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The Code on a Hot Tin Roof
on April 19, 2015
As the names of the characters in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" indicate -- Big Daddy, Brick, Maggie the Cat, Sister Woman -- Tennessee Williams had entered his baroque period. Uncensored, it all works, somehow.
Not here, though. It's 1958. The movie is censored all to hell. Why did director/adapter Richard Brooks think it was a good idea to turn this play, as hot and dangerous in the Fifties as a ceramic plate in a 400-degree oven, into a simple-minded family drama?
There's a lot of griping about "spoilers" by reviewers on the front-page. These reviewers had the temerity to describe what movie audiences were missing in this glossy "Metrocolor" artifact. OK, fine -- spoiler alert. Brick and Skipper were lovers. The movie -- 1958, remember -- pretends that this is not the case, and invents some other reason for Brick's unhappiness. Poor Elizabeth Taylor is forced to deliver a long monologue explaining the tiresomely fraudulent "backstory". Meanwhile, Brooks can't quite elide all the dialogue that indicates the homosexual/homophobic subtext, so what the movie ultimately does is ask viewers to pretend it's not really about Subject A and is instead about Subject B, even though we all know it's about Subject A. What a pointless exercise. Oh, and we also get a saccharine "reconciliation scene" between Brick and Big Daddy that takes up most of the third act. Very little of this material is in the original play.
Call me a hater all you like, but playwright Williams and Paul Newman, who plays Brick, hated this production too, so take that for what it's worth.
Liz Taylor looks a little zonked, and for good reason: she was recovering from the loss of her husband Mike Todd. Not a lot of oomph in her performance here. Newman himself is still occasionally mimicking his evil genius, the deceased James Dean: a lot of hunching, sudden outbursts, fiddling with props (watch him as he incessantly rolls his cocktail glass between his hands) -- that sort of thing. All this would finally be burned away by the time he did "The Hustler". We can thank our lucky stars for Burl Ives as Big Daddy and Judith Anderson as Big Mama. Ives had perfected Big Daddy on the New York stage, and Anderson was simply a great actor. I also think Madeleine Sherwood deserves a shoutout for her supremely annoying "Sister Woman".
Now that I think about it, I'm curious about those who see this movie without knowing the actual play. The viewer witnesses Paul Newman treating Elizabeth Taylor as if she was a gigantic cockroach walking upright and wearing a negligee. For the third time, I'm going to point out that the year is 1958. In that year, Taylor, despite her real-life personal grief, was hotter than a tomcat in a pepper patch. Basically, if I'm Brick, I'd pounce on her just on general principles. I wouldn't care if she had had an affair with my best friend, or my mother, or my prize stallion. I wouldn't care if she had tossed my pet chihuahua in the deep fryer and served it to me for dinner with fried green tomatoes on the side. The whole first act of the film is ludicrous in its utter lack of realism.
Sometimes the Production Code forced filmmakers to be creative by working around the restrictions, and sometimes that creativity led to cinematic greatness. "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" was not one of those times. It's a fraud, somewhat saved by the supporting performances.
2 out of 5. If you can find it, try to catch the 1984 TV movie with Jessica Lange, Tommy Lee Jones, and Rip Torn as Big Daddy. Now THAT'S the real play.