By Carter B. Horsley
Tennessee Williams is the greatest American playwright of the 20th Century whose best known work is "A Streetcar Named Desire," a strong work of despair and desperate love and emotional devastation.
"Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," on the other hand, is a poignant meditation on old age, death, homosexuality, love, familial bonds, the fire burns in belly of some people, and, above all, mendacity.
Unlike "Streetcar," "Cat" doesn't deal with minor figures, however, strong their emotions might be, but with the mighty and the privileged, at least in terms of a small Southern town, and how they cope with a very dominant figure, "Big Daddy," played magnificently by Burl Ives, the country's greatest folk singer who deserved but did not get an Oscar for his performance. He brooks no stupidity, no delay, no pussyfooting and is accustomed to getting his way all the time.
Burl Ives created in the original role on Broadway in a production directed by Elie Kazan starring Ben Gazzarra, Barbara Bel Geddes and Mildred Dunnock, all capable actors with the exception of Mildred Dunnock, a far more endearing performer that the rather ruthless, cold-hearted Judith Anderson. Gazzarra and Bel Geddes, of course, were up and coming young actors full of promise and depth but without the extraordinary depth and appeal of Taylor and Newman. Newman was early in his career and still had a rather rubbery-thick-lipped dumbness about him that made for good Brando imitations but lacked the sophistication required for carressing such a legendary beauty as Taylor.
As the film begins, the Pollitt family has gathered to celebrate the 65th birthday of Big Daddy Pollitt, the Mississippi plantation owners and patriarch. Margaret ("Maggie"), the gorgeous wife of Brick Pollitt, Big Daddy's son, criticizes Gooper Pollitt and his wife Mae for allowing one of their give children to dip his hands into the ice cream. She tells Brick she is disgusted by her brother-in-law's children and her sister-in-law's fertility: "One of those no-neck monsters hit me with some icre icream. Their fat little heads site on their fat little bodies without a bit of connection...You can wring their necks if they got no necks to wring. Isn't that right, honey."
She tells Brick that Mae is expected a sixth child and that they have all gathered to battle over the inheritance of the 28,0000-acre cotton plantation and cut Brick out of the will: "I tell you what they're up to, boy of mine! They're up to cutting you out of your father's estate." "Three's some things you gotta face. baby . There's somethings in this world you simply got to face." She makes allusions to Rainbow Hill, a sanitarium for alcoholics and she imagines a conspiracy is in the works to deprive Brick of his inheritance: "You'd be a perfect candidate for Rainbow Hill. That's where Brother Man gonna tell Big Daddy to ship you. Over my dead body....And if they get you out of the way, Brother Gooper gets a hold of the estate and signs all the checks and cuts off our credit whenever he wants."
The good news, however, she continues, is that "Big Daddy dotes on you, honey. And he just can't stand Brother Man and Brother's Man's Wife, that monster of feritility. She's down right odious to him. I can tell. Just like I can tell he likes me. That's the second thing we got on our side. He likes me. They way he looks me up and down, over. He' still got an eye for girls." "I think it's mighty fine they way that ole fellow on the doorstep of death still takes in my shape with what I consider deserved appreciation."
Maggie asks Brick why he can't loose his good looks as "Most drinkin' men lose theirs. I think you've gotten better-loookin' since you went on the bottle...You were such a wonderful lover...you were so exciting to be in love with.....If I thought you'd never make love to me again....why I'd find the longest, sharpest knife I could and I'd stick it straight into my heart! I'do that. Oh,Brick, how long does this have to go on? This punishment. Haven't I served my term. Can't I apply for a pardon?
Brick at last responds that "Lately, that finishin' school voice of yours sounds like was running' upstairs to tell somebody the house is on fire.
"Is it any wonder? You know what I feel like? I feel all the time like a cat on a hot tin roof."
"Then jump off the roof, Maggie, jump off it. Now cats jump off roofs and they land uninjured. Do it. Jump."
"Jump where? Into what?"
"Take a lover."
"I don't deserve that! I can't see any man but you. Why can't you get ugly, Brick?"
"You'll make out fine. Your kind always does."
"Oh, I'm more determined than you think. I'll win all right."
"Win what? What is, uh, the victory of a cat on a hot in roof?"
"Just staying on it. I guess. As long as she can."
The film version of the Williams play skirts the question of Brick's "loyalty" to his football chum. Did he have a homosexual affair with him? Newman is so macho that it is hard to believe, especially when the film was made. The result, sadly, is that the film is rather puzzling in its portrayal of Brick. How could any man resist Elizabeth Taylor, especially at her absolute prime? It is a credit to Newman that the anger of his character is such that we can accept his otherwise irrational behavior.
Elizabeth Taylor is simply magnificent and this is her greatest role.
She was always one of the screen's great beauties but here she is also one of its sexiest and also one of its most incarnate personalities. She is a fearsome tiger protecting her loved one.
Their relationship alone would justify seeing the movie, but then there is Burl Ives as Big Daddy having to content with a very messy family, the puzzle of Brick, the conniving of Gooper and his "no-neck monsters," and Elizabeth Taylor. Ives steals every scene he is in with a majestic, roaring power barely contained in his mightly big frame. Even Orson Welles would have stepped back in awe and admiration. Big Daddy is accustomed to having his very large way but deep down he is human.
The film is full of heat and sweat.
Big Daddy sums it up with his great speech about "Mendacity."
"What do you know about mendacity? I could write a book on it...Mendacity. Look at all the lies that I got to put up with. Pretenses. Hypocrisy. Pretendin' like I care for Big Mama, I haven't been able to stand that woman in forty years. Church! It bores me. But I go. And all those swindlin' lodges and social clubs and money-grabbin' auxiliaries. It's-it's got me on the number one sucker list. Boy, I've lived with mendacity. Now why can't you live with it? You've got to live with it. There's nothin' to live with but mendacity. Is there?"
It is also probably the finest screen adaptation of a play even if Brick's sexuality is confused. The play was originally directed by film director Elia Kazan, starring Ben Gazzara, Barbara Bel Geddes, Burl Ives, and Mildred Dunnock - with Ives as the only one reprising his role in the film version. Williams won a Pulitzer Prize for the play.
This film ranks 57th in Carter B.
Horsley's Top 500 Sound Films
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