December 23, 2011

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) is a Southern-fried family drama, adapted from the Tennessee Williams play and directed by Richard Brooks (James Poe co-wrote the script). It's one of the better films to come from Tennessee Williams, despite the fact that MGM completely removed the play's most controversial subject matter in the adaptation.

Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor play a not-so-happily-married couple. Taylor is electric, even when she climbs into histrionics, as the sexually frustrated Maggie. She's stunning in this, and Brooks frames her in doorways to heighten her allure. Newman is intense but vulnerable as Brick, the alcoholic ex-football hero who claims Maggie slept with his now dead BFF, Skipper. Brick's repugnance with his wife is half-hearted at best. In one scene, after he pushes Maggie away, only to be confronted with her nightgown hanging on the bathroom door, he lets down his guard, drinking in her aroma. You know he wishes he could stop playing the offended husband. He's at his best when he's laughing--his sense of humor humanizes him. Newman was always at his most appealing when he was clearly having a good time with his performance, even if he was playing a heel like in Hud (1963).

As with any Tennessee Williams story, the room is always thick with raw emotion, and skeletons are lining up behind the closet door waiting to tumble out. But you can forgive it for being over the top. It's lusciously entertaining, full of self-loathing and big revelations, like nine months of therapy condensed into 100 minutes with a glossy MGM sheen over it and beautiful people on the screen. When I first saw it years ago, I was so stunned that I immediatately rewound the VHS and watched it straight through again. Almost every character has a moment of self-awareness that is actually quite touching. The veneer is lifted even if only momentarily, and a kind of inner-truth is revealed--one that's deeply broken and human.

With Burl Ives as Brick's father, Big Daddy (yes, really), the booming-voiced Southern tycoon who likes controlling everything from his plantation to his sons, and is confronting his own mortality when he learns that he has inoperable cancer. Judith Anderson plays Big Mama, the stereotypical Southern matriarch with a big voice and a short fuse. Jack Carson plays Brick's brother, Gooper, the dutiful firstborn who's doing everything he can to please Big Daddy and assume control of the family fortune when the inevitable happens. He's got an obnoxious, conniving wife (Madeleine Sherwood) and a litter of plump, rude, ruddy-faced little imp-children.

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