Saturday, September 19, 2015

CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF 1958

I’ve always been a sucker for playwright Tennessee Williams’ overheated southern gothics.
By the time most of the films adapted from his plays began airing regularly on late-night TV, Williams’ trademark psychoanalytic, sweat ‘n’ lust domestic melodramas – so popular in the 40s and 50s – had long gone out of fashion. But watching these movies as a kid gave me the impression of adulthood as this distant, mysterious wonderland where one’s life would be ruled by fiery passions and profound emotions, and where the simplest, most unassuming countenances concealed deep wellsprings of poetic sensitivity.

Admittedly, I couldn’t always distinguish actual Tennessee Williams movies from look-alike works from William Inge (Come Back Little Sheba), Eugene O’Neill (Desire Under the Elms), Carson McCullers (The Member of the Wedding), Lonnie Coleman (Hot Spell), or William Faulkner (The Long Hot Summer). But as each film seemed to reinforce the same themes ("Oh, you weak, beautiful people who give up with such grace. What you need is someone to take hold of you - gently, with love, and hand your life back to you. Like something golden you let go of."); they might well have sprung from the same imagination.
The Emotionally Unavailable Man

When I was young and my entire world not much larger than the size of my family, I responded to the way Williams’ domestic dramas gave the mundane conflicts of the American household the scope and grandeur of Greek tragedy. In my adolescence, I related to his characters’ flawed humanity and struggle with self-forgiveness. When I was a teenager and became more aware of the hormonal drives propelling Williams’ narratives, I was excited by his introduction of implicit and codified homosexual longing – inevitably tortured – through characters seen (Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof); unseen (Blanche’s husband in A Streetcar Named Desire); male (Sebastian in Suddenly, Last Summer); and female (Karen Stone in The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone).
Young adulthood brought forth in me both a heretofore untapped propensity for supercilious scoffing and an appreciation of camp; two dubious talents put to good use when confronted by some of the more outdated aspects of Williams’ oeuvre, and 50s-era Hollywood's quaint notions of what constituted "steamy."  A feeling only heightened by my fondness at the time for those brutally trenchant “Family” skits on The Carol Burnett Show. Those hilariously acerbic episodes of familial discord were so well-written, yet so exaggerated, they forever altered my ability to take the southern gothic genre nearly as seriously as I had in my youth.
Elizabeth Taylor as Margaret (Maggie) Pollitt 
Paul Newman as Brick Pollitt
Burl Ives as Big Daddy
Judith Anderson as Ida "Big Momma" Pollitt
Jack Carson as Gooper "Brother-Man" Pollitt
Madeline Sherwood as Mae "Sister-Woman" Pollitt
Life experience and changing times have sapped many Tennessee Williams’ films of much of their initial profundity for me, leaving in its place a kind of winsome nostalgia for a time when Williams’ ennobling of the outcast and defense of the delicate-of-spirit proved the perfect balm for my adolescent insecurities. But the richness of his characters, poetry of language, and finely-observed details of familial tension still have the power to engross. And if every so often his movies lapse into campiness…well, these days that only serves to sweeten the experience.

One of Williams’ more accessible films is Cat on a Hot Tin Roof , his 1955 Pulitzer Prize-winning play adapted for the screen (Williams would say bowdlerized) in 1958  by director Richard Brooks (Looking for Mr. Goodbar) and screenwriter James Poe (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?). Parodied, imitated, and discussed to a fare-thee-well, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and the saga of the Mississippi Pollitts –a family of epic dysfunction long before such a term existed – is too familiar to warrant a summary (those who need it can find one HERE).
But Maggie the Cat, Brick, Big Momma, Big Daddy, Gooper  & Mae and their troop of little no-neck monsters, occupy a short list of Williams characters so colorfully drawn and finely realized onscreen; just their names alone evoke images of real-life, flesh-and-blood beings with lives that extend beyond the celluloid frame. Not all of Williams’ characters strike me this way, but to this list I’d add Blanche DuBois, Stanley Kowalski, and Sebastian Venable; the latter of whom I can see plain as day in spite of his never being shown.
"They've brought the whole bunch here like animals to display at a county fair."
Monster of Fertility, Mae Pollitt, nee Flynn, and Her Brood of No-Necks

I think Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is the very first Tennessee Williams film I ever saw. Certainly, coming as I do from an extended family arguably as dysfunctional and just a shade more Machiavellian, it’s the first Tennessee Williams movie I actually “got.” Which is to say, at my young age. I was able to follow it. Not necessarily grasp with insight any of what the film had to say about things like, the duality of lying – how people use lies to both protect and to harm; the crippling, self-destructiveness of guilt; the relativity of love and truth; and the indomitability of the self-preservation instinct, aka that cat staying on the tin roof as long it can.

