Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Cat On a Hot Tin Roof

CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF                             A                    
USA  (108 mi)  1958  d: Richard Brooks

How does one drowning man help another drowning man?          —Brick (Paul Newman)

A hugely powerful work, arguably Tennessee Williams’ best play, and his personal favorite, but the playwright disowned the film version, claiming it censored some of the original power by deleting the homosexual references in the lead character.  Paul Newman, the star, also noted his disappointment with the screen adaptation, which also revises the final act.  However, even with the author’s reservations, this is a stunning film, especially memorable by the iconic performances, where each meticulously created character is forever etched in our memories.  Burl Ives as Big Daddy, the wealthy owner of 28,000 acres of the most fertile land in Mississippi, is unforgettable as the gruff speaking, big-bellied patriarch who is led to believe he has a second chance at life, that he has a clean bill of health instead of the terminal cancer he feared.  This is spectacular news on his 65th birthday, where his family has gathered at his huge plantation to celebrate.  Judith Anderson is the matriarch Big Momma, continually shamed into second class status by the iron clad rule of her overbearing husband.  Elizabeth Taylor has never looked more glamorous than as Maggie the Cat, the beautiful wife of Brick (Paul Newman), the favored son and heir to the throne, a man drowning in his own sorrows, self-pity, and plenty of liquor, disgusted at the turn of his life and disgusted with Maggie, refusing to allow her anywhere near him, despite her attempts to entice him away from the bottle.  Equally memorable are the “no-necked monsters,” the endlessly annoying, spoiled, ill-bred children of Jack Carson as Goober, the dutiful and obedient son, and Madeleine Sherwood as his perpetually pregnant wife Mae, otherwise known as Sister Woman, one of the more contemptible characters to ever hit the screen, whose proficiency at backstabbing is second to none. 

Offscreen, Elizabeth Taylor was emotionally distraught and near paralyzed from the death of her husband, Michael Todd, who died in a plane accident shortly after the birth of their child, an event that held up shooting for several weeks.  Todd actually negotiated the part for his wife with MGM, where immersing herself in the role of Maggie the Cat is reported to have saved her career, receiving the second of 4 Academy Award nominations for Best Actress in four consecutive years, and if truth be told, it is a career-defining performance worthy of a star, one that defines her as an actress, typified by her sexual allure, smoldering passion, intelligence, combativeness, and simmering restraint.  Wearing a white slip or a white cocktail dress, she exudes glamour and elegant sensuality either way, offering an extraordinary sense of urgency and even desperation about life while her husband is steeped in impotency and despair (the gay subtext makes much more sense than what is implied here).  Newman, who hops around on a single crutch after breaking his ankle, goes through several bottles of whisky in one day, enough to knock most men off their feet, but barely seems phased by it as he’s plenty coherent when he needs to be, but has no interest in sharing in the family party festivities, especially the ridiculously aggravating moments from the trained-like-monkeys children.  But that doesn’t stop the party from coming to him, where eventually he and his father confront each other’s personal disgust with all the “lies and mendacity” that consume their lives.  Their knock-down, drag-out, man to man talk is one for the ages, and comprises the central themes of the film.  It is blisteringly intense and goes through several lengthy phases, exploring the dysfunctional family component each has learned to despise. 

Both father and son go through an achingly personal transformation confronting the skeletons in their closet, but Ives’s performance is off the charts, especially after he learns the truth that he’s really dying of cancer.  His Lear-like patriarchal prominence dwarfs the rest of the cast, even Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman at the peak of their beauty and power, as the death looming over his head is all that matters, everything else is secondary.  As Goober and his Iago-like wife fight for their piece of the inheritance, Brick only grows less and less interested, infuriated as much with himself as anything else, but also overwhelmed by the impending death of his father.  In a storm sequence, Big Daddy fades away into the basement where he’s alone with his Xanadu of life’s collectibles, all stockpiled, filling every inch of space, covered in cobwebs.  The man may as well be alone with his dreams as he watches them all disappear before his eyes.  When Brick joins him, after an initial disagreeable outburst of suppressed anger, the pace of the film slows, becoming quietly reflective, and as they seem to reconcile their differences, Ives reflects on his own life with a newfound clarity.  It’s the scene of the film, perhaps unsurpassed in the entire Williams’ repertoire, but ironically also a revision from the original play, yet beautifully written by Richard Brooks and James Poe and perfectly delivered, simply an unforgettable moment, where the background music of a lone harmonium can be heard underscoring the hauntingly dramatic poignancy.  Ives won a Best Supporting Actor that same year for his performance in William Wyler’s THE BIG COUNTRY (1958), where he’s the patriarch of another dysfunctional western family, but his spellbinding performance here is nothing short of brilliant, easily the greatest performance in his lifetime.  Once more, just like on her last film Raintree County (1957), leave it to Elizabeth Taylor to bring down the curtain in dramatic style.     

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