amount of passion to his portrayal of Brick. Newman, who is almost too pretty to play a booze hound, spends the first half of the movie merely spurning Taylor's sexual entreaties—which is no small feat. However, he shines in the film's second half, namely in a series of confrontational scenes between Brick and Big Daddy. In an era when youthful revolt was born, the moment Brick shoves over Big Daddy's priceless European vases and shouts, "Waste! Waste!" has every right to be as iconic as James Dean's classic "You're tearing me apart!" line from Rebel Without a Cause.
Burl Ives, who achieved fame as a genial, rotund folk singer, effectively played against type as the bloated and arrogant Southern patriarch, Big Daddy. Equal credit for the blistering scenes between Brick and his father must go to Ives, who manages to humanize this gruff character enough to equally repel and attract the audience.
However, ultimate credit for the film's success has to go to Tennessee Williams. He created a play that is both brilliantly crafted and populated with beautiful Southern prose. Much of this is preserved for the film, and near every scene contains multiple bon mots which each character delivers seemingly effortlessly.
After the film's release, Williams strongly denounced it and asked that his name be removed from the credits. Still, prospective viewers should not be scared off; this is still very much a Tennessee Williams production. Much of Williams's disgust was brought about due to the filmmakers removing the more obvious references to Brick's possible homosexual relationship with Scooter. While one can debate the artistic merits of the excising, the reality is that 1958 movie audiences were nowhere near ready to accept a movie about a young, gay sports hero. Additionally, one wonders what brave young actor would have been dumb enough to take on the role. (I doubt Newman's agent would have allowed the young heartthrob to play gay). Still, though the clues are muted, they are still evident for attentive viewers. And ultimately, in the play as well as the movie, Brick's sexuality is meant to be ambiguous.
Though there have subsequently been two made-for-television versions of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, I feel confident proclaiming this the ultimate recorded version of Tennessee Williams's play (regardless of what he thinks).
Though the movie is nearly 50 years old, the bright, vibrant print Warner Bros. has used for the DVD belies the film's age. Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor probably never looked better than they do on this DVD. There is also a commentary track from Tennessee Williams biographer Donald Spoto, who is informative, engaging and has an infectious enthusiasm for his subject. Then there is the new featurette, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: Playing Cat and Mouse. This is a drab mini-doc on the making of the film, and only provides a much-abbreviated history of the film, especially compared to Spoto's exhaustive analysis. Feel free to skip it.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
One of the few drawbacks of this classic film is its unconvincing portrayal of alcoholism—or, more specifically, drunkenness. In older films it is not uncommon to see a character drink alcohol. It is, however, somewhat rare to see a character actually drunk; by drunk I mean slurred speech, loss of balance, etc. In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof Brick is a seeming endless repository for booze. Yet the alcohol seems to have little effect on his motor skills. Instead, it merely makes him more melodramatic and, strangely enough, less attracted to Elizabeth Taylor. And Tennessee Williams thought the filmmakers took out his references to Brick's homosexuality.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is just one of six films being re-released as part of a Tennessee Williams box set. The other films, all adaptations of a Williams play, included in the set are:
Anyone who is serious about film, or even the theater, is highly encouraged to watch these films. And Cat on a Hot Tin Roof wouldn't be a bad place to start.
Judge Brendan Babish finds the movie not guilty. Now he's got to go take a cold shower.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary by Biographer Donald Spoto, Author of The Kindness of Strangers: The Life of Tennessee Williams
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