BULL ON A THIN
Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof deals with the dangers of mendacity—how lies and omissions controvert and destroy. Big Daddy’s dying of cancer but doesn’t know it; while everybody else except Big Mama knows, agitated “first born” Gooper and his snoopy forever preggers wife Mae plot to use the open secret to commit “avarice and greed” by having Big Mama sign papers transferring ownership of the family estate to them. Meanwhile, baby brother Brick is boozing in despair over his best buddy Skipper having killed himself after he not only admitted to failing to bed Maggie but that Brick was who he really wanted. As punishment, Brick engages in “nightly refusals” to pump frustrated, clawing Maggie. The whole shebang of high-strung lunacy was certified as Pulitzer Prize drama and did smashing box office on Broadway. Though the movie directed by Richard Brooks was also a huge hit, Williams was quite prescient when he said that no one would buy into the nonsense that Paul Newman’s Brick preferred the bottle to Elizabeth Taylor’s scrumptious Maggie. We didn’t, and to this day nobody can figure out exactly what Brick’s problem is; we’ll need the Hubble telescope to find anything of Skipper’s predilections in the movie. Just as ludicrous, no one utters the word “cancer” and 1958 movie censors demanded that the salty language be excised, including the word “crap”—changed to “bull.” Appropriate, considering the scenario. As co-adapters, Brooks and James Poe slice away line after heavily superfluous line the play’s characters get bogged down by and this is enormously beneficial to the movie actors—it energizes them, with more amusement and uplift than Williams originally intended. (He wrote a downer third act which theatre director Elia Kazan convinced him to change; you’ll know why when viewing the Natalie Wood-Robert Wagner and Jessica Lange-Tommy Lee Jones versions.) Recreating their Broadway roles, Burl Ives as Big Daddy and Madeleine Sherwood’s Sister Woman are smashingly entertaining demons of the southern Williams kind; Judith Anderson as Big Mama and Jack Carson as Gooper are warty gargoyles, validating Big Daddy’s not very silent disdain for them. As pinnacles of 50s icons, Newman and Taylor are just about at their ripest, so of course it is a hoot that he watches her straighten silky seams or walk around in a super-sexy slip and then feign a lack of arousal. The absurdity saves the picture. Williams objected to the casting of Taylor because she’s the antithesis of his vision of Maggie. Though he denied that Brick’s a closet case, no one who saw the Broadway play could blame Ben Gazzara’s Brick for thinking that Skipper might be a better roll in the hay than Barbara Bel Geddes. Directors of subsequent revivals never dared to duplicate that mistake. Taylor created the mold Elizabeth Ashley, Wood, Lange, Kathleen Turner and Ashley Judd would accommodate—Maggie as sultry feline, the opposite of the playwright’s penchant for cunning propaganda. No music attribution, though IMDb lists Charles Wolcott as uncredited composer of original score. Portions of the score have been lifted from André Previn’s music for the 1949 Tension.
Text COPYRIGHT © 1997 RALPH BENNER All Rights Reserved.