Less than two months ago, a couple whom I am distantly connected to by marriage were in town. The lady’s American; her husband is Indian, and they live in New York. We were chatting about this and that, and the lady told us an interesting story: of how, some years back, they had been invited for a party, the birthday (I think) of someone very wealthy and famous. They were just entering—my ‘relative’ in a lovely purple-blue silk ‘temple sari’—when they ran into Elizabeth Taylor. Ms Taylor had one look at that temple sari and wanted to buy it.
“She was willing to offer whatever sum I wanted,” my ‘relative’ recalled. “I couldn’t let her have it, of course. That was the sari I’d worn for my wedding reception; it had sentimental value… but it matched her eyes so completely.”
RIP, Ms Taylor. The lady with the violet eyes. The lady with the seven husbands. The lady who could set the screen on fire—both with her breath-taking beauty and her superb acting. Even though she’s no more with us (she passed away on March 23, 2011, at the age of 79), she will live on in her films, hopefully for many generations to come.
And, so: a film tribute to Ms Taylor, one of her finest performances.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was based on Tennessee Williams’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name. The film got 6 Oscar nominations, for Best Actress (Elizabeth Taylor), Best Actor (Paul Newman), Best Picture, Best Director (Richard Brooks), Best Colour Cinematography (William H Daniels) and Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium (Richard Brooks and James Poe). None of the nominations won, resulting in speculation that the original play’s indications of homosexuality had not completely been suppressed in the screenplay, so the film hadn’t been considered politically correct.
But. It is still a brilliant film, and one of Elizabeth Taylor’s best. She is superb as Maggie Pollitt, the beautiful, poised daughter-in-law of a Southern tycoon; but also a woman rejected by her own husband, and trying desperately to entice him back to her. A highly emotional role, and perfectly portrayed.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is about a family. (I was going to write ‘is the story of a family’, but changed my mind, because it’s less of a story, and more the emotions, the feelings and the many personal demons the members of this family battle).
The scene is set in New Orleans, where the household of cotton baron ‘Big Daddy’ Pollitt (Burl Ives) is getting ready to celebrate his 65th birthday.
Some disquieting signs of illness have been bothering Big Daddy, so he’s gone off with his wife Ida ‘Big Momma’ (Judith Anderson) to get a check-up done. The doctor has warned that this may be serious.
In Big Daddy’s absence, the two Pollitt sons arrive at the grand villa, along with their respective families. There’s the older son, Gooper (Jack Carson), a lawyer in Memphis:
And his wife Mae (Madeleine Sherwood), pushy and nasal-voiced and amazingly fertile. With them is their gaggle of five obnoxious brats, and one more on the way.
In contrast, the younger son Brick (Paul Newman) has only his wife, the beautiful Maggie (Elizabeth Taylor) with him. Brick hasn’t visited his parents in several years; this is a homecoming of sorts, but hardly joyful, it seems.
Scenes go by, giving us an idea of the many worries and problems that beset this family. If you equated wealth with happiness, the Pollitt family is ample reason to understand why wealth, far from bringing happiness, can actually mean quite the opposite. Other than Gooper and Mae’s bratty children, nobody here is happy.
Gooper and Mae, for instance, are driving themselves batty with the thought that Big Daddy (who might be close to death) will leave the bulk of his fantastic wealth to his favourite son, Brick.
Gooper is more henpecked than anything else; his ‘avarice and greed’ (as Maggie calls it) are authored and propagated mainly by Mae.
Not that Gooper is a contented man. Deep down, below the easy-going and almost lackadaisical exterior, is a man hurt and frustrated by his father’s obvious disinterest in him. In one poignant scene, Gooper asks Big Momma why, despite the fact that he obeyed everything Big Daddy told him to do—become a lawyer, go to Memphis, get married, have children—Big Daddy loves Brick more than Gooper?
