Censor me! The odor of mendacity: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

When I first thought about this series, I was going to do The Wild One for this review. However, as it came closer to writing time, I thought that I didn’t really want to watch that again, and more importantly when I wrote the essay about silly thing reasons for banning, I was reminded of Streetcar Named Desire. I’ve long loved Tennessee Williams plays (yes, I know), and as such, reckon that he’s had an inordinately unmerited time with the various censors on Stage and Screen. As such, there’s one work that was hacked to ribbons for the stage, but furthermore was brutalised to such an extent by The Hays code and the British censor that it is practically unrecognisable from Williams’ original intention. That film? Arguably his masterpiece, the stunning 1958 Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Contains Liz Taylor at her hottest and massive spoilers below

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof represents the ultimate collaboration between the three most important people in Tennessee Williams’ glittering career. Obviously, Williams himself, but furthermore it has Elia Kazan directing the original stage adaptation. There’s plenty of argument over how important Kazan was, and the overall authorship of Cat is as up for debate as Shaffer’s Equus, which had a very similar genesis. Kazan (as Dexter did with Equus) looked at Williams initial draft, didn’t like it and so either rewrote some dialogue himself, or sent Williams off to do it. Nevertheless, the initial stage production that earned Williams his second Pulitzer Prize and rehabilitated a somewhat tattered reputation is in many ways as much Kazan’s work as that of the playwright.

He’s drinking. He does a lot of this in this film

For the film version, the third member of this triumvirate dropped into place: Paul Newman. As an actor/ director Newman has starred in and been highly influential with a huge amount of Williams’ work, even taking the title role in the monumentally difficult (and mildly unpleasant) Sweet Bird of Youth. Having said that, Cat represents his finest hour in the playwrights work, and in many ways his interpretation of Brick, despite the glaring flaws of the film in comparison to the play, remains arguably the definitive turn. As, incidentally, does Liz Taylor’s smouldering performance as Maggie the Cat.

The play already had problems with the censors in both America and Britain, for reasons that I’ll come to in a moment, but that’s nothing compared to the sheer butchery that Richard Brooks’ 1958 film adaptation would inflict on it. That it is as good as it is, and bears some resemblance to Williams’ intentions is little more than a minor miracle, but nevertheless it still represents a diluted, milquetoast version of a staggeringly powerful play.

It really is quite an impressive dedication to booze this, given the distraction right in front of his nose.

Summary of the Film:

Anyone out there not know what this is about? Well, let me fill you in. The Pollitt family is gathering for a celebration. Maggie the eponymous cat(Liz Taylor) and alcoholic ex-high school football hero Brick (Newman) are suffering in the depths of a marital crisis, borne in no little part from her terminal sexual frustration (Brick, in typical Williams unsubtlety has a broken ankle representing impotence). His elder Brother Gooper (Jack Carlson) and his appalling social climbing wife Mae (an underrated Madeleine Sherwood) are desperate to get their mitts on Big Daddy (an epic Burl Ives) and his estate. Everybody has secrets and they all come out over the course of a tense and stormy evening.

Spoiler time:

Depending on which version you go for, play or film, the secrets are as follows: Brick is a closet homosexual who never got over the suicide of his friend/ boyfriend Skipper. Maggie, to try to stop the affair in it’s tracks shagged Skipper, and was arguably the contributory factor in him offing himself. Big Daddy is dying of virulent cancer, and is determined to make his heir out of one of his boys, although Brick is clearly his favourite. Maggie, to seal the deal, ends the play with the epic promise that tonight she’ll make her big lie reality (i.e. conceive), but the film is somewhat different.

And he’s still drinking.

Critical Judgement:

I struggle with this one, actually, because I find it almost impossible to divorce the film from the play. Williams, notably, hated it trying to discourage cinema goers from seeing his bastardised creation, stating that “This movie will set the industry back 50 years. Go home!” The Guardian recently called it “Ridiculous”, which is a tad harsh, although their complaint is how neutered it is which is entirely valid, and Gore Vidal commented that “they cut and cut Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”. Really, the film version is Cat on a Hot Tin Roof declawed, and that is a great, great shame.

