Wednesday, August 31, 2011

CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF (1958): “Lies and Mendacity”

It’s not often that we could say that a Tennessee Williams play turned movie would give the viewer a break from reality, but what poses as reality on television in the movies is so stultifying that we need to escape it by watching something with intelligent content.  For all of its melodrama, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof seems more authentic than all of the dramas being paraded across theatres as entertainment.  With Liz Taylor playing Maggie and Paul Newman playing Brick, we would think we’d be viewing a classic Hollywood romance.  Yet it is Burl Ives as Big Daddy that gives the film substance.  Big Daddy barrels through the lives of his sons and his wife in such a manner that we barely recognize until the end of this 108 minute film that he is the most emotionally stable character in the film.  Big Daddy’s son Brick drinks while Brick’s wife, Maggie, nags her husband to change.  Big Daddy’s other son, Gooper (Jack Carson), craves the affection of his father and is jealous of the attention Big Daddy pays towards Brick.  Gooper is married to Mae (Madeline Sherwood), who seems only interested in receiving an inheritance from Big Daddy when the old man dies.  One has the feeling that Mae is hoping this will occur very soon.  And finally there is Big Mama (Judith Anderson), the wife of Big Daddy, who has long endured the tirades of Big Daddy and has no idea how to please her husband.

Big Daddy and Big Mama know there are problems in the marriage of Brick and Maggie since the couple has not delivered to them a grandchild.  Big Momma accurately perceives that the lack of a grandchild is not due to infertility but rather Brick’s lack of desire to sleep in the same bed as Maggie.  Now in the original play, Brick was plagued by homosexual desires.  In the tamed down film version, it’s just that Brick cannot admit his best friend in high school (who ended up committing suicide) was actually a failure as a man.  Apparently, in 1958, a blockbuster film could not be made with any inference of homosexual desire.  Ultimately, this leaves a gaping hole in an otherwise well done movie.

Anyway, Big Daddy comes to the rescue.  Though suffering from cancer (kept hidden from Big Daddy until Brick crudely reveals the prognosis), Big Daddy provides Brick with an example of facing up to all of the “lies and mendacity” that the remainder of the family tries to thwart upon him.  Gooper in the end even admits that the example of his father is more important to him than any estate.  Inspired, Brick takes Maggie to bed and we can presume that a child will soon be born to the couple.  Big Daddy then takes Big Mama on his last look around of his vast estate.

There is a problem with the film with such major quarrels and resentments being resolved so neatly by the overbearing father.  The director, Richard Brooks, and the screenwriter, James Poe, so drastically altered the script of the original play that one wonders why everyone in the film is basically screaming at each other from beginning to almost the end of the movie.   The theme of the film is simple: at some point we need to quit lying to each other.  With each lie, our problems are only exasperated.  Unfortunately, I would say there is something disingenuous in presenting a theme in this way while the filmmakers shy away from a major theme in the Tennessee Williams’ play. 

Elia Kazan did a similar thing in A Streetcar Named Desire, another Tennessee Williams play filmed in 1951, where the seduction of a young man by Blanche and the sexual attraction of Stella and Stanley are suppressed in the film.  Yet nevertheless, Streetcar remains one of the greatest movies ever filmed because so much more was revealed in this film than anything ever released in Hollywood before.  Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is not that good because the storyline is so changed. What saves the film is that each actor plays his or her character so well that we believe the antagonism to be real for whatever reason that it was brought on.  Maggie, despite looking so lovely, often comes across as shrill.  The two sons understandably are frightened by their father’s dominance and seem unable to ever please him.  And Big Daddy is repulsed by the dishonesty of his family – the family in this case representing society in general.

August 31, 2011

©  Robert S. Miller 2011