I haven’t seen Sarah Esdaile’s production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. But now it’s a fascinating experience to watch the 1958 film version of Tennessee Williams’s play, adapted and directed by Richard Brooks, and starring Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman – and effectively to read this movie against the theatre review from Michael Billington and the readers’ comments now building up on the site.
This was a film that was well enough regarded at the time: it earned six Oscar nominations and three Bafta nominations. But yes, Michael Billington is surely right: you can’t watch it now without being aware of the way in which the issue of homosexuality has been censored for the screen. Brick, the drunk and washed-up ex-football star played by Newman, has very clearly failed to come to terms with his sexuality and his real feelings for Skipper, the old football buddy who died after an ambiguous accident. His wife, Maggie (Taylor), is crucified by her desperation to make Brick desire her: she is played with mesmerically feline intensity radiating from that perfect oval face, the pristine white dress over her opaque slip cinched to accentuate a conspicuously slim waist and the absolute impossibility of being pregnant. And a very real black-comic pleasure of the movie is how hateful we are as children. WC Fields himself would nod grimly at how these appalling little beasts behave, plunging their unwashed hands into tubs of ice-cream or firing nerve-shreddingly loud toy six-shooters at the grownups.
Everyone in Brick’s family is lying, to themselves and others. Brick’s father, an overbearing southern patriarch (played by Burl Ives) gruesomely called Big Daddy by his nearest and supposedly dearest, and “Cap’n” by the servants, has inoperable cancer. But his doctor and family lie to him about the seriousness of his condition, claiming it’s just a “spastic colon”, and poor pathetic Daddy now struts and sneers for the last time, glorying in his phoney release from imminent death. But without a clear sense that Brick is in denial about being gay, the parallel with Big Daddy’s cancer-denial has been upended and the whole issue has surely been fudged. Is the movie guilty of precisely the evasion the play is attacking?
Well, maybe. But actually that denial, that erasure, now has an interestingly modernist flavour. Over and over again, the characters will rant and rave about “mendacity”, about not coming out with the truth, not facing up to the facts. Big Daddy will ask Brick: “What are you disgusted about?” He will ask him about Skipper and Brick will holler back: “You’re making it sound shameful and filthy!” It? What? Make what sound shameful?
These endless and mysterious repetitions give the movie a weirdly Pinteresque feel. It reminds me of Joseph Losey’s The Servant. Homosexuality is everywhere and nowhere in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. And perhaps that unspokenness is realer than the play. Perhaps the unsaid would remain unsaid in just this way, creating a dysfunctional miasma with which the movie, almost by accident, creates something with a more direct line to a kind of honesty – or perhaps an honest transcription of dishonesty. In real life, in the 1950s, off the stage and off the screen, people were governed by their own self-censorship code.
It isn’t a great performance from Paul Newman. After his one drunken flourish in the movie’s “offstage” preliminary sequence, breaking his ankle after a boozy attempt to vault some hurdles, he is mostly moodily quiet and resentful. He seems almost catatonic with self-hate. But perhaps 1950s audiences were more savvy about what was preying on his character’s mind than we think. Certainly the movie industry itself would have picked up on the unspoken ambiguities. Looking at Paul Newman’s impossibly beautiful face, paralysed, almost mask-like with uncertainty and pain, you might think now of Rock Hudson or Monty Clift – men who lived out a Brick-like career in the closet.
But the movie’s tacit approach has another advantage – and again, I would say this is an advantage that by accident or design brings the movie closer to real life. Does Brick himself realise what his feelings were? They are a secret from others, sure (although I get the strong feeling that Elizabeth Taylor’s Maggie is entirely undeceived) – but perhaps they are also a secret from Brick himself.
Now of course I should travel to the West Yorkshire Playhouse to read the play against the film …
• This article was commissioned responding to the reader thread underneath Michael Billington’s article on Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, particularly comments by butchluva and Stauffenberg1943
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