Nevertheless, if I can divorce the film from the play in my head for a moment (difficult considering that Ives was reprising his Broadway role), it is still a remarkably good film. Thematically complex, Cat isn’t about one man’s closet homosexuality and the effect it has on his marriage. It’s much more than that, dealing with family relations, alcoholism, the deep south, avarice and so forth.

This is where most of the drinking takes place.

On the acting front, in many ways this is Liz Taylor’s finest hour. The only other contender in my mind is her stupendous turn as Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. She simply smoulders all the way through the film, a strong mix of sexual charisma and blatant cattyness that promises to scald those that she comes into contact with. She really is the “Cat on a hot tin roof”, and when she’s using that metaphor you absolutely believe it, and I struggle with the concept that Brick doesn’t spend most of his time nailing her to the bed. Newman is also stunning here. This isn’t a typically Paul Newman part, being quieter and more bitter, but he carries it with no little style. Nevertheless, the star turn is Ives, in what was described as the best performance of his career. It does help that Big Daddy is an exceptional part, but I’ve seen this film multiple times and numerous stage adaptations, and I’ve never seen anyone hold a candle to him.

However, there are problems with it. By panicking about the references to homosexuality, the film renders Brick’s inability to consummate his marriage as, well, weird. Drinking excessively doesn’t really provide an excuse, and the attempts to portray his friendship with Skipper as purely platonic don’t really work. Furthermore, there’s a gratuitous and pointless reconciliation scene thrown into the last act that really defangs the message of tolerance and anti-homophobia stance of the original play.

If you can’t beat ’em. Cheers!

Having said that, there really is a quite impressive level of alcohol consumed in the film. Newman has a glass in his hand in practically every scene, and even Big Daddy gets into the booze as well. Really, I do understand why they promoted alcohol abuse to explain impotence, but, well, it’s a bit of a cop out. Particularly when you consider what the source material contains in the way of motivation.

Nevertheless, this is still a fucking good film: gripping, electric and containing some simply knock out performances. It’s just a pity that it isn’t what it could have been, and that, really, is the tragedy of the film version. In many ways, given that we live in far more tolerant times, I’d be advocating a remake but the thought of some hack like Ratner in charge with a cast not fit to make coffee for the original (seriously, who do you cast as Maggie the Cat nowadays?) fills me with dread. It’s a shame, because as gelded as it is, this is probably the greatest version of the play we’re going to get on the screen.

Wait… Nobody’s drinking. Something serious must be up.

Why did it have trouble:

Dead easy this one: At the time, you were absolutely under no circumstances allowed to depict homosexuality in anything other than the most derogatory fashion on the screen. Sure, you’re allowed a flaming sissy as comic relief, but there is absolutely no way that a tragic, doomed and adult relationship can be shown- even in reference.

As such, the censor went to town. It’s faintly ironic that one of the most famous lines of the film “The odor of mendacity” that I used for the title comes just after the false reconciliation scene where they attempted to reposition Brick’s latent homosexuality as being entirely down to his alcoholism. To be fair, he is an alcoholic, but it’s a consequence of guilt and being in the closet that drives it. He doesn’t desire Maggie because he can’t bear what she’s done, and his own nature. Not so in the film, the alcoholism becomes the key explanation for his other problems. Talk about mendacious.

Booze. The cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.

Unfortunately, there is no gay-ed up version that can possibly be released because the screenplay was mangled before it even got near the censor. What we have here is an attempt at appeasement, a craven and cowardly de-fanging that fundamentally alters the main theme of the film depriving it of much of its relevance and, criminally, much of its impact.

Even then, though, the film was deemed too racy for the censors in the UK, and many places withheld the license for it. Not only did the UK struggle, but America was also somewhat nonplussed with Cat gathering a huge amount of Academy award nominations, but losing out to the frankly dreadful Gigi across the board. I guess the sight of Liz Taylor in that white slip was simply too much for them.

What we have here are thankfully outdated attitudes censoring a stunning work. It’s almost criminal the lengths they had to go to for Cat to be even adapted to the screen, and even Newman was saddened by what they had done. In comparison to the earlier Streetcar, which has a similarly difficult problem with an anecdote about homosexuality, Cat supplies even fewer hints at it, and Vidal commented that  “There was no way that Brick could have had any kind of sexual desire for his buddy”. He’s right, it is an impossibility from this screenplay for that to happen, not least of which because it contains Brick’s anecdote that he full-on rejected Skipper’s homosexual overtones.

