Monday, October 23, 2017

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.
There are several aspects of this 1958 film directed and adapted by Richard Brooks which lend themselves to criticism. For one, the play on which it is based, written by Tennessee Williams, all but obliterates the homosexual bond between Brick Pollitt (Paul Newman) and his deceased football playing friend, Skipper, to comply with the Hollywood Production Code in force at that time. In a movie about lies, the script is dishonest about this relationship. (Williams did not like the movie). And, the story is heavy-handed in its metaphors. Brick literally carries a crutch around to mirror his use of alcohol as a psychological prop. Brick’s wife, Maggie (Elizabeth Taylor) refers to herself as a “cat on a hot tin roof,” because she is always in the hot seat when it comes to the family she has married into. She says she can’t jump off because there is no place else to go, which implies a lack of feminine empowerment. Calling a woman a “cat” is a sexist term, implying women are pretty on the outside and still have claws underneath to harm. It is also a slang reference for a prostitute.

However, the characters are fairly complex, and there are techniques that make the movie worth the watch. Even though the film retains the intensity of the stage version by keeping most of the action indoors, Brooks utilizes a variety of camera shots, ranging from close-ups to inclusive shots of the characters. He highlights one character in a scene over others by placing that person in the foreground. He also shoots upward to emphasize the “bigness” of Big daddy, and aims the camera downward when the point of view is from Big Daddy, to show how he views the world from his powerful height. The camera work “opens” up the presentation of the story, making it cinematic.

It is true that at the beginning of the film, Maggie, who came from poverty, seems to be using her sexual attractiveness to seduce Brick’s father, Big Daddy (Burl Ives) into leaving his fortune to Brick. But, as the story unfolds, we realize that her motivations are not just monetary. She has loving feelings for Brick, and cares about Big Daddy, so there is more to her than what first meets the eye. Brick has injured his leg while trying to jump hurdles in an attempt to recapture his football hero days. He wants to escape the truth of his current life, which includes feeling betrayed by his wife, and unloved by his father. He also has lost his best friend, Skipper, to suicide. His isolation is shown by his staying by himself in his bedroom. He hardly can look another person in the eyes. When he and Maggie speak, he talks with his back to her, not wanting to confront the reality involving his family, which includes his now celibate relationship with his wife.
The opening scenes are full of color outside among the flowers of the Pollitt estate. However, this appearance is just a glossy diversion from the selfish acts of the children of Brick’s brother, Gooper (Jack Carson) and his greedy wife, Mae (Madeleine Sherwood). They have a brood of noisy, spoiled children, who Gooper mostly ignores, as is illustrated by the indulgent way he handles one boy submerging his hands in the ice cream dessert. Mae is pregnant again. It appears that they are a happily married couple, but the excess procreation is just a ploy to win Big Daddy over into wanting his wealth and power handed down through future generations by bequeathing his assets to Gooper and Mae. Since Brick and Maggie are childless, Gooper and Mae feel they have the upper hand. It is no wonder the children only think of themselves given the parents they model themselves after. Big Daddy is dismissive of Gooper’s family’s fawning, greedy ways, but he should not be surprised. Gooper is his father’s son, since Big Daddy emphasized accumulation of wealth, and Gooper followed his father's prescription of material success by being practical and financially responsible.

Big Daddy and his wife, Ida, aka Big Mama (Judith Anderson), return from a medical assessment to find out what ails Big Daddy. He has digestive issues, but he says he has a clean bill of health. Maggie goes to tell Brick the good news that his father is okay, and asks him to join Big Daddy’s sixty-fifth birthday party celebration. Brick would rather wallow in his alcoholism. Maggie is at her wits end as she tries to embrace her husband who will have none of it. She is distraught by the absence of receiving any affection from Brick. He escapes, physically and mentally, into the bathroom. He caresses Maggie’s nightgown hanging on the door, indicating he is submerging his romantic feelings toward his wife. Ida bursts in, looking for Brick. She wants to know if he is still drinking, and says to Maggie that her son’s alcoholism and Maggie’s infertility have caused their marriage to fail. Even Dr. Baugh (Larry Gates) is deceitful here, trying to spare his patient and his wife the depressing fact that Big Daddy is actually stricken with terminal colon cancer. He reveals this fact to Brick while checking on his ankle. Gooper also knows about the severity of his father’s illness, but, he, too is hiding the truth from Big Daddy. Brick is honest about Big Daddy’s health to Maggie, who shows genuine sadness about her father-in-law’s illness.
A pouring rainstorm occurs, which is another obvious metaphor for the familial turbulence in the Pollitt family. Big Daddy seems to want honesty. He says that in his house there is, “a powerful and obnoxious odor of mendacity.”  He confronts Brick, who says, “I’m ashamed, Big Daddy. That’s why I’m a drunk. When I’m drunk, I can stand myself.” But Big daddy tells him the truth is “always there” whether he tries to escape it or not. He says that Brick didn’t kill Skipper; he killed himself. So, Brick should stop indulging in self-pity. He basically tells him to grow up. He says that Brick is deceiving himself by pretending to live in a child’s world with his fixation on his past football days. Big Daddy says, “Life ain’t no damn football game.”  He tells Brick that he is “dreamin’ and drinkin’” his life away. He adds, “heroes in the real world live twenty-four hours a day. Not just two hours in a game.” But Big Daddy is hypocritical about his marriage, saying life is “makin’ love to a woman you don’t love anymore.” And, he hasn’t confronted his own mistakes in the way he raised his children, or his feelings toward his own father.