Like those shiny shells the surf leaves on the beach that require minimal effort to spot and pick up, the things that most entertained me about Cat on a Hot Tin Roof were primarily on its surface. I loved the setup: over the course of a long, hot summer day (I learned early that there's no such thing as winter in southern gothic), a family estranged and at odds is forced to interact and put on a good face on the occasion of Big Daddy's 65th birthday. Possibly his last.
Beautifully shot, well-cast, and finely acted, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a finger-lickin', family-size, southern-fried fracas with overlays of Freudian psychology. As often as not, the characters lie to each other with the same alacrity with which they lie to themselves, and when not repressing some deep, dark secret, are pressing forth some hidden agenda. Resentments, revelations and epiphanies flow as freely as the bourbon from Brick's bottomless booze bottle, while unsure southern accents clash musically in the background. It's great stuff that I've come to appreciate more as I've grown older.
Mendacity Manor
Unaware as I was of the Production Code-mandated excision of all references to homosexuality from Williams’ original play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof came across like every other overly-coy, repressed-yet sex-obsessed 50s-era movie: it wouldn’t stop talking about what it couldn’t speak aloud. I thought the entire hubbub in the movie surrounded Brick's belief that Maggie slept with his football buddy, Skipper, a man that Brick, love-starved from Big Daddy's inattention, held up as a hero. That's it. I never picked on any homosexual subtext beyond the fact that Paul Newman was impossibly gorgeous. A sizable chunk of my early memories of watching Cat on a Hot Tin Roof on TV are scene after scene of characters proffering endless variations on: “Don’t say it, Maggie!”; “I’m gonna talk about it!”; “Tell him! Go on, tell him the truth!”; "It’s got to be told!”; "First you've got to tell me!"
Yeesh! Just say it already!
"When a marriage goes on the rocks...the rocks are there, right there!"
The anthology TV program, Love, American Style was still on the air the first time I saw Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. An identical brass bed was featured in several of the comedy show's episodes and black-out skits (above), contributing to my feeling that sections of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof played out like an episode titled, "Love and the Deep Dark Secret" 

I also remember being distracted by Paul Newman’s immobile, insanely photogenic face. Easy on the eyes as he is, he goes through the entire film with but a single, all-purpose expression: smoldering insouciance. Sure, he's playing a character all-bottled up and cut-off, and perhaps my biggest complaint is how the character is conceived in the first place; but even those cool blue eyes fail to register much. Every close up looks like the same GQ Magazine cover. I guess they don't call him "Brick" for nothing.
Winner of the Keanu Reeves / Kristen Stewart / Sean Combs one-face-fits-all  Sphinx Award

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Over the years, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof has been restored to Williams’ preferred version in any number of permutations (two are linked in the Bonus Materials section below). But, as gratifying as it is to finally see the entire play as it was originally intended, the film version remains my favorite.
Why?
Because even at its most frank, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a seriously closeted play. Nearly 2½ hours are devoted to a man turning himself inside out over the shameful prospect that he might be gay. Another man kills himself over the fact. I recognize that as the work of a repressed playwright in a repressed era, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is daring and groundbreaking as hell, but contemporary actors tackling this material today always seem forced and false. They over-emote and practically burst blood vessels portraying characters who are motivated by pretense and a need to play things close to their vest.
My feeling is that if I’m going to enjoy a work of closeted art, there’s something to be said for seeing it with all its repression intact.
The movie version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof feels every inch a product of the 1950s. It’s an uptight, skirting-the-issue, kind of movie that was made and takes place within in the very era that created the Bricks and Skippers of our society.  In some odd, meta kind of way, there is something perfect about a movie dealing with latent homosexuality, which, in its telling, leaps through hoops and fire in an effort to avoid even mentioning the word. The drastic alterations Cat on a Hot Tin Roof underwent to make it to the screen communicate Williams' themes better than he knew.
Madeline Sherwood (who I only knew as Reverend Mother on The Flying Nun) and Burl Ives
 (who will always be Sam the Snowman from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer) recreated
the roles they originated on Broadway

PERFORMANCES
What makes Cat on a Hot Tin Roof so re-watchable for me are the performances. All of which are standouts. Everybody is in fine form (even Newman as the immovable Brick, has his moments). The feel of a great ensemble cast is captured in the easy, familiar way in which the characters interact, and happily, Williams' play and the screenplay affords each with at least one big moment to shine.
Madeline Sherwood and Jack Carson are letter-perfect and a lot of fun. Sherwood's southern accent and single-minded, Lady Macbeth maneuvering are a constant delight.
"One more crack, Queenie..."
Burl Ives is perhaps my all-time favorite Big Daddy, although I suspect the effect of his performance was undermined somewhat in 1958 by his giving an almost identical one in Desire Under the Elms earlier the same year. And while my vote for favorite Big Momma has to be split evenly between Maureen Stapleton and Kim Stanley (the 1976 and 1984 TV-movie versions, respectively), Judith Anderson's atypically refined take on the role is surprisingly moving.
And then we come to Elizabeth Taylor. Given how many of her films have made their way onto this blog, it should come as no surprise that her Maggie the Cat is the central reason why Cat on a Hot Tin Roof has been a favorite of mine for all these years and only gets better with time. For me it really isn’t a matter of how well she embodies the character Tennessee Williams created (the screen Maggie is less tense, catty, and consumed with a clawed-her-way-up-from-nothing fear of poverty), it's that she succeeds in making Maggie both the heat and life force of the film.
Taylor is so celestially beautiful and appealing in the role, Brick doesn't come off troubled so much as having rocks in his head. Ironically, as rumors of Paul Newman's probable bisexuality began circulating after his death, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof reclaimed the gay subtext it fought so hard to lose.
Taylor's third husband, Mike Todd, was killed in a plane crash three weeks into the film's production
Even with that questionable southern accent of hers (“I caint! I caint!") no one (at least no one I've seen) can touch Taylor's Maggie. In this film she's more than a jewel; she’s the entire crown.