I’m telling you, Maggie, he’s drinking too much.

Were they right?

Frankly, appeasement is never right. However, in this case, they really, really were wrong.

There’s nothing salacious about Brick’s relationship, it’s tragic, idealised and doomed by the spiteful actions of the (very) heterosexual Maggie. Furthermore, by removing it you also totally remove the message of honesty and tolerance of the play. It’s absurd to censor a message as basically benign as this one. Not to mention that it’s not even in the flaming timeline of the narrative- it all took place in the past and off-screen.

This, actually, pisses me off quite a lot, simply because it’s so needless and it so heavily gelds the final scene of the film. When Maggie the Cat promises in the play that tonight they’re going to make her big lie real, Brick’s destroyed- he has to go through with it because he’s not got any alternatives even if he’d rather do anything other than fornicate with her. In the film, however, there’s a disturbing triumphant tone to the final exchanges, as Brick (not Maggie) forsakes the lie, and tosses the pillow on to the bed that they’ll now presumably share.

“You’ve stopped drinking? Couldn’t you have told me? My shares in Jack Daniels will be worthless now”

Wow, what a healthy depiction of a marriage. How moral, well done Hays.

It’s a strange and poisonous re-affirmation of heterosexuality, and one that in context of the rest of the film doesn’t work. Furthermore, it takes Brick and Maggie closer to Gooper and Mae (the breeding couple), who are loathsome in every incarnation. The sultriness, sensuality, and evil temper of Maggie the Cat is something totally alien to the socially motivated Mae, and as such, I’m not sure what they’re trying to imply.

Basically, this is a horrendous rewrite, and I can fully understand Williams’ contempt for it. In the play, Maggie’s confession of her pregnancy is motivated for two reasons: to thwart Gooper and Mae and to fully entrap Brick in her web. In the film, this isn’t the case: Maggie the Cat, the hard-nosed bitch that she is, confesses to being pregnant as an act of kidness- she feels sorry for Brick and Big Daddy (after they’ve symbolically come out of the darkness together) and so tells her “Big Lie” to the family as a salve, a panacea for the sickness destroying them from within.

Right, I believe it’s Booze O’Clock.

There simply is no justification for declawing Cat like this. None, and I find it astounding that it was ever considered justifiable, not to mention that it’s a crying shame that this, now, is the only existent version of the film with the definitive cast in it. Sure, there have been a few attempts at a remake (one had Jessica Lange as Maggie the Cat- feel free to throw up now) but not one of them is a patch, as a film, on the original.

When I think what it could have been, this is a real pity and one of the bigger acts of sacrilege in Hollywood’s history.

“How dare you put that Supermarket scotch in the decanter! Where’s the good stuff?”

Conclusion:

Overall, this is a stunning and justly famous play. It’s also a stunning and justly famous film. Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean that the film is as good as it could have been- in fact, it isn’t remotely a patch on what is arguably Williams’ masterpiece.

Nevertheless, it is worth watching for a variety of reasons- Ives is titanic, and this is the first film I saw that made me realise the appeal of Taylor. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof features a cast at the very top of their game, with some immensely actor friendly, and hugely melodramatic dialogue in a setting that reeks of atmosphere. That it isn’t what I want it to be is my problem, not the film’s.

This is grossly misinterpreting the source material to get by the censor.

This isn’t a play that’s performed very often, probably because the part of Maggie the Cat is so difficult. It’s a fine line here that the actress has to tread, because the part is hugely unlikeable and bitchy, and if she loses the audience’s sympathy then the whole play collapses on itself like a house of cards. The shame is, though, that Taylor proves that it can be done, and there is a current revival in the UK, so I’m going to go and see how it measures up- they’ve also gone back to Williams original text (pre Kazan), so I’m curious to see the differences, as it will be, no doubt, even more overtly homosexual than the more performed version.

I know I’ve written a fairly bitter piece here, but that’s because of my regard for the original work. If the censor and the despicable Hays code hadn’t got their claws into this production this could genuinely have been in the top 3 films ever made. That’s how good it is. As such, I feel no qualms at all about thoroughly recommending it, because it is, still, a very fine movie.

It’s just a shame, really.