Brick himself doesn’t seem to be as close to his parents as a much-loved son would be expected to. The film begins with Brick, at 3 AM in the deserted grounds of the East Mississippi High School, setting up hurdles for himself on the track, drinking from a bottle, and looking up at the empty stands, listening in his mind’s eye (ear?) to cheering, and then going racing over the hurdles. And falling down, wrenching his ankle…
…and ending up with his leg in a cast. Why the drinking? Why the need to hear cheers where none can be heard? Why the need to prove that he can still jump hurdles, go sailing cleanly over them as if none exist?
Perhaps Brick, even with his exalted status as favourite son of Big Daddy, is far unhappier than Gooper ever could be.
The truth emerges, slowly. Brick is battling—and losing out to—his own past. Once he was a football star; then an injury put paid to his career, and a subsequent career as a commentator does not appear to have compensated. Brick has given even that up. Now he’s making a full-time job of drinking, day in and day out, and ignoring Maggie.
Maggie. Maggie the Cat. The woman who was so ‘disgustingly poor’ before she married Brick, that she will do anything to ensure that Big Daddy leaves his money to Brick, not to Gooper.
Not that Maggie is all mercenary: no. She is genuinely fond of Big Daddy, and is deeply, desperately in love with Brick. Which is why Brick’s indifference to her—he hasn’t slept with her for a long time now, a fact that is apparent to everybody around, even the detestable Mae—is even more hurtful.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, Mae has been gloating over the fact that Maggie doesn’t have any children. She’s even gone ahead and told her children that, and one of the girls taunts Maggie with it: “You’re just jealous ‘cause you can’t have babies!”
Of course she can’t (even though a gynaecologist has said there’s nothing wrong with her); Brick won’t sleep with her. But why? What is the deep, dark secret that lurks here, making Brick hate Maggie? What is it that makes Maggie burst out crying, wishing that all that drink had make Brick fat and ugly, so that she wouldn’t want him so desperately, yet not be allowed to even touch him? What does Brick’s dead friend Skipper have to do with all of this?
Big Daddy and Big Momma return, happy to have been told he’s fine. But, after the party that evening, the family doctor reveals the truth to Gooper and Brick: Big Daddy has cancer. It’s hopeless; he won’t live to see his next birthday.
How will that knowledge, slowly spreading through the Pollitt family, affect them? Will it change their lives, their relationships? Will it make them happier, more contented with what they have? Or will the looming death make them sink even further?
“You know what I feel like?” Maggie howls at Brick in one memorable scene. “I feel all the time like a cat on a hot tin roof!” And when Brick tells her to jump off, her response is, “Jump where? Into what?!”
But who really is the cat on the hot tin roof? Is it just Maggie, frustrated because the man she wants and loves has distanced himself from her? Or is it also everybody around her? Brick, so unhappy he’s cut himself off from everybody who loves him, and now has only drink for a friend? Gooper, groping for a reason for Big Daddy’s indifference? Or Big Daddy himself, so proud of himself and his achievements, that his greatest happiness lies in loving things, not people? Or Big Momma, trying to desperately to win the affection of a husband who doesn’t need her?
What I liked about this film:
Everything, but very specifically, the characterisation: the beauty of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof lies in the fact that it has only six major characters. It’s an uncluttered script, neat and sparse, which allows us to see the fine details in each individual character, the shades of grey, the nuances. (While on that topic: there’s this lovely scene where a weeping Maggie flings herself into Brick’s arms, crying for him. You can see his arms lift as he instinctively reaches to comfort her—and then stops himself. Makes you wonder how much Brick actually ‘hates’ Maggie, as he keeps insisting he does).
The acting. Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor at their best.
What I didn’t like:
Mae. Yes, the character is not a nice woman, but that isn’t my gripe. What I didn’t particularly care for is the fact that this is the only character that isn’t the wonderful shades of grey the others are. Mae has no redeeming qualities that I can see. Maybe there should’ve been something there to like.
But, oh: this film deserved an Oscar. Deserved more than one Oscar.