Friday, November 1

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: Favorite Movie #6

1958 Drama
From MGM
Directed by Richard Brooks

Elizabeth Taylor
Paul Newman
Burl Ives
Jack Carson
Judith Anderson
Madeleine Sherwood

Why is Cat on a Hot Tin Roof number six on my 50 Favorite Films list?  Let us count the ways.  If you're a regular reader of these spectacularly exciting pages, you could name a number of reasons yourself.  You know how I drool for the drawl.  You speak suthin to me and I am so yours!  You might recall my affinity for a whole cast to be together in basically one location.  I am a fool for the written word and the words spoken in this film are among the best for any American film I can think of.  Ace screenwriter Richard Brooks and his James Poe turned out a dynamic treatment and Brooks shows why he is one of Hollywood's best directors.  It doesn't hurt that it stars two of the great glamourpusses of American films.

I am a devotee of films about families... no matter the drama, strife or dysfunction.  I love movies about love and sex and friendship and honesty and hurt and trust and respect.  I am drawn to films about the relationships of parents and their children, particularly when they are at odds.  It's something I understand.  I understand stories about favorites within a family and the destruction that usually accompanies that.  I've seen the jockeying for position within the ranks.  I think I understand a little something about those lists of casualties.  I understand about money and how the vultures in a family wait around to pick the bones of the dying.

So did Tennessee Williams... the author of the piece.  If I haven't always loved the movies based on his work, I've loved a few and taken notice of all he had to say in all his works.  If they made a movie based on something he wrote, even if it got expanded beyond anything he actually scribbled, I could be found sitting in the dark with my popcorn, getting my fair share of goosebumps knowing the great playwright was somehow involved.  And I stand tall as I tell you that Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is the best thing ol' Tennessee ever wrote.

It became a highly-touted, highly-attended, Pulitzer Prize-winning play starring Barbara Bel Geddes and Ben Gazzara who played Maggie and Brick.  She is Maggie the Cat... yeah, the one on that roof.  There's Big Daddy and Big Momma, Brick's parents.  There's  Brick's older brother, Gooper (Gooper?!?!) and his pregnant wife, Mae, or Sister Woman, as some call her, and their brood of no-neck monsters.

As Tennessee would say, it was a work about mendacity... lies and liars.  Boy oh boy, did those who crossed my path in 1958 wonder what in the hell I was talking about, at my age, using that word.  What a brat to put an adult in the position of living the definition by pretending they knew what I was talking about.  Thanks Tennessee.

The story begins and ends on one day at the family plantation where the Pollitt tribe has gathered to celebrate Big Daddy's birthday.  The patriarch is returning the same day from a stay at a cancer clinic where he's been given a clean bill of health.  It is a lie.  Gooper and Mae know the truth and they are laying the groundwork to take over.

But this work is more about the younger brother, the alcoholic Brick, and his love-starved wife, Maggie the cat, and it shines a light on why the rancor in their marriage has reached the point it has.  The film begins with the boozy Brick jumping hurdles on a high school track and breaking his leg.  He spends the entire rest of the film in a cast and therefore not able to remove himself very quickly from the intense dialogue swirling around him, often directed at him and frequently due to him.  Most everyone in this film has a bone to pick with one or more of the others.

It also greatly concerns Big Daddy, just about as strong a movie character that's ever been written, and his hold on his family. 

In addition to lies, the work deals with greed, family rivalry, emotional failings and secrets... all something Williams knew about.  Like most writers worth their salt, he wrote about what he knew.  Secrets were a part of a number of his plays.

The play was opened up a bit for the film by offering a few outdoor scenes but basically all the action takes place in the house.  No matter that the large house and the immediate grounds were on an MGM sound stage, standing in for Mississippi. 

An initial indoor scene, or really three of them, takes place in the guest bedroom occupied by Brick and Maggie.  The first scene features them alone hassling over a number of things but chiefly his coldness towards her and her alternately begging for some affection and displaying fury because she can't budge him from his boozy ivory tower.

A chief character in the story, as anyone who has seen the film is well aware, is never seen.  He is Skipper and he has died before the story opens.  He's a mystery but what we do know is he was a football buddy of Brick's (they played on a farm team together), they were very fond of one another, and Skipper commits suicide which has sent Brick into a drunken spiral.  Brick feels Maggie is culpable somehow in Brick's death and holds it resolutely against her.

