And then her mother's high-heeled slippers threw her off balance and she fell to the sidewalk in a great howling tangle of soiled white satin and torn pink net, and still nobody looked at her. I wonder if she is not, now, a Southern writer.
One of my enduring memories is of a rather particular (or peculiar) evening when my mother and I found ourselves both watching Richard Brooks' 1958 adaptation of Tennessee Williams' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" on television. I imagine more than a few people might raise an eyebrow at the notion of a woman watching a movie like that with her adolescent son. Myself I would later on look back on that as perhaps the first time my mother and I had what could be called an "adult conversation". Not, mind you, an adult imparting some sort of information to a child, but a conversation between two people sharing the same wavelength. Commenting on what was happening in the movie. What's sometimes referred to as a "bonding moment".
I dwelt on that moment during a recent re-reading of the original play. To fully appreciate Tennessee Williams it is important to not only see the various adaptations but to actually read the plays. Of course that could be said of any author, but Williams is particularly deserving of this sort of scrutiny. His plays are filled with descriptions and insights which don't necessarily make it out into the dialogue, and if a person wishes to fully understand what's going on, or completely grasp the ins and outs of a Williams character, then one cannot improve upon reading his observations.
I once opined (back in September of last year, I believe) how the genius of Williams was in his firm grasp of the horror story which is the American South. His uncompromising eye recognized the collection of human wreckage which exists below the Mason-Dixon Line (and which sometimes threatens to bubble over the edge of the pot and stain the surroundings). William Faulkner shared this clarity of sense, but whereas Faulkner would begrudge an occasional victory to a situation, the people in Williams' plays always presented the impression of people drawing the tattered remains of their best clothes about them as they took a last walk to face a firing squad. Both Faulkner and Williams believed in nobility, but Williams' notion of nobility was in the image of the captain going down with his ship. Noble but no less drowned. Any victory which occurred was hard-won, and sometimes through the instrument of self-delusion, or the recognition of intense personal failure. At the end of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" (the play, rather than the movie), Maggie speaks of "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 gold you let go of". In Williams' world view Triumph walks hand in hand with Surrender (that is, if one is fortunate). The key ingredient is Grace, which Williams makes as slippery as water.
I need to be focusing on the 1958 film but, frankly, it's not all that easy a job. Williams himself disliked the screenplay by Brooks and James Poe and, if you've compared it to the original play, you could possibly understand. The play won the 1955 Pulitzer Prize, so one would be forgiven for presuming that a work so honored would move to the movie screen unscathed. But we are a peculiar species. With one hand we reward our great artists, and with the other one we ban their works (or, if you're someone like Pasternak, you're practically disowned by your home government). Williams writes a fantastic play and everyone applauds. Then the time comes to adapt it into a movie and people scream "but there's all this talk in it about people suspected of being QUEERS!"
From this we must perhaps conclude that, in America at least, impressionable people do not attend the theater.
Anyway . . .
So changes were made to the plot, or at least the dialogue. Any mention of homosexuality (presumed or otherwise) was firmly pushed far to the background (although the implication remains for any with the wit to pick up on it). Perhaps the most climactic argument in the entire play had to be rewritten from scratch, and I get mixed feelings concerning Brooks and Poe for their efforts on account of their trying to placate the bluenoses.
(I really don't want to rag on Brooks too much. He directed one of my favorite Westerns, 1966's "The Professionals", and of course some people say he redeemed himself for what he did to "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" with the blue ribbon job he did directing the adaptation of Capote's "In Cold Blood". And I actually don't dislike "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" too much so I'm inclined to cut him some slack. The Readership is, of course, free to deliver its own judgment.)
Presumably all of you have seen the movie, or read the play (or both). But it's my habit to supply a plot synopsis so as to cover all the bases. Big Daddy Pollitt is one of those white trash land barons which have a tendency to crop up in American Southern Fiction. He returns to his mansion after having been examined for the possibility of cancer (having been told it's nothing more than a spastic colon . . . everyone go "uh oh").
Thank you. Truth be told, Big Daddy is already pretty far down the road to the cemetery and, while he grumbles through his birthday party, a conspiracy is going on around him concerning who's going to get The Money! The battle is between Big Daddy's two sons. Gooper Pollitt is white trash-in-training: an obnoxious little turd just a few hoods shy of a Klan meeting. Brick Pollitt is well on the way to being an alcoholic following his failure as a professional athlete/sportscaster, and the recent death of his best friend Skipper.
Or, rather, I should say that the battle is between the wives of Gooper and Brick. Gooper is married to Mae. Better known as "Sister Woman" she is a constantly pregnant erdmutter and a sixteen cylinder illustration of that most peculiar of Southern American inventions: a Gentile yenta. To know her is to despise her.