THE STUFF OF DREAMS
It’s no secret that Tennessee Williams didn't care for the film version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. But Williams, like a lot of artists conflicted by a desire for legitimacy and popular success; tended to hedge his bets after the fact. Williams had a habit of willingly applying suggestions from directors (Elia Kazan, most explosively) with a talent for discerning popular appeal. But once a show proved successful, feelings of self-betrayal poisoned the pleasure of his many trips to the bank. This would result in Williams making a great show of giving self-serving statements to the press about how he'd had to compromise his principles in order to satisfy provincial sensibilities.
(John Lahr’s exceptional biography, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh recounts this pattern of behavior in delicious detail.)
Virtually the entire third act was rewritten for the film. Among the changes: a sentimental
backstory for Big Daddy, and a father and son reconciliation
Certainly the film version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof thoroughly subverts the entire theme of Williams’ play, but given his run-ins with the censors and Hollywood Production Code during the making of A Streetcar Named Desire six years earlier; one wonders what he possibly could have expected. Exactly what he got, it seems. For the half-million dollars he accepted from MGM for the rights to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof proved to be his guilt-ridden deal with the devil.
"I do love you Brick. I do!"
"Wouldn't it be funny if that were true?"
Above is how Cat on a Hot Tin Roof 's last scene might have played out had the film kept Williams' original ending. But after 108 minutes of advance-retreat, Hollywood knew 1958 audiences would tear down the theater if these two beautiful specimens weren't granted their hard-won happy ending.


BONUS MATERIAL
The 1976 made-for-TV adaptation of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof starring Natalie Wood, Robert Wagner, Laurence Olivier, & Maureen Stapleton. (Features the Broadway ending.)

The 1984 made-for-TV adaptation of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof  starring Jessica Lange, Tommy Lee Jones, Rip Torn, and Kim Stanley. Features Williams' preferred "original" ending, restored text, and at a running time of almost 2 ½ hours, is the most complete filmed staging.

Copyright © Ken Anderson

37 comments:

  1. Like you, Ken, I was so young when I first saw Cat that the subtext just went right over my head. (It wouldn't be until I was in college that I finally got it.). That first viewing, though, was a revelation. It was in the late 60s and by that time Liz was becoming a joke in Hollywood, her marriage to Burton a disaster and a hardness and bloating coming to her beauty. I didn't really get why she was considered a "star". After seeing Cat I was mesmerized. I thought she was the most beautiful creature I had ever seen, and like you I thought Brick had rocks in his head for not wanting to ravish her at every turn. The movie also made me realize that Liz was indeed an actress. She was a life force in this movie. Between her painted on white slip and the white dress she wears in the latter half of the movie she is as fierce a goddess as there ever was. (I also coveted the simple diamond necklace she wears in the film; spent years looking for a copy.).

    While I genuinely love Williams' language and his sly humor, I admit that he can be frustrating at the same time. Characters talk around things and repeat thoughts over and over again like a melancholy refrain. My personal favorite adaptation of Williams' work is A Streetcar Named Desire, and I have great fondness for Geraldine Page in Summer and Smoke and Sweet Bird of Youth, Cat is a delicious mix of Williams emotional grasping floridity with a great Hollywood pedigree and veneer.

    Thanks, as always, for your insights and appreciations. Your post brought back a wonderful memory.

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    1. Hello Roberta
      Your memories of discovering Elizabeth Taylor in your youth echo my own. It took me several years to rid myself of the impression I had of her from her days an omnipresent tabloid punchline. Her private life so eclipsed her work, it took even longer for me to really appreciate what a talented actress she was.
      And what a beauty! She really looks every inch the movie star in “Cat” and it’s fairly hard not to fall in love with her. You describe her iconic look perfectly. In fact, your reference to the iconic look she achieves with such a simple wardrobe takes me back to those day before Joan Rivers almost single handedly turned every award show into a “What are you wearing” freakshow.

      I love Tennessee Williams too, but I too find that his plays belabor certain points and skirt around issues in the most frustrating ways. The films adapted from his show may be severely altered, but at least time constraints save us from the 33rd veiled allusion to something you just wish they’d blurt out.

      My partner is a Geraldine Page fan, and through him I’ve developed a greater appreciation for both “Summer and Smoke’ and “Sweet Bird of Youth” (and if you don’t like bloated and hardened Elizabeth Taylor, stay far from 1989 TV version of Youth” with Liz and Mark Harmon (of all people) on YouTube.

      If I write about it someday, maybe you can share with us what you think of Taylor and Burton in Tennessee Williams’ BOOM! (1968)
      Thank you for the compliment, but mostly reading my blog and taking time to comment!

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  2. Ken! You reviewed one of my perennial favorites ; )

    This is just my random response to your words...

