Saturday, April 21, 2012

Richard Brooks | Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

bricked up in boyhood
by Douglas Messerli

Richard Brooks and James Poe (screenplay, based on the play by Tennessee Williams), Richard Brooks (director) Cat on a Hot Tin Roof / 1958

There are surely a great number of perverse comedic effects in the film version of Tennessee Williams’ play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, beginning with the earliest scene, in which the handsome former star athlete, Brick Pollitt (Paul Newmn) drunkenly sets up—in his arrangement of jumping hurdles—the scene for his own downfall. Brick is anything but the solid rectangular form his name suggests, but is rather like a plate of jello. Awash in his own feelings of sorrow for himself and, particularly, on behalf of his enchanted youthful past, he drinks endlessly until he can hear the “click,” when the waves of self-pity and sorrow, guilt and desire, suddenly disappear into the depths of his unconscious mind. He is a still a boy, as his father, the imperious Big Daddy (Burl Ives) declares, at the age of 30. And he will someday, if he cannot change his ways, be a boy still at the age of 50. He is, in short, bricked up in boyhood, unable to face his role of a man living in the world of the present, pouting his way (and oh how Newman can pout!) through life.

     His beautiful cat-like wife, Maggie (Elizabeth Taylor), on the other hand, is equally perverse in her determinedness to remain with him, despite his complete dismissal of her constant sexual readiness, to bear out the hot stare of the sun on the tin roof of the Mississippi mansion in which Brick and she, along with Brick’s brother, Gooper (Jack Carson), sister-in-law Mae (Madeleine Sherwood) and their four children have gathered to celebrate, purportedly, the 65th birthday of Big Daddy. Some of the best comic lines, in fact, are given to Maggie, who impatiently withstands the assaults of Gooper and Mae’s “no neck monsters,” who, through Mae’s careful plotting, spend the entire film insensitively marching, trumpeting, singing, dancing, waving, and shouting their way through the abyss of these touchy adults. Despite his declared pleasure in the fecundity of the female species, it is clear that Big Daddy cannot bear their presence—nor, for that matter, the presence of his forebearing, ever cheerful wife, Big Mamma (the wonderful Judith Anderson). No matter how much one loves children, these are clearly dreadful examples of breeding combined with the machinations of their mother to keep them constantly on view with the hope of dramatizing that fecundity (she is pregnant with yet another) to Gooper’s parents as opposed to the barrenness and lovelessness of Brick and Maggie’s marriage.

     Gooper and Mae’s outrageous maneuvers to inherit Big Daddy’s millions and land is often hilarious, as they, piece by piece, lay out the evidence for Brick’s incompetence and Gooper’s patient facility—he’s a lawyer who has helped with Big Daddy’s affairs as the old man has grown ill. Armed with stacks of legal documentation and wills, hiding around corners to overhear incriminating evidence, Gooper and Mae are like some comic spies right out of a story located in the Balkans. Somewhat like her children, Mae whines and pleads, cattily attacks and smugly stands her ground in her attempts to make their claim for Big Daddy’s bucks.

     The only problem, as the play begins, is that Big Daddy, having just returned from a visit to the best clinic in the state, is declared by the doctor to be cancer free, and the self-centered barrel of pork and self-made satisfactions intends to live forever, perhaps finding himself a young lover to get pleasure out of life! The doctor, however, makes the mistake of telling the “truth” to the sons. If the relationship between Brick and Maggie is a strange and mysterious stand-off (there on the wide screen is one of the most handsome heterosexual actors of the day, denying even the touch of sinuous, sapphire-eyed sex goddess), the relationship between Big Daddy and Big Momma, if possible, is even more absurd. The years of abuse between them has created, particularly in Big Momma, a kind of scab which protects her from any infection of possible love. She is a tough as Maggie, as audacious as Mae, is a kind of dragon-lady pretending to be a pleasant old Southern belle. As she herself admits, “We never were a very happy family. There just wasn’t much joy in this house. It wasn’t Big Daddy’s fault. It was just…you know how some families are happy.”