Brick is married to Maggie, or "Maggie the Cat" as she is sometimes known, and yes she is the titular feline. Everyone in the play has problems to some extent, but Maggie is holding the PhD with honors. She is hopelessly and passionately in love with Brick and spends the entire production in pretty much a state of heat. Brick, however, wants nothing to do with her because the suspicion is out that Maggie had been having an affair with Skipper (and was with him on the night he killed himself). Maggie is worried about losing Brick, not only because she loves him, but because it'll mean that all The Money will go to Sister Woman and Gooper (sounds like a folk duo, don't it? "Sister Woman and Gooper Sing 'How Much is That Doggie in the Window?'').
Okay I think that pretty much sums up the situation. In 108 minutes Brooks lets the entire business play itself out (fortunately we're only dealing with five central characters) and, regardless of the possible crippling given to the original play, there is still enough tension going on to hold the interest. Brooks enjoyed bringing emotions to a boil, and this isn't so much a soap opera as a raw nerve having acid dripped on it. Turning one's head away can be a bit of an effort.
It certainly helps that Brooks tried to overcome the problems resulting from the rewrite by gathering as much talent as possible to handle the roles. From the original Broadway production he managed to get Burl Ives as Big Daddy and Madeleine Sherwood as Sister Woman. This was Burl Ives' first real acting role following a career as a folk singer, and Williams wrote the role of Big Daddy with him in mind. It fits. With the assistance of William Daniels' cinematography, Ives lumbers about the mansion, a redneck Goldfinger positioning himself so that he hears and sees all, ready to pounce whenever the target comes within range. Ives is portraying a man at the top of his empire who is about to be hit by a very serious truth, and the audience sees him crumble but not quite collapse. He is the epitome of Southern Rich, and kudos to Williams for knowing what he wanted.
I did not see "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" until after I had watched "The Flying Nun" television series, and so I was naturally very much surprised to see Reverend Mother Superior Placido playing a coarse-tongued Southern bitch. Later on, of course, I would appreciate the talent of Madeleine Sherwood to reach out and invoke such total dislike from the audience. Never becoming a stereotype, Sherwood's Sister Woman is a screeching and calculating harridan, a Dixieland Lady Macbeth who is not afraid to hit below the belt (one could easily imagine her sneaking into Big Daddy's bedroom at night and smothering him with a pillow if she felt it would hurry things along). I have disliked many characters in Williams' plays, but Sister Woman has always topped the list, and Madeleine Sherwood is the reason why.
(Her performance is aided and abetted by the presence of a crew of perfect brat kids . . . correctly referred to by Maggie as "no-neck monsters" . . . and I suspect the second hardest job Brooks had was in casting such a loathsome crew. The hardest job was probably in keeping from strangling the little beasts on set.)
As Gooper, Jack Carson is probably the weakest character in the production. But that's no reflection on Carson's talent. An accomplished character actor, Carson here takes on a role consciously designed to be weaker than the other pieces on the board. He's just as much an itching palm as Sherwood, but the other characters possess so much more dynamic personalities. Gooper is meant to be a punctuation mark to Sister Woman's rapacity (been wanting to use "rapacity" for quite a while now), and Carson had the sense to recognize this and not overplay. The fact that he manages to grab some thunder speaks well of Carson's talent. Especially good is a scene where he's crawling about the floor, collecting some scattered legal documents. He reaches one only to find that one of Big Daddy's feet is holding it down, and he looks up to see the Colossus of his father grinning evilly at him. Portrait of Carson as a man about to go down, and down hard!
It never fails to amaze me how some Britishers (or colonials, rather) can pull off American Southern so well (most of the time, that is. Richard Harris in "Major Dundee" is still something of a sore spot with me). I understand where Laurence Olivier played Big Daddy in a production of the play, and Lord knows I would've loved to have seen that. In Brooks' film we have Dame Judith Anderson as Big Mama Pollitt, and one would swear she was born in the back end of a cotton patch east of Natchez, her attitude and delivery letter perfect. But Anderson was never a stranger to playing a variety of ethnic backgrounds, and few women could focus onto drama the way she could. Big Mama Pollitt is a woman obviously in love with her man, trying to overlook his cruelties and disrespect only by the skin of her teeth. She is the possible future of both Sister Woman and Maggie (had they the wit to see it), but is holding together as best as she can, even when faced with the news of her husband's impending death. At a climactic point in the film Big Daddy is incapacitated during an argument with Brick, and Big Mama has to hold her own against both Sister Woman and Gooper. Here Anderson undergoes a transformation from clinging vine to powerful Southern matriarch, and seeing her lash out practically makes the entire film.