    First, thank you for giving Elizabeth Taylor her due as Maggie. In my mind, nobody has matched her performance, just as nobody has ever matched Brando as "Streetcar's" Stanley. Both actors were unique, gorgeous, perfectly cast at the right time in their careers--both were about 26 actually!

    Kathleen Turner once wrote that she "fixed" Elizabeth's faulty performances in "Cat" and "Virginia Woolf" by playing them on Broadway. Turner can be a fine actress, but apparently modest ain't one of her virtues. Can you imagine self-deprecating Taylor saying such a thing?

    Taylor may be the youngest star to play Maggie and under trying circumstances. After the plane crash of her beloved Mike Todd, she was back on the set two weeks later. A real studio system trouper. This would be unthinkable in today's Hollywood.

    I've noticed people who tend to brush off the Taylor-Newman teaming usually use the film's censored script against them, as if they or director Brooks were responsible. From what I've read, director Brooks and his cast put across the story as best they could, given the Production Code.

    Newman would agree with you assessment of his Brick. I've read interviews with him saying he became a more seasoned actor later.

    I think time has shown Taylor especially well-suited as Maggie, given her romantic history and her often drawn to gay men.

    My sister always watches "Imitation of Life" whenever it is shown on TCM. For me, I always tune in when they run "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof."

    Those are my kamikaze comments!

    Cheers,
    Rick

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    1. Hi Rick
      Although I've never seen Kathleen Turner as Maggie (nor any Broadway production of "Cat") I couldn't help but laugh at anybody having the brass-bottomed guts to say anything so stupid without being named Trump!
      Taylor, for all her earthy vulgarity, was a class act, and far better than she sometimes got credit for, I think.
      The point you make about Taylor's and Newman's performances bearing the brunt of criticism leveled at the limitations of the adaptation, is a good one. They are a fine Maggie & Brick. And indeed, Newman just sees a little green, not like a bad actor.

      Like you, I find the movie so watchable. I can't keep my eyes off Taylor. She has so many great moments in this.

      Oh, and I like the term, "kamikaze comments"! Thanks, Rick

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    2. Ken, from what I have read, "Cat" was originally optioned by MGM for it girl Grace Kelly and James Dean. Then Grace retired to Monaco and it was to be Elizabeth and Jimmy, who had a great rapport in"Giant." Then Dean died in his auto crash, and finally it was Liz and Paul!

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    3. I'd read about Grace Kelly and James Dean, too. Kelly exuded a lot of ice-cube-melting heat, but I can't see her as Maggie. Maybe because I can't imagine her ever being so poor she has only two dresses. Dean, who turned brooding into an art form, would have been a Brick I'd enjoy seeing. Maybe we can all just be grateful Rock Hudson was never considered (but I CAN see Tab Hunter...).

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    4. Jimmy and Liz would have been electric, I think.
      I always wonder if Brando was approached for the stage or film version of Brick...he certainly had the talent and ambiguity, but by the mid to late 50s, Brando already seemed lazy and sloppy.

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    5. I remember vaguely from the Williams biography that Brando by this time was somewhat "disapproving" of Tennessee Williams and that it took a lot of effort to get him to even appear in a starring role opposite Anna Magnani in "The Fugitive Kind."
      Even if Williams entertained a hope for Brando as Brick, I can't imagine the actor at this stage in his career, taking a somewhat supporting role in what was so clearly Maggie's play. He certainly would have been a fascinating Brick. Glad he got to star opposite Taylor in "Reflections ina Golden Eye"

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  3. PS Ken,
    I just happened to watch portions of the Natalie and Jessica TV versions of "Cat" recently. They were 38 and 36 respectively when they tackled the role of Maggie.

    I adore Nat but her limitations or self-limitations (tendency to appear uptight, something nobody accused Liz of being!) makes her performance seem one-note. And Wagner as Brick is more like a block of wood! Considering that RJ was long been rumored to be bi and Nat apparently knew it, you think the couple might have brought some of that mutual tension to their roles. But there's no undercurrents here!

    And I could only stomach about 10 minutes of Jessica as Maggie. Love Jessica, especially her resurgence on "American Horror Story." But when not reigned in, Lange can be a big ole ham. The first scenes of her talking about Gooper and Mae's no-neck monsters, Jessica's accent and delivery is so drowsy and monotonous, she makes Maggie seem like the drunk, not Brick! And Tommy Lee Jones as Brick is a snooze, though casting craggy Jones as Rip Torn's son was apt.

    I wish there was footage of Elizabeth Ashley's turn as Maggie from the mid '70s. Williams praised her performance and it was a big comeback for her.

    I've seen clips of marble-mouthed Scarlett Johansson as the most recent Broadway Maggie...not impressed. But I would like to have seen the Broadway version of "Cat" with an all-black cast. James Earl Jones and Phylicia Rashad as Big Daddy and Big Mama alone would have been something to see! And Terrence Howard as Brick...

    Ken, did you ever see any Broadway versions of "Cat?"

