Tuesday, August 9, 2016

"Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" Still Scorches, Now on Blu-ray


Much has been written about Williams’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play losing its cat fight with the Hollywood censors over the 1958 film version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

What is a B.I.? Let's just say that there was one diligently on duty in 1958's "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof."
(Below, right) Apparently, the B.I. was nowhere to be found the next year during filming of Taylor's "Suddenly, Last Summer."
Critics of the cinematic Cat should consider that film censorship was so strong at the time that a B.I. vigilantly visited the set. What’s that, you ask? A Bust Inspector, of course! Later, Liz humorously wrote about the B.I., whose job was to perch upon a step ladder and look down Taylor’s bountiful bosom and make sure no excess cleavage was showing. According to Liz, this went on until short-tempered director Richard Brooks exploded one day, and the poor woman fled the set!

Paul Newman, as brooding Brick, who can't stop thinking about buddy Skipper.
Cat’s plot points that surround alcoholic former football star Brick and his best buddy, Skipper, were either omitted or obscured. Williams’ displeasure was vocal for decades after. For many years, the film version of Cat often received qualified praise because of those censored scenes. Recently, I’ve noticed some film reviewers now say that the censorship actually speaks to the era of ‘50s films and society. Ah, revisionist reviewers! But I kinda agree.

For me, the censorship of Cat has overshadowed the film’s virtues. Hollywood in the ‘50s was the last hurrah for their self-imposed Hayes Code. Williams had already experienced censorship in earlier film adaptations of his plays, especially 1951’s A Streetcar Named Desire.  What did Williams expect when MGM bought the film rights to Cat in 1956? That MGM’s Leo the Lion would put his story, with a subplot of suppressed man-love, on screen with a roar? My guess is that Williams was thinking more about the $500,000 MGM was paying him. It was much like Edward Albee’s later nitpicking over the screen version of his play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf—after collecting an unheard of $500,000 for a first play. And unlike Williams, Albee got to see the adaptation of his play make it onscreen virtually intact.

Taylor and director Richard Brooks, in a light moment.
In later interviews, Richard Brooks said that he knew he could take the material only so far with the censors. So, he worked with Newman, Taylor, and Ives in particular, regarding their characters’ discussion of Brick’s issues. Brooks said that their pauses, silences, and body language helped emphasize what went unspoken. Brooks also relied on camera angles and staging of his actors to suggest distance or discord.

Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor, one of movies most beautiful film couples.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof owes much of its classy status to its cast, especially Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman as Maggie and Brick, at their absolute prime of youth and beauty. But did you know when MGM bought the film rights, the plan was to cast their new “It” girl Grace Kelly as Maggie and borrow James Dean from Warner Brothers as Brick? Film fate intervened: Grace became a real-life princess and Dean died in legendary car crash. In fact, Newman inherited two other roles earmarked for Jimmy, Somebody Up There Likes Me and The Left-Handed Gun.

A few names were then bandied about during the casting of Cat, like Elvis Presley as Brick. Well, he was a Southern boy! MGM must have had dollar signs in their eyes after Presley cleaned up the cash for them with 1957’s Jailhouse Rock. Elvis and Liz, together…the mind boggles. For some reason, I see…fried chicken. A young actor under contract to Metro at the time was considered—William Shatner. Imagine all those pregnant pauses while Bill recites Williams’ rhetorical lines: “What…makes…Big Daddy…so…big?”

Lana Turner’s name was mentioned for Maggie, but I’m sure no-nonsense director Brooks nixed the notion of lacquered Lana’s posturing. Another MGM actress who might have impressed was Ava Gardner. She was a poor Southern girl like Maggie, who smoldered sultrily, and had lots of practice in marital warfare with Frank Sinatra. But like Turner, she was a full decade older than Elizabeth Taylor, and I bet the bottom line at MGM was they were well rid of their recently departed divas. So just-turned-26 Liz won the part, possibly the youngest Maggie the Cat ever.