     Strangely enough, in this family of liars, Big Daddy is determined to get to the truth. He and Brick share, so they insist, a hatred of mendacity! And through an interlocution of Brick, the old man is determined to get to the truth of why his handsome son (even Maggie muses that as he gets more and more alcoholic his looks improve) has become an drunk who refuses to embrace is willing wife. As Ives, playing Big Daddy, huffs and puffs his way through the house, shouting out his hatred of mendacity, however, the film turns strangely self-referential, creating an odd feeling among the those might have witnessed the Williams play on which this perverse film was based.

     The long drawn-out series of admissions Big Daddy elicits from his son are a mish-mash of excuses and explanations that simply don’t add up. Seems—according to writers Richard Brooks and James Poe, helped along by the merriment of the boys and girls at the Hays Office—that the two boyhood friends, Brick and Skipper had a kind of idealized relationship, wherein Brick depended upon the seemingly invulnerable grace of Skipper and Skipper depended upon the skills of Brick, a friendship transgressed upon by Maggie who could no longer endure their locker room camaraderie. Sick for one game, Brick is hospitalized, and Skipper is forced to play the game without him. According to Maggie’s account, without Brick he grew cowardly, unable to complete plays, fumbling throughout. The team significantly lost, and Skipper’s confidence in his own abilities was forever compromised. Deeply depressed, Skipper needed someone to rely on, inviting Maggie into his room. To Brick’s way of thinking, her entry was an outright seduction, a way to ruin his relationship with Skipper “by any means necessary.” But Maggie claims that Skipper was equally a partner in the proposed encounter; it was she who, at the last moment, got cold feet, afraid that instead of winning Brick that she might lose him in the act. She ran, leaving Skipper to fend for himself. Completely at odds, with no one to help him, Skipper called Brick in his hospital room, explaining the depths of his fear, his sense of emptiness. Angry, Brick hung up, refusing to answer the several rings of the phone, the pleas, symbolically, of a desperate Skipper, who later that evening committed suicide.

     So there! That explains it: Brick’s refusal to have anything more to do with his wife, his alcoholism—a product of his guilt for turning his back on his life-long friend. Huh?

     “Mendacity!” shouts Big Daddy. “There ain’t nothing more powerful than the order of mendacity!” We can smell it even through the screen. Men rarely kill themselves over a loss of a football game. They rarely commit suicide when a friend’s wife refuses to have sex. And a man does not usually deny his wife, particularly a wife as shapely as Elizabeth Taylor, over the death of an idealized friend—even if it represents a lost fantasy.  Even Big Daddy explains: “You didn’t kill Skipper. He killed himself. You and Skipper and millions like you are living in a kids’ world. Playing games, touchdowns, no worries, no responsibilities. Life ain’t no damn football game. Life ain’t just the high spots.”

     Inattentive readers might be forgiven if they imagine they have missed something. Even reading in—as I’m prone to do—upon this muddied narrative, it’s hard to glean the “truth.” Of course, I’ve read the play, but even if I hadn’t I’d have to imagine that something was not being said, that the relationship between Brick and Skipper was not just an idealized boyhood friendship out of which Brick had never been able to emerge! No! There was something else going on in that locker room of which Maggie the cat got a good whiff. It’s that age-old love—at least in 1955, the date of the stage premiere—without a name. When Skipper, having batted out with Maggie, called Brick to name it, the boy just got scarred, that’s all, scarred to find out what he probably knew all along, that he and Skipper had a queer love deeper than his and Maggie’s could ever become.

     “This room smells of mendacity,” shouts Big Daddy in Richard Brook’s 1958 film, as he comes up from his basement tryst with Brick, ready to face what he now realizes are his last hours. He has squared off with the spectre, is ready to wander his estate with his wife to take in the last pleasures of the world he has created. But the film—given the perversities of the Hays Office and filmmakers of 1958—must reel off just a few more lies: Maggie announcing that she has a life within her (both Big Daddy and Big Momma are perfectly willing to agree that there is life within her, whether it be a metaphor or a real foetus); but poor Newman has to almost choke on his last lines: “No more lies in this house,” he declares embracing his “unembraceable love,” fiddling with her to fix up her fib.    

Los Angeles, March 20, 2012

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