    Rick

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    1. Hi Rick
      I know what you mean about both performances. I am a big Natalie Wood fan and cut her a lot of slack, but you hit on exactly what is lacking in her performance. It's kind of one-note.
      I get a kick out of her motor mouth entrance and all the stage business she has to go through, but, there is a sense of acting, not inhabiting.
      And Jessica Lange!!! i had to fan myself and lie down after watching her. She really wore me out. What a strenuously overdone performance! Had it been on DVD I'd have turned the sound off and read the subtitles. Everything from her accent to her over emoting got on my nerves...and like you, I really like her!
      I was fonder of Tommy Lee's Brick, and you're right, the casting of Rip Torn as his father is inspired.

      I don't mean to sound like a grump, but I took a look at the Scarlett Johansson clip and ...Lord. She makes Lange look good and the "actor" playing Brick makes Newman look like Olivier by comparison.
      I personally would have LOVED to see the version with James Earl Jones. I'm no fan of Terrence Howard, but Anika Noni Rose is an unsung favorite.
      I really haven't seen as many Tennessee Williams plays onstage as I'd like, but for me, a lot of the film versions are hard acts to follow.
      if you've seen any Williams onstage, please share!

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    2. Ken, I've only seen two local productions of Williams' works, surprisingly well done!

      The one criticism I have read of Hollywood actresses taking to the stage in Williams' works is the monotony in their delivery. I have read this of Ashley Judd's Maggie, as well as Scarlett and Kathleen "Miss Fix-It" Turner. Williams unabridged is a lot of rhetorical dialogue for actresses with no stage training! I also found this to be true of Jessica Lange's Blanche DuBois (which was televised) with Alec Baldwin as a paunchy Stanley.

      Though Taylor's version of Maggie and Virginia Woolf's Martha were streamlined for the screen, I always admired the variety of her delivery, especially ET's humor and heart.Taylor had the knack for just "being" on the screen and not posturing like her MGM kin Joan and Lana ; )

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    3. "Miss Fix-It" ...Ha!
      I've only seen local productions of "Cat" and what you say in true of the Maggies I've seen. Striking one note and keeping it throughout the play. Taylor is the best Maggie and the best martha I've seen to date.
      I like Ann-Margret's Blanche very much. Can't imagine Jessica Lange (except over-emoting), I'll have to see if I can find that version somewhere.
      Your appreciation of Taylor's naturalness is in line with what I find so appealing about her on screen as well.

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  4. Recently , I was watching this movie (a favorite) when one of my teenage daughters wandered in and started watching with me. She was mesmerized by the combined beauty of Newman and Taylor (Taylor's look, to me, is incredibly modern), but she was completely perplexed by the notion that a person would need to hide their true sexuality. (Yeah, I replied, imagine an entire world of Kim Davises and you'll get the idea...).

    And can we get a word for Jack Carson's Gooper? He plays him rather poignantly: torn between loyalty to his horrid wife, love for his heavily-favored brother and indifferent parents, trying to repress his bitterness as hard as Brick tries to suppress his true nature. It's a really good performance (Carson excelled at beefy older man roles, though I think he was fairly young when he made this), but it tends to get lost amid the showier roles around him.

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    1. Hi Deb
      Your opening anecdote makes such a great point for anyone who might think that, in 2015, a play about a person needing to hide their sexual identity, is dated. Sad, but it's not.
      During my dance days, Brick-types were rather rampant. Even more so when I took up personal training and spending time with the bodybuilder crowd. The number of Brick/Skipper types in that group is fairly rampant.

      But I'm especially glad you singled out Jack Carson. In every adaptation of "Cat" I've seen, Gooper is something of a one-note, non-entity. Carson really does imbue the role with a surprising amount of complexity and depth. Everything you note about this performance is what I see as well. As far back as Mildred Pierce and “A Star is Born”, Carson has been a solid in support around a lot of heavy players, but he rarely got the accolades he deserved.

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  5. HI Ken
    I wonder what Barbara Bel Geddes who originated the role was like. That would have real interesting to see. So many Tennessee roles had interesting casting choices on stage. Tallulah as Blanche? Fabulous. La Liz of course is lumimous. And they wanted to use Lana Turner (she would look good in that white dress) but I don't think she had any of shading or nuances needed. Nowadays I think all of TW's characters are so over the top with their grand guignol. Fun to watch but take a Xanax honey please. And Blanche is still the Hamlet role for non singing females. Mama Rose for the singers. I think TW liked slips alot. Oh well 2 cents

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    1. Hi Michael
      I've always thought censorship and repression has always played an interesting role in the arts. Had Williams been able to be frank and direct in his writing, I wonder if his work would have been as poetic? Similarly, had he not had to channel and code his homosexuality into his female characters, would the women's roles be so strong?
      (As Myra Breckinridge and Sextette proved, once Mae West didn't have to resort to innuendo, she was merely blunt and unfunny!)

      Barbara Bel Geedes I'll bet was a fantastic (albeit more realistic, less glam) Maggie. And of course, Bankhead...
      I cannot imagine Lana Turner as Maggie. I kind of find her to be a soap-opera kind of actress; two looks-worried and concerned.
      I don't see a lot of theater , but I wonder what the great contemporary roles for women are? As you note, the level of female hysteria in Williams' plays would perhaps look odd in a non-period theatrical piece.
      During those conformist, Donna Reed/Leave it to Beaver 50s, maybe all that tearing of one's hair out in Williams' plays was cathartic for audiences.
      And I've never taken notice of it before (Anna Magnani, Vivien Leigh, Taylor), but Williams DOES seem to have a thing for slips! Great observation!