Back to that they were very fond of one another for a moment.  If there's a problem with this film... and I'm not sure there really is... it's that Skipper and Brick's relationship is clouded in, yep, secrecy.  The problem is that it rather stays there.  As an audience, we are left to speculate what was going on between them.  It is certainly plausible that Skipper was gay and whether he bedded Brick or not, it seems he would have, had Brick given him some hope.  We wonder if Brick is gay or bi, but we are certain he is suffering from some degree of sexual confusion.  Just ask Maggie.

Naysayers (of which I was one a long time ago) would say that the relationship (and therefore Skipper) should have been explained more.  I admit to this day I would love to have heard the words that would have tied a bow for me around their friendship but Tennessee didn't do a lot of explaining.  He showed you some of the issue and let you work it out.   

The other point to make here is this was 1958 and let me tell you in case you weren't around then, moviemakers were cautious with the horrible little Hays office running around checking on scripts, clenches, cleavage, beds and morals.  There may have been just one bed in that room, but you'd never see two people in it.  Not in 1958.  The little gray men of the production code somehow let Brick tell his wife to take a lover but they weren't about to let anyone go too far afield on who Skipper really was or what he and Brick might have been doing in those hotel rooms during road games.

For what it's worth figuring out Skipper isn't in the play either.  Even if writer Brooks (he often wrote and directed his movies) could have cleared this up or wanted to, it would not have happened in the Oxydol-clean fifties.  I suppose I once wanted to hear more about any possible gay angle in the film because I wanted to know the same about myself. 

It is telling during these early bedroom scenes that Brick is highly conflicted over his scorn of Maggie because when she suddenly wraps her arms around him we see him start to do the same and then he haltingly stops.  A short time later, he is in the bathroom where her nightgown is hanging on a hook and he presses his face against it.  So telling... so sad.  When Maggie steps it up about Skipper, Brick can't stand it and throws his crutch at her as he falls on the floor. 

Perhaps it is time to mention what happened to me when The Beautiful Violet Eyes met The Beautiful Blue Eyes in that bedroom.  At the time and for the rest of their lives, I was so crazy about Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor.  I have not written of him before because I did not want to give anything away about this film in advance.  I could never write about Newman without waxing eloquent about Cat.  I don't think he ever looked more gorgeous.  He was early in his career here and needed a hit, which this most definitely was.  And God knows he has one of the most impressive bodies of work ever.  His really great work in great films started here.  Yes, I know he was wonderful in Somebody Up There Likes Me and The Long, Hot Summer, filmed before Cat, but neither film shines as much as Newman himself, which Cat does.

I have always said Elizabeth Taylor could be a fabulous actress... one of the best actually... providing she had a good script and a good director.  Taylor was not a trained actress but she was an instinctive one.  Her best work was in the 50s and I feel Cat is the best of her best during that decade.  She has become rather identified with Tennessee Williams and he provided her with some wonderful dialogue.  She had worked with Brooks four years earlier in The Last Time I Saw Paris and he knew exactly what to do with her. 

When one couples this with the fact that one week into production, Taylor's husband, producer Mike Todd, was killed in a plane crash, it's astonishing that she would continue through such a punishing script.  For sure, none of the characters in Cat is very happy, so it must have been grueling to not take the long hiatus she was offered.  Here's a cast picture shortly after Todd's funeral:

Burl Ives contributed to the success of this film as much as its two glamorous stars because the role of Big Daddy is simply towering in its presentation.  He certainly had the physical presence and that folk singer's voice could shake the rafters when required and that face, when flushed with anger, could make a Hun tremble.  I thought his scenes in the basement, as he's coming to terms with some truths, shifting from one emotional stance to another, were beyond brilliant.  And despite his playing the role on Broadway (as did Sherwood for Sister Woman), he wasn't even nominated for an Oscar... one of the Academy's frequent really stupid moves.  But here's one for the trivia book.  Ives did win a supporting Oscar the same year for another role, that of the blustery but impoverished rancher in The Big Country.  He was wonderful, too, in that film but I will never ever believe that he didn't really win for Cat

When he and the others join Brick and Maggie in the bedroom, we get to realize what scoundrels most of them are.  Big Momma is an exception and Maggie is a basically decent woman (although she, too, would like a large chunk of the fortune when the old man passes) but the others are all unclean.  When most of those in the room have left, Big Momma fusses over Big Daddy as he continually hassles with Brick.  As their son listens, Big Daddy annihilates the weaker Big Momma, takes her down like a deer in the crosshairs, and while very well-written, it is so hard to watch.  (Tennessee knew some cruel people.)

