Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Avon Productions/MGM, 1958)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, made by MGM in 1958 and based on a play by Tennessee Williams that won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1955. Williams’ popularity has long perplexed me; to my mind he wrote one play, The Glass Menagerie, that actually showed some sensitivity and understanding of how normal human beings are and what makes them behave the way they do, but then — beginning with the horrendously overrated A Streetcar Named Desire — his world became so far removed from reality, so dreamlike, with his characters speaking reams of the most putrid pseudo-poetic dialogue Williams could think up for them and enacting situations that had only the most tenuous relationship to actual human psychology and behavior, that Dwight Macdonald once called his article slamming Williams, William Inge and Elia Kazan “Kazanistan, Ingeland and Williams, Tennessee.” His joke was that Williams’ and Inge’s plays and Kazan’s productions (both of Williams and Inge works and scripts by himself and others) took place in mythical realms whose inhabitants had only the vaguest resemblance to actually existing homo sapiens. Macdonald also didn’t like the way Williams’ plays “divide the Saved from the Damned with almost Calvinistic rigor” — in other words, his good guys are really, really good (though often too weak to prevail) and his bad guys are really, really bad.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof deals with the monumentally dysfunctional Pollitt family of Mississippi (though only a few hints give away the locale — it’s really the “Tennessee Williams South” and it doesn’t matter all that much which Southern U.S. state it’s nominally in), headed by Harvey “Big Daddy” Pollitt (Burl Ives) — the first name comes from the cast list and I don’t recall him being called anything other than “Big Daddy” throughout the film. (Even the legend on his hideous-looking — and transparently fake — birthday cake reads “Big Daddy” on the side.) As the film begins, Big Daddy’s son Brick (Paul Newman), a former athletic hero in high school who’s just quit his job as a sports announcer and spends his days getting drunk on Big Daddy’s booze and laying around Big Daddy’s house feeling sorry for himself, goes out and sets up some hurdles on the local high-school track where he starred Way Back When. He tries to run the hurdles again and, of course, he trips on one and either lames or breaks his leg — at least he limps for the rest of the film — and he’s also horribly mean and cruel to his incomprehensively devoted wife, Maggie (Elizabeth Taylor at the height of her fame, fortune and stunning hourglass figure). After Brick’s unfortunate encounter with a recalcitrant hurdle, the next thing we see is the preparation for Big Daddy’s 65th birthday party; he’s scheduled to fly in that day from a series of medical tests at a special clinic (he’s obviously suffering from cancer, though the “C”-word is never used on the soundtrack) and two cars drive to the airport to meet him: one driven by Maggie (alone) and one by Brick’s brother Gooper (Jack Carson, who in real life was only one year younger than his on-screen “father,” Burl Ives), Gooper’s wife May (Madeleine Sherwood) and their even more repulsive five children, who’ve been trained to welcome Big Daddy home with a Confederate flag and a bad rendition of “Dixie” on kazoos made to look like real instruments. At first Dr. Baugh (Larry Gates) lies to Big Daddy and tells him he’s fine — just suffering from a spastic colon — but the truth eventually emerges: not only does Big Daddy have cancer, it’s spread so fast he’s unlikely to last another year and in the meantime it’s going to put Big Daddy in so much pain his doctor has prescribed morphine injections — which Big Daddy, in what passes for virtue in a Tennessee Williams story, refuses because he wants to remain clear-headed until his death.

The film’s dramatic issues are Big Daddy’s impending death and his inner struggle over whom to leave his estate to — the offensive and creepy Gooper, who’s become a corporate attorney and produced five potential heirs to keep the Pollitt family name going; or Brick, whom he likes far better but worries about because he’s an alcoholic and childless. Brick is childless because he won’t have sex with his wife Maggie — itself a hard plot twist to believe if only because one’s movie-conditioned expectations are that if two such beautiful people as Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor were married to each other they’d be humping like bunny rabbits at every conceivable occasion — and it turns out, in a device which Williams was more able to be explicit about on stage than the screenwriters, Richard Brooks (who also directed) and James Poe, could be with the dregs of the Production Code still in effect, that Brick and his high-school friend Skipper had some sort of Gay crush on each other. Apparently Skipper tried to establish his hetero credentials Tea and Sympathy-style by having sex with Maggie in a hotel room after a football game in which his team, bereft of Brick’s services after he was injured in a previous game, got creamed 47 to 0 — only nothing happened except Skipper threw himself out of the hotel room and thereby fell 11 stories to a self-inflicted death. (Once again suicide is the wages of Gayness in a 1950’s movie — one more piece of evidence of how deeply Tennessee Williams hated himself and especially hated his own Gay sexual orientation.) Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a modern-seeming movie in that there’s no one in it we actually like — at one point I joked, apropos of the two virtually silent Black characters who are the Pollitts’ servants and do their jobs quietly and efficiently with no involvement in the Williams melodrama the white people are enacting around them, “You can tell this is a new Southern story — the Blacks are the only rational ones.” Cat is also one of those movies in which two plot lines are interwoven but one of them — Big Daddy’s genuinely moving contemplation of his own impending death — is far more interesting than the other, Brick’s inexplicable (at least in this Production Code-bowdlerized version) disinterest in having sex with his wife even though she’s being played by Elizabeth Taylor at the height of her violet-eyed, hourglass-figured glory before she started putting on the pounds (20 years after this movie, in a TV-movie called Repeat Performance, she looked like the Goodyear blimp stood on end).