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    2. Your comments about TW's female characters out me in mind of a anecdote Quintin Crisp relates in one of his books. He was attending what I think was a Tennessee Williams- themed event of some sort and found himself next to Kitty Carlisle Hart. Crisp said to her, "I think all of Tennessee Williams work is about how terrible it is to be a woman," to which Kitty replied, "Oh no, all of Tennessee Williams's work is about how terrible it was to be Tennessee Williams!"

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    1. Hi Gregory
      I read about the Elizabeth Ashley production in the Williams' bio, but I envy you in actually getting to see it! Wow. I saw her onstage in "Agnes of God" and to me she comes off much more effectively on stage than in film. As you describe it, the cast seems ideal (a big Keir Dullea fan, here). Also, to have seen Tennessee Williams...thanks for sharing all of that.

      Your spot-on distillation of the two TV versions of "Cat" made me laugh. Especially the zipper on the slip observation. Even looking back up at the comments now makes me break into a very mean-spirited laugh (Senior High School!).
      I'd never heart of the Irene Worth revival of "Sweet Bird of Youth" and after Googling it, was surprised it was during a period (the 70s) when it should have been on my radar. Another amazing cast.
      You're very lucky to have seen so many greats!

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    4. Well, one of the benefits of being around when so many of the legends were still producing work and the various entertainment industries were not yet overrun by conglomerate thinking, is that you were fortunate enough to have so many "the likes of which we'll never see again" moments.

      Whatever inspired you to see these plays is I think the cornerstone of what makes all the arts so special. Being entertained is one important aspect, but when one allows oneself to be open to ALL that is available to get out of them...well, the benefits are endless.
      That's certainly true of film for me.

      I had no idea Lois Nettleton (ubiquitous on movie of the weeks throughout the 70s) played Blanche in a production of Streetcar. I have a dim memory of reading about the Dunaway/Voight production when I was young, but what I know is limited to Dunaways memoirs.
      I have already covered REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE (you can click Elizabeth Taylor in the "labels" menu to the right), but I think it is only a matter of time before I get to BOOM! (a fave of mine...definitely guilty), and I confess to never having seen THE SANDPIPER all the way through. Liz as a glamorous, well-fed bohemian seems right up my alley though. i should give it another try.
      Very happy you've found this site, Gregory, and thanks for all you've contributed with your thoughtful and funny insights!

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    1. i don't blame you!
      In that film it's amazing how they talk about Sebastian so much, and in such detail, you really DO think he's been shown.
      In my mind's eye, Sebastian most certainly resembles Clift and the goofy/handsome Gary Raymond.

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    3. Perfect description of that special "matinee idol" look of the 50s. Especially the puppet references. They REALLY understood, and those faces were lie parodies of movie heroes.
      Someone complained int he press that today's movies are populated with boys, and that no one has manly faces like Bogart, Connery, or Woody Strode (talk about bone structure) nowadays.
      I have to agree...except for Idris Elba...he's a sexy anomaly.

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  8. Ken, thank you for profiling this film! For my own money, Newman and Taylor represent the most physically perfect movie couple (in color, at least) ever to exist. They are both so beautiful that it's surreal. We can only wonder what their kids might have looked like had their relationship been real... (Though my mother often said, "Two uglies make a cute!" so what if the reverse were also true! LOL)

    I am obsessed with the look of this movie, the muted color scheme in which the primary things that jut out are the stars' eyes and Taylor's lips! What brought me to this movie initially was Michael Jackson's music video for "Leave Me Alone" in which clips of Taylor from "Cat" are liberally inserted. I had to see what she was reacting to and how she sounded, etc... I was instantly enthralled with every person in the film and their tormented storyline.

    In 2001, I auditioned for "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" and intended to win the role of Gooper, a person I could identify with. The director read me over and over for Brick and insisted that I play Brick. I was stunned because, come on... who could ever measure up to Paul Newman, looks-wise if not acting-wise?! I bit the bullet, went on a diet (LOL!) and did it and it was VERY gratifying. Easily one of the toughest roles I ever tackled because in Act 1 he says so little. Act 2, though (a roller coaster argument with Big Daddy), provided a hundred treasures of emotional levels. Act 3 doesn't have as much of Brick but does contain the "click" he's always going on about.

    I could not STAND Jessica Lange as Maggie and thought if she touched that powder puff at the dressing table one more time I would die. Her accent and delivery just mortified me. Thankfully, I learned to adore her later on AHS. I have yet to watch Nat and RJ, but I've never heard anything good about them in the parts, nor even Olivier (!) as Big Daddy. I'll have to view that soon.

    Great post, as always!

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    1. Hi Poseidon
      So great that you played Brick in a production of "Cat"! He's such a central focus of the plot, yet such a closed-off character, it really must be a challenge to try to convey the characters inner turmoil on a stage. At east onscreen there's the benefit of close ups.
      In the Lange/Jones version, it looks as if Jones drinks a gallon of whatever liquid he's supplied over the course of show.
      Did you have drink evening after evening of cold tea?

