Saturday, 17 April 2010

Richard Brooks' Tennessee Williams I: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)

Richard Brooks’ two adaptations of Tennessee Williams’ plays are often vilified because of their cop-out endings that distorted the playwright’s work. This needs to be put slightly in context. Williams’ work was created for the stage which had (and still has) far more freedom than film or even TV. His plays treat uncomfortable themes and are populated with characters on the verge of the precipice. His themes (mental illness, homosexuality, sexual freedom, the South) were unlikely to pass any film adaptation untouched.

“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” was the first of the two, the second being "Sweet Bird of Youth". Originally performed in 1955 on Broadway with Barbara Bel Gueddes and Ben Gazzara, it was transformed by MGM into a vehicle to one of their brightest stars, Elizabeth Taylor. Her co-star was a rising Paul Newman. Burl Ives reprised his role as Big Daddy and Judith Anderson, Jack Carson and Madeleine Sherwood (also from the stage version) rounded the cast. All of them the standard to which I compare any cast whenever I have seen the play (which I have twice). Taylor oozes sexuality and her desire to resume sexual relations with her husband is present in her every look – it probably didn't hurt that Paul Newman was quite good looking. She also has the cattiness that the role requires, that need to fight her corner to the last breath which is the essence of her character. Paul Newman’s stillness and indifference in the first two acts of the film is pretty much how I see the character, which of course, is a very personal matter. Both were nominated for Oscars but lost to David Niven and Susan Hayward (who also beat Deborah Kerr, Shirley MacLaine and Rosalind Russell).

Judith Anderson proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that she was an excellent actress the moment I saw her scaring Joan Fontaine in “Rebecca”, and here, in the final scenes in the library and before, when she hears Burl Ives telling her how much he can’t stand her, she shows it again and again. You might not notice it’s Mrs Danvers (or Judith Anderson if you prefer), but I dare you to forget her. As you won’t Madeleine Sherwood, a viper personified, the ever-pregnant wife of Jack Carson. Carson made a career out of sleazy types and this is probably one of his best after his amazing performance in “A Star is Born”. Sherwood is an actress that has always fascinated me because of this film. She is so malicious and yet she manages to keep it real, which is quite hard – the balance is incredibly delicate. The other only film where I am aware of having seen her is “Sweet Bird of Youth”. But the great tour-de-force is Burl Ives. He’s perfect. Unforgettable. His disdain for his grandchildren made clear with one look; his passion for life written all over his face. He is the character and perhaps the greatest merit of the film is that he has a lot more screen time than in some of the versions of the play text.

The there were two obvious points of contention when adapting it. One was Maggie’s adultery. Saint Liz couldn’t be an adulteress and get away with it: not only that was not allowed by the Hays Code, but the audience wouldn’t forgive it. Probably for the same reason Taylor toned down in her performance her thirst for money, not so much by cutting words but by subduing them. So that was relatively easy to sort – and in fact its impact in the narrative might have been minor if not for the second issue: the references to homosexuality (both Skippy’s and Brick’s). Throughout the first and second act of the film (which coincide with the play’s and end with Brick’s conversation in the rain with Big Daddy) the film is as faithful to the play as possible – Brick is a hopeless drunk haunted by the death of his best friend. For a modern audience watching the film, there are clear hints that Skippy was in love with Brick, the clearest one comes from Maggie herself when she describes the moment when she almost seduced Skippy to get her husband back. She says something like Skippy had the same thought, i.e. if he sleeps with Maggie he can present her to Brick as adulteress have and conquer him back. This has the additional “advantage” of presenting the absent gay character as an opportunistic monster determined to taint the heroine. But the guilt ridden Brick has been cleansed. He really wants his wife, only he has yet to forgive her, and when he locks himself in the bathroom after an argument he caresses her nightgown. Still, it’s hard to swallow his description of great bond with his dead friend as just friendship. Brick is closeted, and will stay so as he is unable to deal with his feelings. So far, so Williams. But then the twist comes. The third act of the play is problematic and there are at least two versions of it. The film retains some of the key issues and dialogue (Gooper and Mae’s confrontation with Big Mama in the library), however, Brick’s character suddenly changes personality, no longer guilt ridden, no longer an alcoholic, he makes peace with his family and guide us to the most frustrating of endings. And this is not because it’s not the play’s ending but because it’s no longer the same character. The rain has operated a miracle, or maybe Liz’s curves did it. Either way, watching the film again, a couple of months after seeing it on stage, made me like it less than I did before. And sadly, I don’t think I will ever like it as much.

PS – I saw it at the BFI in the most disappointing of prints… surely they can afford to get a new one for such a popular title. The colours were off; the image was often not in focus, a bit of a mess really. For that I might as well stay at home and watch the DVD.

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