Big Daddy pushes Maggie to tell what she knows about Skipper. She admits that she hated Brick’s football career, and his close association with his teammate,Skipper. She got Skipper drunk and thought about seducing him, to spite her husband and possibly break up the friendship between the two men. But, she changed her mind and backed out. Skipper was so drunk he did not know what happened between himself and Maggie, and called Brick to apologize. Brick, angry at both of them, hung up on his friend. It was after this episode that Skipper killed himself, and Brick now blames himself and Maggie for his death. Brick, not wanting to deal with these harsh truths, runs out into the rain storm. His car getting stuck in the mud is also symbolic of Brick being mired in his own escape from reality. As he tries to get out of the car, he breaks his crutch, which implies that he will now start the attempt to free himself from his dependence on alcohol and his escape from the shame he feels. But, he he brings Big Daddy along on his journey toward truth by telling his father that the doctor lied, and his condition is fatal.
The true selfishness of Mae, who eggs on Gooper, comes through as she and her husband hound Ida to get Big Daddy to take Brick out of the will. Maggie shows up and it becomes known that Big Daddy is terminal. There is a great deal of ugly squabbling as Mae pushes her argument that Brick is a worthless drunk and Maggie can’t provide offspring. Maggie calls Mae a low-life social climber who only wants to satisfy her greed. Ida reveals her previously disguised strength here as she resists the demands of Gooper and Mae.
With the knowledge of his impending death, Big Daddy retreats into the mansion’s cellar, where there are piles of objects that he and Ida have accumulated. It is almost like he is an Egyptian Pharaoh entering his tomb, where it is believed the accumulated wealth will follow the leader into the afterlife. Brick follows him there and asks him why he bought all of this stuff. Big Daddy says one keeps buying things hoping, “one of those things will be life everlasting.”  He talks about how he wanted to make up for the poverty of his youth. His father was a tramp riding boxcars, who took his son with him. He says he remembers the hunger and the shame. He says that his father died laughing, running after a train. Brick makes Big Daddy realize that maybe his father was happy in a life that gave him freedom, if not wealth. And, he tells his father, maybe he was, “happy at having you with him. He took you everywhere. He kept you with him.” He gets Big Daddy to admit that his father left him more than an empty suitcase - he also left him memories and love. Big daddy finally faces the truth that he actually loved his father.

Big Daddy then says that Brick should have come to the people who loved him when he was in trouble. But, Brick, who was looking away from people because he didn’t want to confront the problems in his life, now says to his father, “Look at me,” wanting Big Daddy to realize that all he offered Brick were things, when what he really needed was his father’s affection. Brick then trashes the objects in the cellar, showing his contempt for material things unaccompanied by true affection. The scene ends with the two men helping each other up the stairs, both needing each other to deal with their individual afflictions.

Despite his bad health, Big Daddy has a positive attitude and shows a closeness with his wife that rekindled after the enlightening encounter with Brick. Maggie stops Gooper and Mae in their tracks when she says that she is pregnant, thus deflating their argument that Brick and Maggie can’t carry on the family name. It is ironic that Maggie’s lie is a positive ploy here, as it brings an end to discord in the family. However, upstairs, in their bedroom, Brick says, “Maggie, we’re through with lies and liars in this house. Lock the door.” Supposedly they will become intimate again, and Brick will turn Maggie’s lie about a child into a truth.
The movie argues that the lies that we tell ourselves and others, believing they will protect us, only separate us from those whose love will sustain us.

The next film is The Shawshank Redemption.

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