      Nice to know this film is a favorite of yours, too. It DOES have a wonderful look (not counting the special effects known as Liz Taylor and Paul Newman. Two beauties CGI could ever replicate). By the way, I forgot about those clips of Taylor in the MJ video. I recall reading about a lot of young Michael Jackson fans at the time not knowing who "that lady" in the video was.

      And yes, as remarkable an actress as Lange can be (I too loved her on AHS), I can only imagine she was allowed to ham it up so shamelessly because she was riding high from "Frances" her Oscar win and all the attendant publicity surrounding her being a serious actress after her Kong beginnings. (the powder puff comment...Ha!)
      Thanks for stopping by, Poseidon. Appreciate the comment participation from a real-life Brick!

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    2. Oh God... I had a couple of bottles of Echo Spring that were filled with unsweetened tea and I had to tear through them every night. A three-act play in a theatre that was forged out part of the top floor of factory. NO bathroom backstage and no way to get to one until after the show was over (and I had a cast on one leg!) I had no choice but to keep a huge travel cup backstage and let it go during intermissions. (I know.... TMI!) Also, it only this second occurred to me that Lange and Jones reteamed years later for "Blue Sky" and she got an Oscar!! Interesting.

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    3. Ha! Not too much info at all. In fact, it's just the kind of fun trivia info someone like me would wonder about, but few others would notice.
      i would imagine any good run of the show would result in a well-hydrated Brick (with a worrisomely full bladder).
      And until you noted it, I too forgot about Lange and Tommy Lee reuniting for "Blue Sky"! I only remembered Lange and having Big Momma Kim Stanley as her momma in "Frances"

      Thanks for sharing the extra info, Poseidon!

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  9. Hi Ken,

    Wonderfully in depth as always! This has never been that big a favorite of mine as Tennessee Williams stories go, I've always favored the fever dream weirdness of Suddenly, Last Summer and even more the relatively meditative-for Tennessee Williams-The Night of the Iguana, but this one does have its delights.

    I wouldn't say Newman is bad but he IS a beautiful blank compared to his surrounding players. While I love both women in other things neither Judith Anderson nor Madeleine Sherwood do much for me here, although Dame Anderson makes her long submerged hurt very real towards the end.

    The three standouts are the criminally under-appreciated Jack Carson as the noxious Gooper, full of bitterness and hunger for approval. He's one of those great performers like Ida Lupino, Myrna Loy and Donald Sutherland whose consistent excellence lead to them being taken for granted. It's hard to excel when that's your standard.

    Then there's Burl Ives who I know was a popular A level supporting actor in his day but whose presence always surprises me when I see him turn up in a film. I think of him as a singer first. Probably because my Dad has always been a fan of him in that aspect so when I was young his music was frequently played, add in his fame as Sam the Snowman from Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer and that's how he's fixed in my mind. Be that as it may he is terrific in this and I've never seen a Big Daddy who could equal him. In the big basement confrontation with Newman he mops the floor with Paul though to be fair the scene is most definitely tilted in his direction.

    Which brings me to as you pointed out the gold standard player of the piece, Elizabeth Taylor. Truly always a star she was a variable performer but this part came during her most fruitful and consistently strong period. I'm sure it's blasphemous to say but her work in Virginia Woolf while solid is not something I'm terribly fond of and it paved the way for a lack of discipline in her performances often seeping into her work from that point forward. Here however she emotionally connects with Maggie to give one of the best performances of her career, especially impressive considering the devastating events she was experiencing. That the seams never show and that her work is consistent throughout speaks both to her professionalism and Richard Brooks's strength as a director in being able to help her maintain her focus of the character.

    When I was younger I had a hard time differentiating between Williams, Inge, O'Neill and the others as well. Although I could always place the period they were made since this sort of heavy duty sexual repression was so prevalent from the very late 40's until the early 60's peaking in the mid 50's. I did eventually catch on that if they were befevered in Kansas it was always Inge, if there was an extra heaping helping of hate it had to be O'Neill and Williams always had faded gentility around the edges if not front and center. This type of film gets a good deal of scorn now but I find them endlessly enjoyable and much more fun than the often down and dirty movies of current film where if you don't feel the despair or grit supposedly it doesn't MEAN anything. Please! I can drive into some inner city neighborhood if I want to see real life if I'm watching a movie I want to be entertained damn it.

    I've seen those two other version that you have links for, I barely remember the Jessica Lange one although I like everyone in the cast. I have a clearer memory of the '76 version but that's mainly of Natalie Wood's Maggie. She wasn't nearly as good as Liz but I do think she did some interesting things with the role. Olivier made very little impression on me except that he was a much more subdued Big Daddy and all I recall about RJ was that he was hopelessly out of his depth and the he ssuucckkeeddddddd!!!!

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    1. Hi Joel
      Another thoughtful post of well-considered observations and (always my favorite) personal remembrances.
      It's really been great reading so many comments championing Jack Carson. The peculiarities of the star system are that solid-non-showy professionals consistently turning in good work often get overlooked.
      Taylor's personal tragedy and an up and an emerging Paul Newman stole most of the thunder. Nice to know that time has been kinder to Carson's performance.
      I agree wit you about Ives, as well. remember reading that Williams was dead set against him on Broadway (i can't recall who he preferred) but Ives' power on stage won him over.