Arguably my favorite scene comes next when Brick and Big Daddy take their dueling into the study where the older man is riding Brick about his drinking, his treatment of Maggie and Skipper and what happened on that fateful night when he died.  When Big Daddy asks about Maggie's involvement with Skipper, Brick summons her to the study.  (In the play, Maggie sleeps with Skipper, but not in the film.)  She lets loose with some truths Brick would never have listened to if they were alone.

Maggie, who had been with Skipper for awhile on his fateful night, knew that he was hurting... from drink, the loss of a game and Brick's absence from that game.  After she left, Skipper phoned  Brick from his hotel room but Brick, in disgust of how Skipper was acting, hung up.  When Skipper called back, Brick didn't answer.  It was then that Skipper killed himself.  Big Daddy then asks Brick  why did Skipper kill himself?

Because somebody let him down, Brick says, with the Newman face filling the screen and tears running out of those baby blues... a heart-breaking scene.  Scene-for-scene in scores of films, the actor has never been better. 

Having his usual hard time hearing the truth, Brick flees to his convertible with Big Daddy trailing right behind him.  And they act their hearts out in the film's pivotal scene:

A doctor who has now come to treat Big Daddy delivers the film's best comic line.  Gooper says off-handedly to the doctor... you got a pill to make the pain disappear?  And the doctor, as he is shutting the door to leave, delivers a scolding I wish I had a pill to make people disappear.

As the pain stabs at the crusty patriarch, father and son retreat to the basement, among the dusty, forgotten souvenirs, where they start to heal.  It is apparent that Brick has suddenly learned what he needed to learn and after a rousing, angry time together, both learn about love and forgiveness and redemption.  The basement scene is provocative and while every moment of it may not ring true, the basics are there and the acting utterly riveting.  I loved the tender touch of Brick calling his old man Papa during this time instead of the customary Big Daddy.

Now it's time to join the others in the study for the film's finale.  Sherwood delivers some of her bitchiest and wittiest lines.  Her absence on the best supporting actress list is also unforgiveable.  Apologies to the wonderful Wendy Hiller, the winner for Separate Tables.  Judith Anderson, in the least showy part as Big Momma, provides a heart-breaking tug as she finds out the truth about her husband's health.  As the two men walk into a room of squabbling,  Big Daddy ask Brick if he notices that smell, that smell of mendacity.

The film ends nicely with Brick taking Maggie up to their bedroom and tossing that pillow on the bed.  We are happy for them.  I wish I could stay.

One has come to know these characters so well... they are real flesh and blood characters.  The writing, acting and situations fill our nostrils with panting excitement.  Well, at least my nostrils.  But despite the ending, I am certain their issues will go on.  Big Daddy will die, Big Mama will cry and then probably go to Europe and buy more souvenirs, Gooper and Mae will bemoan their checkbook status showing no improvement and they will still have those no-neck monsters to contend with.  Brick and Maggie will endure.  They will be richer and smarter, get laid more and still fight just as much.

One final thing regarding Oscars.  We've already noted that Ives and Sherwood weren't even nominated.  Who did get nominated were Taylor and Newman, director Brooks, co-writer Brooks, William Daniel's intimate cinematography and the film itself.  And no winners!!!  What?  I tell myself that voters had a hard time choosing between Taylor and Susan Hayward for her dazzling turn in I Want to Live but David Niven won for Separate Tables over Newman? 

It is interesting to note that after this film, Taylor began filming another Tennessee Williams' work, Suddenly Last Summer, and Newman returned to Broadway to star in the playwright's newest offering, Sweet Bird of Youth.  And one year in the future Taylor would star in a TV production of Sweet Bird.

I've heard Newman speak of Taylor on TCM in one of those tribute segments one actor does for another.  He called her a voluptuary, another new word for me. He speaks of how much he loved and respected her and what a grand experience it was working with her.  It always makes me smile seeing that segment because it reminds me of how much I love this film and each of them.  I have always regretted they never worked together again.  He may have said that.  What a bummer they didn't.  Maybe in something where they were mainly undressed and kissin' and stuff...

Happy Birthday to Us

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