Until next time,

Jarv

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About Jarv

Workshy cynic, given to posting reams of nonsense on the internet and watching films that have inexplicably got a piss poor reputation.

39 responses to “Censor me! The odor of mendacity: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”

  1. Jarv says :

    Just for the avoidance of doubt- Yes, I am mildly in lust with Maggie the Cat.

    Everyone loves a bad girl, and she’s no doubt, pure filth.

  2. Xiphos0311 says :

    I’ve long loved Tennessee Williams plays (yes, I know)

    What should I know? Becasue I really don’t know anything at all.

    It really is quite an impressive dedication to booze this, given the distraction right in front of his nose.

    Is it a Jarv level of dedication to the sauce?

    • Jarv says :

      It’s that I got a lot of snotty remarks for this- he’s deemed passe, overly melodramatic and a bit naff. Which I think is unfair.

      Even, I’d have put it down given the distraction in front of him.

      • Xiphos0311 says :

        Williams is considered passe and overly dramtic? I’m not all that hip on plays but isn’t drama for a writer that writes dramatic plays sort of what its all about?

        Passe? aren’t his plays still getting produced on stage? again not really that knowledgeable about plays but if something is still being staged to me isn’t really all that passe.

      • Jarv says :

        I think it’s because they’re melodramatic often.

        This is the first revival of Cat in a hell of a long time. They’re not performed very often any more- probably because they’re “out of date” (i.e. they aren’t rammed full of Brechtian meta-nonsense and have actual sets and characters).

        The last one I can think of in the UK was the All Black Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with James Earl Jones as Big Daddy (epic casting). But that was about 12 years ago. Absurd really.

      • Jarv says :

        What I’m trying to get at here- is that the hipster douchebags and arty types that are in charge of theatre don’t stage Williams often because he’s too soap-opera-y. Instead they’ll put on another revival of Blasted or Shopping and Fucking or something (both are overrated rapey garbage) instead because they’re “edgy” and “Contemporary”.

      • Xiphos0311 says :

        It seems to me that in the current state of affairs regarding homosexuality in modern culture this play has something to say. Maybe I’m just reading too much into it. Like I’ve noted I’m not a theater person.

      • Jarv says :

        Yes and no.

        Nowadays the stigma is so much less that Skipper and Brick would probably have moved in to the Castro district in San Francisco and played happy families.

        It’s got more to it, though- the family dynamic is really well written, and probably universal. Having said that, though, there are lots of slavery analogies and whatnot.

        The all black cast was a stunning idea, and worked really well.

        As far as Williams goes, the one I expect to see come back in a major way is The Glass Menagerie- because the stage directions are full of all sorts of currently fashionable nonsense. Sweet Bird of Youth is viciously unpleasant and features a castration, so that may come back. Streetcar and Cat, though, which are the two best, are performed far less.

      • Xiphos0311 says :

        proper answer about the distraction by the way.

      • Jarv says :

        Cheers.

        It’s true though- almost anyone would put the drink down. Even me.

      • Xiphos0311 says :

        I would expect no less you would have to do it for Queen and country.

      • Jarv says :

        It’d be hard, but I’m sure I could keep a stiff upper lip.

        On that note, funnily enough, I’m off to the pub. See you later.

      • Xiphos0311 says :

        later

  3. Xiphos0311 says :

    I’ve never seen any version of CoaHTF, should I rectify that Jarv is it really worth it?

    • Jarv says :

      Yes, I would.

      The film is good, albeit melodramatic, despite my problems with it, and if they get Maggie right, then the play is fucking stupendous.

      • Jarv says :

        And Liz Taylor is fucking smoking hot in it- given that she does it with very little skin on display, it’s quite an achievement. The last act where she’s in a sheer white slip is positively boner inducing.

      • Xiphos0311 says :

        all right I will get the movie and watch it. If i ever come across the play being done by a minimally competent theater company I’ll bite the bullet and check it out. thanks. Not really a theater person but I’ll give it a fair shake.

      • Jarv says :

        I’ve seen quite a few productions of it- and I honestly believe it lives and dies on Maggie-

        The best one I saw was the Earl Jones one, and the worst was a student production where a very pretty girl played Maggie. It was a crying shame she had all the sex appeal of a used teabag. You could not see this woman seducing her husband’s gay lover and driving him to suicide, let alone that she was suffering from terminal sexual frustration.

