BP Saturday Night Movie: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)

When I think of Elizabeth Taylor, I return to my grandparents’ house in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.  I visited there when I was very young, and the furniture, the decor–everything now seems to me to represent that time of the 1950s and early 60s so epitomized by actresses such as Taylor.

It’s like what George Costanza on Seinfeld said about affairs, which to him brought to mind cocktails and William Holden. That time did seem like a more adult version of America, when writers like Cheever were probing beyond the suburban facades.

But it likely was no different than now, perhaps even worse, as young men and women struggled with the expectations that once in their twenties, they would assume the roles held by their parents. Today, we have more leeway in that regard.

Tennessee Williams’ play, adapted here for the screen, centers on Brick (Paul Newman) and Maggie (Taylor), a young married couple, buckling under the weight of their responsibilities–to each other, to society, to Brick’s extended family, particularly the malevolent Big Daddy (Burl Ives).

Newman is loutish and petulant– a kid in a man’s body. Taylor is earthy, sensual and seductive. Other than Giant (1956) and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966, not recommended as a date movie), I’ve seen little of her work, but here she comes across as downright pulchritudinous, displaying a grounded sexuality quite different than the glamor queens of the day like Grace Kelly or Audrey Hepburn. (Walking around in her slip doesn’t hurt.)

Taylor cast a more complicated figure, which gave her, back in the day, the sort of allure that made her famous, someone who felt familiar yet unknowable. It wouldn’t be long before she, along with Richard Burton, would lapse into near-caricature.

Williams’ work won a Pulitzer Prize, so it doesn’t need my critique. I’ll say that this is just the sort of overheated southern melodrama that seems very specific to its place and time. From what I have read, the playwright was unhappy with the adaptation, which, he felt, sanded down the rough edges off the work, specifically with regard to suggestions of Brick’s homosexuality.

Newman has long been one of my favorite actors, but Taylor does him in here. Even when forced by the theatricality of the work to chew various parts of the scenery, she rarely comes off as less than a full-realized creation.


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