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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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,