At the end — in a happy ending Williams detested so much he told people waiting on line to see the film that they shouldn’t bother — Maggie lies to Big Daddy that Brick has indeed impregnated her, and for whatever reason (authorial fiat or the realization that now that his wife has said she’s going to have a baby he’d better do what he can to bring that about) Brick and Maggie close the door to their room in Big Daddy’s house and prepare to do the deed. The title is referenced only a couple of times — Maggie compares herself to a cat on a hot tin roof apropos of nothing else in the script (except that Williams’ audience expected the titles of his plays to be as pseudo-poetic as their dialogue) and says the victory of a cat on a hot tin roof is “just stayin’ on, I guess.” Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a movie you’d probably like if you were more attuned to Williams’ mythos than I am — and though he was already dead before the film went into production, James Dean was apparently considered for the leading role and it’s fascinating to imagine what it might have been like if he’d lived and been in it (especially since two of Dean’s three films, East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause, are also centered around clashes between an alienated young man and his father), and Charles said that while the first time he saw Cat he had been most fascinated by the Gay intimations, this time he saw it largely as a prototype of a 1960’s movie, with Brick a proto-hippie who couldn’t be less interested in Big Daddy’s estate and can’t wait to get out of there and hit the road again (the backstory is that Big Daddy’s own father was a hobo who left him nothing and he doesn’t want to make the same “mistake” with his son, who obviously identifies far more with his granddad than his dad). It’s also intimated that the reason Big Daddy loved the irresponsible Brick more than the grounded but annoying Gooper (where did Tennessee Williams get these names?) was that Gooper isn’t his biological son — his wife, inevitably called “Big Momma” (Judith Anderson, who after having played Mrs. Danvers, Medea and Lady Macbeth knew all about dysfunctional families on screen!), was four months pregnant when they married.

Ultimately Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a well-staged adaptation of a pretty pointless story that misses as many dramatic issues as it hits — Newman and Taylor were both nominated for Academy Awards but as far as I’m concerned Burl Ives (repeating a role he’d played on stage) out-acted both of them — and I can see the appeal of Tennessee Williams as a writer (his peak, the 1950’s, was also the height of the influence of Method acting, which instructed performers to delve deeply into the backstories of their characters; one reason Williams did so well in that period was he wrote scripts about characters who lived so much in their pasts they were uniquely suited for Method actors) but I really can’t share it. The previous four Williams movies had all been filmed in black-and-white, and the original plan was to do this one in monochrome too — but director Brooks decided he wasn’t going to give up the chance to put Paul Newman’s blue eyes and Liz Taylor’s violet ones on screen in color. This might not have been a bad decision if Brooks had had Douglas Sirk’s skill at using color for dramatic effect — but he didn’t; though at least there are other colors in the mix besides the green and brown that have become the default settings for modern movies, the color is pretty automatic and there’s no attempt to use color to heighten the dramatic values of the story — such as they are. It’s obviously a “quality” movie based on material that was considered “important” in the 1950’s, but its reticence about Big Issues like homosexuality, impotence and suicide makes it seem rather dated today. And Paul Newman probably had a bad case of dèja vu while making this movie because the year before he'd made one almost exactly like it, The Long Hot Summer, with his wife-to-be Joanne Woodward in Liz Taylor’s role (in fact Newman and Woodward met while making that film), Orson Welles in Burl Ives’ and William Faulkner instead of Tennessee Williams as the Southern-born story source giving the project intellectual “cred.”