      Your breaking own of the subtle differences in the playwrights is excellent, by the way. And I too find them very entertaining. Although, as I alluded to the post, I don't tend to thing the naturism of contemporary acting lends itself to this style. Something about the somewhat mannered "Method" and old-movie style acting makes these films work for me.
      Thanks for contributing to the dialog here and weighing in on the TV versions , too (I agree, Wagner was way out of his league). You always throw a few new things in the ring to ponderand mull over. Thanks, Joel!

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  10. Dear Ken: Hi!

    My husband and I saw "Cat" about a year ago. He had never seen it before and was not particularly entertained; frankly, he wondered why the movie was so famous and what the fuss was all about. I had seen the film a few times previously and admit I had to agree with him.

    The compromises they had to make between the play version and the film script did seem to cut out most of the interesting subtext. As you note, why don't the characters just spell out what they're thinking--since what they're thinking in the film version turns out to be nothing particularly controversial!

    But seen today, despite the censorship cuts made to the script, the gay subtext definitely haunts the film. After all, in today's climate, what possible reason could a straight man have for NOT sleeping with Elizabeth Taylor? He must be gay!! :)

    When it comes to the 1950s Broadway dramatists, I think I prefer Inge, although I recognize he did not have Williams' supreme gift for poetic language. I love Inge's "Come Back, Little Sheba"; the film version is one of my favorite movies ever, and my husband likes it quite a bit too. (The first time he watched it with me, he said, "How did they ever get away with that movie in the 1950s?")

    Back to the film at hand, I do agree that Taylor gives a marvelous performance in "Cat." I first saw it back in college, around the same time I saw most of Taylor's other 1950s work ("Place in the Sun," "Giant," "Raintree County," "Suddenly Last Summer," even "Butterfield 8," which stank but in which she still gave a serious, thoughtful performance). I concluded, and I still believe, that she was a fine and gifted performer, in addition to being one of history's great beauties. (As an irrelevant side note, I recall in my 20s once having a dream where Taylor and I were strolling around and chatting, apparently as friends. Looking back, that dream should have removed from my mind any doubt that I was a gay man!)

    I agree Newman is rather wooden and inexpressive in "Cat," but who expects a classical Greek statue to be expressive? :)

    Finally, I also want to join you and others in giving a shout-out to Jack Carson. One reason he gets relatively little respect as a dramatic actor was that most of his film roles were in broad comedies (and I do find him to be quite funny). But there clearly was a sensitive artist underneath. Caron also gets major points for me because he was cast opposite Doris Day in her first three films!

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    1. Hey David
      You and your partner's lack of enthusiasm for this film brings to mind what I often wonder about films I first fell in love with when i was very young: I often wonder if I would still be so enamored of them had I discovered them in adulthood. Context Is always such a contributing factor..
      What's nice is that you can pinpoint what it is that left you wanting, and what elements seem to hold up over time.
      I'm a big fan of "Come Back Little Sheba" as well (My partner places it amongst his top five favorite films of all time) and can understand why Inge might appeal to you. (If you came from a family as hysterical as mine, you'd know that Williams wins points for sher recognition).
      Like your husband, I'm often surprised at how daring these plays were given the times. In some ways, I don't know if we could tackle comparatively taboo subjects with as much willingness (or artistry) today.
      What's nice to read in your post and others, is an appreciation for Taylor in a role tackled by so many but not really equalled (by the way, I love that dream!); and the recognition afforded Jack Carson. So well-deserved!
      I think I heard from TCM that he and Doris Day were an item for a time.
      Thanks, David. Always a pleasure!

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  11. Hello Ken, thanks for the review! I'm fascinated by old Hollywood movies where nothing naughty was allowed to be shown or mentioned. I like to see how film makes tried to convey prohibited topics during the Hays code years. This film was probably very daring at the time.

    With those stars in it, it is worth another look. I remenber when I saw it many years ago that it was frustrating to watch Paul Newman being so anguished about something he would not say. For a while I had a huge crush on him until I felt that he was always the same in all his films - pretty but wooden.
    -Wille

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    1. Hi Wille
      I know what you mean about those older movies that tried to be racy but were hamstrung by the Production Code. I find them fascinating too. Especially in light of how much I love 70s films when everything was looser.
      My personal taste is that movies about repression just feel so "right" when they are made during a repressed era. When I watch modern films like, say "Far From Heaven" (2002) which is all about how uptight people are...they always act TOO uptight. Keeping secrets is actually easier than being open. Most people are better at it. The older movies convey that for me.

      Of course they way they talk about sex in this film is so coy, if you're young there a good chance you have absolutely NO idea what they're talking about. And then when you find out what they've been dancing around for two hours, it can feel anticlimactic.

      Like you, when i was really young, I was kind of put off by Newman's character. When men in movies have trouble, they get all silent and brooding. DULL!!! No wonder I've always gravitated to women in films...they have permission to express. Men in old movies always have to put up such a boring macho strong-silent front.

      And we both feel similarly about Paul Newman. Beautiful man, but he always seemed the same in film after film. Like Redford.
      Thanks for reading this, Wille! You always surprise me the scope of movies you've seen!

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