I never want to damn a man on account of his principles, but I find myself saddened that Ben Gazzara was upset enough by the changes made in the play to where he refused to repeat the role of Brick that he had played on stage. As with Olivier as Big Daddy, Gazzara as Brick is something I would've loved to have seen. On the other hand, I cannot deny that Paul Newman did a worthwhile job with the role. Also disappointed by the changes in the script he managed to buck up and take on the challenge, managing to at least keep me entertained with his interpretation of a man crippled both spiritually and physically. Even using crutches Newman moves through the film like a panther looking for a way to escape out of a cage and, considering the steaminess of the atmosphere (literal and figurative) he manages to be the coolest character in the ensemble. He knows the chips are going to fall no matter what, and he'll take them however they hit the table. His control reaches the snapping point during a one-on-one verbal battle with Big Daddy. This is the speech which had been heavily rewritten but, in spite of the misgivings surrounding it, Newman and Ives possessed enough talent to give it and the scene a sense of genuine power. They are both playing men wrestling with a variety of truths, and neither of them like it very much. To me the tipping point comes when Ives, in the middle of a passionate discourse on how he's going to expand his empire, suddenly realizes he's not going to live to see the results of his work. Cut to Newman who is confirming the truth with a steady look from his ice blue eyes (the moment also giving him the strength to accept the wreckage of his own life). As powerful moments go it is fleeting but memorable, and a prime example of why God invented Paul Newman.
We finally come to Elizabeth Taylor as Maggie.
There were so many things happening with the production . . . all of them unfortunate in their own way . . . that one is almost surprised that the movie got made. On the day shooting began Elizabeth Taylor's husband Michael Todd had been killed in an accident. It would've been reasonably expected to have the entire project shut down for what would seem a decent interval. Taylor showed up, however, and the work went on. With this sort of shadow to operate under (and doubtless staying with her throughout the shooting schedule), Taylor's performance takes on a special context. Sinuous and clad in white (setting off her complexion and hair to good effect*), Taylor's clearly wearing passion on her sleeve throughout the entire movie. She is seeing everything she desires . . . her husband, her dreams of wealth , , , uncontrollably slipping out of her fingers. Taylor's Maggie is a desperate woman. Desperate enough to have risked her marriage by trying to provide comfort to Skipper (a man she hardly cared for, but whom she realized was very important to her husband) if only to dispel the rather ugly rumors floating around concerning the friendship between Skipper and Brick. Maggie lacks the power to fight back on the same levels as the others. The only card she can play is with her sexuality, but even that isn't enough to break through Brick's sullen reserve (strong man that Newman). Only the advent of an overwhelming family crisis gives her a window of survival. She ends the story not necessarily as the heroine, but simply as a survivor. In a Williams play that's often nine-tenths of the law.
(*After Taylor's role here the closest anyone comes to looking so openly desirable in humid white is Eleanor Parker in "The Naked Jungle", followed by Taylor again in "Elephant Walk".)
Williams' own notes refer to Maggie's speech pattern as "liturgical". Listening to Taylor one can easily imagine her confessing her sins before a crowd of God-fearing (and nosy) Southern church-goers. Among other things, Maggie is the Greek chorus of the story, providing background and motive for all that's happening. Along with trying to restore herself in Brick's good graces, Maggie is continually defending herself in a very personal sort of courtroom, and oftentimes she's playing to the windshield: an audience of herself. Taylor follows Williams' instructions to the letter. She goes on for stretches at a time, and the audience is occasionally tempted to yell SHUT UP at the screen*. But, as I said, it is not Maggie's fate to be a heroine. It is not necessarily important that the audience falls in love with her or sympathizes over her plight, and Taylor understands this very well. She will be offered redemption only if the others in her family can bring themselves to embrace Truth (even in its most uncomfortable form), and both the play and the film ends with Maggie on the brink of a wholeness she never thought she was searching for, but must now grab with both hands if she wishes to endure. Taylor rubs against Newman so well (and sometimes very literally), making this perhaps one of her better roles.
(*By the umpteenth time she pronounces Skipper's name as "SKIPPA" I, for one, am ready to plunge Super Glue into both my ears.)
I had mentioned the numerous problems orbiting this production. On top of everything else the Musicians Union was on strike while this was being filmed, so "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" didn't have an original score composed for it. Instead the background was filled with various pieces from the MGM musical library. This includes Andre Previn's theme from "Tension" doing double duty as the opening theme. The whole musical arrangement is low-key . . . almost inobtrusive . . . and actually works rather nice. Almost as if one of the characters had put on a long-playing phonograph record and let it play out.
In spite of all the bad breaks and wrong turns the movie went on to be one of the biggest box-office draws of 1958. It received many Oscar nominations but was beat out for Best Picture by "Gigi" ("none of that nasty homosexual talk there!"), and Susan Hayward beat out Elizabeth Taylor with her role in "I Want to Live" (and rather deservedly so). Undeniably crippled, almost stillborn at birth, "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" nonetheless manages to grab at the audience and, on enough occasions to make it count, holds on for dear life.
Tennessee Williams didn't like it, but my Mom sure did.