Bette Davis was mentioned at the time for Big Mama, but Judith Anderson was cast instead. I wonder if it was because Davis had already worked with Cat director Brooks two years prior on The Catered Affair. Equally prickly Davis and Brooks got on like a house on fire. The film, about another squabbling family, and despite good reviews and stars Davis, Ernest Borgnine, and Debbie Reynolds—disappointed at the box-office. Like Liz Taylor once said about Hollywood’s bottom line, “There’s no deodorant like success.”

I wonder if former MGM star Spencer Tracy was considered as Big Daddy. Even then, a decade before his demise, Tracy was in frail health, which I thought would have added sad realism to the role. Father of the Bride co-star Taylor and director Richard Brooks certainly both adored him. However, Tracy appeared in The Desk Set with doting pal Kate Hepburn and then the popular political drama, The Last Hurrah, instead. I think off-screen curmudgeon Spence would have made a helluva Big Daddy.

Elizabeth Taylor starred opposite many method actors, including Newman,
Montgomery Clift, James Dean, and Marlon Brando. Lucky Liz!
Here’s something to think about when watching Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: filming was only in its third week when newlywed Elizabeth’s husband, producer Mike Todd, died in a plane crash. The only reason Taylor wasn’t on Todd’s plane, The Lucky Liz, was because she was home sick with a fever. Amazingly, despite her grief and the circus-like media coverage of Todd’s death, Taylor was back on the set just three weeks later. Paul Newman, a theater method actor and a relative movie newcomer, was at first skeptical of movie star Liz. When he saw Taylor’s famed tenacity in action, they became life-long friends.

Brick lets Big Daddy know there won't be anymore Happy Birthdays for him.
The strength of the film Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is its strongly directed ensemble cast. Newman admitted that he became a better actor later, but still, he has many intense moments with Taylor’s Maggie and Ives’ Big Daddy. Taylor, though her southern accent sometimes veers toward exaggeration, is the perfect Maggie. Much like Brando was the physical and casting ideal as Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire, so is Taylor as Maggie the Cat. Both roles have often been played, on television and stage, but who has topped either?

One of  the most haunting scenes of "Cat," when Judith Anderson's Big Mama
dejectedly walks away from Big Daddy's abuse
And that super supporting cast. Despite my Spencer Tracy casting daydream, Burl Ives truly steals the show as the volcanic Big Daddy. Often cool  Judith Anderson is warm-hearted and big-mouthed as Big Mama. Both Ives and Anderson are towers of strength here. Madeleine Sherwood is hilarious as Mae, aka Sister Woman, looking like a pregnant Pekinese, and is always adding to her tribe of no-neck monsters.

Jack Carson in another stellar performance as Brick's brother, Gooper.
A special shout-out goes to Jack Carson, a great comedic character actor who died young, and was equally good in dramatic roles.  Carson showed his funny and tough side as shyster Wally in Mildred Pierce; he was wisecracking and bitter as James Mason’s put-upon agent in A Star is Born; and in Cat, Carson is terrific as greedy second-best brother, Gooper.


Elizabeth Taylor testing in a long wig as Maggie.
The 1958 film of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is out on Blu-ray today, Aug. 9. The DVD blog reviews are positive, noting that the visual and sound transfer is as crisp as when Cat was released on the big screen. That’s good news because MGM’s latter day Elizabeth Taylor movies—Cat, Butterfield 8, and The VIPS—were all filmed in watercolor Metro-Color. Combined with wear and lack of restoration, these films often looked drab instead of fab. Let’s hope Liz’ other two MGM hits get the same star treatment.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Rick
    Thanks for covering one of my favorite films, congrats for doing so in a fresh way. Always so hard to think of a new angle to write about a much-discussed classic film, but I love the way you mixed unknown-to-me behind the scenes stuff (the Bust Inspector!) with personal observations (the Spencer Tracy casting idea is really inspired) and contextual references regarding casting and where certain stars were in their careers at the time.
    It will be great to see a really sharp copy of this film. I have to check to see if the Blu-ray offers any bonus material. A great read. Thanks!

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