Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) — Mint julips and hot slips

Elizabeth Taylor died today. The obits and appreciations and tributes everywhere tell us that she was 79. But that suggests there was an earlier time, an epoch, a state of existence that predated Elizabeth Taylor. Was there ever such a time, really? From where I sit, there has always been *Elizabeth Taylor* in tall type and a photo three columns wide.

As an actress gifted, apparently, starting in the womb — then later as a persona, a pop-cult presence, a totemic "violet eyes to die for" emblem of a particular Hollywood era and glamor — eight times out of ten she was more interesting than the movie she was in. Out of her fifty films, maybe a half-dozen remain easily retrievable from the extempore cultural memory. (How many people today acknowledge her more for her eminent AIDS charity activism?) And yet no matter how hard a script or director tried to lock the tractor beams of camp onto her (a case in point), somehow she resisted the pull, even if only by inches. Her bold, liberating, Oscar-winning Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Mike Nichols' debut film from Edward Albee's play, is the performance that will long stand as testimony to her being, at her screen best, a presence beyond *Elizabeth Taylor* in sequin lights and the staccato of paparazzi flashes.

As usual, I'm compelled to reach to the discs on my shelves and restore her for a while. Here's the first movie I ever saw her in. It's not one of my favorites, honestly, but she left an impression.

Among the sweatiest of Tennessee Williams' southern character studies, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1955 gave Broadway an iconic sizzler in provocative Maggie "the Cat," a passionate, determined young wife with a smoldering case of the sexual fantods. In 1958, the inevitable Hollywood adaptation forged an equally iconic screen image in Elizabeth Taylor's Maggie, her body heat barely contained within a clinging white slip. No retrospective montage of Taylor's career is without it, and today the sight of her is still one to give us the vapors. She was 26 years old, in her 26th film.

(This isn't the earliest point in her career at which Taylor causes me to fan my collar. That would be A Place in the Sun with Montgomery Clift from 1951. Then there's MGM's "knights in shining amour" storybook epic Ivanhoe from '52. While Joan Fontaine was one of MGM's marquee beauties, she must have rued the day that Ivanhoe's other damsel went to Taylor, then only 20, who steals Fontaine's thunder with her eyes alone.)

As her alcoholic, broody, and cripplingly repressed husband Brick Pollitt, Paul Newman's was a make-or-break performance. The artless Production Code watered the gin of this Pulitzer-winning play's translation from stage to screen, in particular the play's implication that what haunts Brick are memories of a homosexual relationship with his lamented dead friend "Skipper." Although that significant layering got cut down to nothing — well, almost nothing — the role of the self-loathing, aging football hero broken by his best friend's suicide gave rising star Newman (MGM's "new Brando") a prestige-picture opportunity that springboarded his career to its later signature peaks.

Together Taylor and Newman's intimate scenes, which amp up tension out of Maggie and Brick's paralytic lack of intimacy, are the emotional wheels of a film that's simultaneously gunning its engine on a tempestuous reunion at the Pollitt plantation mansion.

This gathering of the dysfunctionals is ostensibly a 65th birthday celebration for the family's patriarch tycoon, Big Daddy. Played with image-defying bearishness by Burl Ives, Big Daddy is an obese, cancer-stricken Mississippi Lear, raging at the lies and "mendacity" polluting his materially wealthy, but emotionally and spiritually impoverished, world.

The grasping, gold-digging fawners surrounding Big Daddy and vying for his fortune include Brick's conniving older brother Gooper (Jack Carson) and Gooper's grotesque, perpetually pregnant wife Mae (Madeleine Sherwood), whose five "no-neck monsters" are such odious children they may have turned the entire Mississippi Delta on to birth control. Australian Judith Anderson (later Dame Judith) impresses in a second against-type role as fluttery, spiteful "Big Mama" Ida. A now clichéd literary Old South incarnate, here's a family trapped in its social network of deception, greed, hypocrisy, and denial, where "liquor and death do remain the only exits" — in other words, 180-proof Tennessee Williams.

Williams — born one hundred years ago this Saturday, by the way — was one of America's foundational dramatists. This production's bowdlerized adaptation of the stage play diminishes his raw sensitivity and plugs in some safe triteness about the value of family over material possessions. And the play's core topical hot spots — definitions of manhood, acknowledged female sexuality, Brick's own hidden sexuality — are hardly flashpoint material anymore. Still, this over-scrubbed production kept enough of Williams' energy and poetic Americana intact, fleshing it up with an ensemble of career-imprinting performances and MGM production lavishness.

Despite a few dips into obviousness and (unavoidable) melodrama, the film's pacing and drive remain steadily under the assertive, discerning control of tough-guy director Richard Brooks (Blackboard Jungle, Elmer Gantry, In Cold Blood, and 1962's Newman-Williams Broadway adaptation, Sweet Bird of Youth). Brooks also adapted the script with James Poe, and, despite an apparent lack of interest in Southern verisimilitude, did a seamless job "opening up" Williams' single-set play.

The film's Academy Award nominations went to Taylor, Newman, and Brooks, also Best Picture, Cinematography, Color, and Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium. (Alongside the film's name-brand star power, the art direction and the cinematography by distinguished cameraman William H. Daniels really are first-rate all the way.) None won, and it's an inexcusable Academy gutterball that Ives wasn't even nominated. All the same, this was MGM's top box-office hit of the year.

Two years later, Taylor finally won her first Academy Award for Butterfield 8. It was a film she hated, but there she is in a slip again, and I can't say it doesn't work for her.

Music: Frank Zappa, Broadway the Hard Way
Near at hand: SFWA 2011 election ballot