        Taylor nails both of these things. Particularly the sexual frustration bit- she’s honestly crawling out of her own skin to get a bit for much of the film.

      • Xiphos0311 says :

        Even if I was gay I would be the first person to volunteer to help Liz Taylor crawl back into her skin. That’s a fine looking POA.

      • Jarv says :

        Me too. Couldn’t stop me. She’s unbelievably hot in this.

        There’s a bit more to it though- he genuinely hates her for what she did to Skipper, and he’s crushed by his own guilt. The film never gets this across, because it can’t because it’s excised the root cause.

        It’s a downright stupid piece of censorship.

  4. Xiphos0311 says :

    I forgot to mention that this was an excellent write up Jarv very interesting points you’ve made.

    • Jarv says :

      Cheers Xi

      I find Williams hugely interesting- as a flamboyant and open homosexual, he was miles out of his time. It’s a bit of a minor miracle he managed to have anything performed, and speaks volumes for how good he was.

      • Continentalop says :

        Man, I didn’t know you were such a huge Tennessee Williams fan.

        Thundercrack must have been doubly painful.

      • Jarv says :

        It did kill a bit of my soul.

        Hell, I even like Night of the Iguana and Camino Real-

        And nobody likes them.

  5. Continentalop says :

    Damn good article, Jarv.

    I remember the film being good but not great, but now I feel compelled to see the play.

    Also, I think Taylor was at her hottest in A Place in the Sun.

    • Jarv says :

      What pains me about this film is that it is really good, but if they’d gone with the play it could have been one of the greatest ever made. Everything is there- direction is tight, performances are immense (and the casting is perfect), it’s compelling, sad, and brings out a genuine catharsis.

      But they raped it. And the fucking play was censored as well, so it was a double raping.

      • Xiphos0311 says :

        With all the raping going on the play and the movie should be favorites over at AIFN, they really love the rape over there.

      • Jarv says :

        Streetcar? Yeah. Very rapy.

        Culminates with a rape.

      • Xiphos0311 says :

        no I was making a bad joke riffing on how you said both the play and the movie were raped and it made me think how much fat town loves rapey things.

      • Jarv says :

        D’oh.

        Apologies.

        Fatass will love this. Guaranteed- and without the slightest clue about the original play or the history.

        Instead, there will be a nebulous connection to someone he vaguely knows who bought his fat ass a green lantern funnybook. And then died if colon cancer.

      • Jarv says :

        My fault. Raping is too strong- declawing more accurate.

      • Jarv says :

        Also, if you do find a production of the play, it is worth checking what text they’re using. I know of at least 3(4 if you include the screenplay).

        I think the best is probably the original Kazan one

  6. Continentalop says :

    Too bad you weren’t in London in 2009, Xi. It seems they had an all-black production, with James Earl Jones as Big Daddy and Phylicia Rashad (Mrs. Huxtable) as Big Mama. Supposedly got good reviews.

  7. ThereWolf says :

    I don’t think I’ve seen ‘Cat’, certainly not all the way through. Don’t know anything about the source material either. If the chance presents itself I’ll have a look.

    Top read, Jarvis.

  8. redfishybluefishy says :

    yaya. good movie – one i actually own. i admit i have trouble with some old movies and the social issues – i get almost as frustrated as poor Liz, although for different reasons. But the performances in this make it well worth the watch.

  9. redfishybluefishy says :

    The Wild One. Censored for how good Brando looks in his jeans. 🙂 it’s scandalous for women to get aroused, you know… Likely also a reason that Cat was so scandalous… an aroused woman was considered highly improper and ‘hysterical’ and after all….

  10. paolocase says :

    Useless trivia from me: I’m not sure when this particular change to the play happened, whether it was through Kazan’s edits, the workshops, the play doctoring ‘out of town’ or during the play’s original run, but the third act was supposed to be just the female characters and Gooper fighting while Big Daddy and Brick re-emerging from somewhere. The basement scene was added because the ‘play doctors’/audience wanted more Big Daddy. I like that kind of censorship. Besides, a playwright doesn’t always own his story. The straightwashing on the other hand, I can’t abide by.

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