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Remembering Elizabeth Taylor: “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”

Remembering Elizabeth Taylor: “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (photo)

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The “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” of the silver screen is a neutered one. The characters, scenario, and rough plot of this 1958 film are all identical to the 1955 Tennessee Williams play it is based on, but many of the finer details have been smudged, obscured, or removed altogether because of the restrictions of the Motion Picture Production Code of the time. Thus, the “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” we can watch today (it’s currently available on Netflix Watch Instantly) starring Paul Newman, Burl Ives, and Elizabeth Taylor at the absolute apex of her beauty, is certainly not the one Williams’ would have preferred we watch. But while the omissions and changes make “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” a less authentic reflection of the author’s vision, they also make it a more authentic reflection of the author’s times and that, in turn, gives the film a kind of an unusual power. You know the expression “a love that dare not speak its name.” This film works so hard not to speak its name, that it reveals it anyway through the desperateness of its evasions.

Let’s begin with Taylor herself, who deserves a good deal of the credit for the film’s success despite the fact that her role is supplementary to the ones played by Newman and Ives. She plays “Maggie the Cat” of the title, a woman who came from nothing to marry Newman’s Brick, the favored but disillusioned and alcoholic son of an extremely wealthy Southern family. Brick and Maggie have travelled to his family’s plantation on the eve of his father Big Daddy’s (Ives) 65th birthday, fearfully awaiting the test results from his trip to a clinic. Even after Big Daddy returns home with a clean bill of health, Brick, who’s broken his foot in a drunken attempt to recreate his past athletic glories, refuses to participate in the birthday party. Maggie, worried that Brick’s greedy brother Gooper (Jack Carson) will steal their inheritance, desperately tries to coax him from boozy stupor, but Brick rejects all her entreaties.

I don’t think it is an understatement to say that Taylor in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” is one of the most stunningly beautiful women ever photographed by a movie camera. A few scenes into the film, she peels off her already sexy outfit and saunters around in a cleavage-bearing white slip. The only word my vocabulary contains to accurately describe the sight of Taylor in this ensemble is one I learned from Tex Avery cartoons: “AwOOOOOOga.” Men throughout history have fought wars just for a glimpse of a woman like this but Brick barely notices her. Which is how we immediately know there is more to his depression than frustration over his bum foot. It’s how we also know, despite the screenplay’s frantic attempts to suggest to the contrary, that Brick is — or has at least contemplated life as — a homosexual.

This is the material from Williams’ play that the Production Code could not abide. As Big Daddy eventually confronts his wayward son about his drinking and his depression, the truth — or rather a truth — comes out. Brick recently lost a friend named Skipper, and that loss has, for some reason, sent Brick into his drunken tailspin. But why? Brick seems more emotionally invested in Skipper’s death than anyone would be for a simple friend, even a good one. Williams’ play never fully detailed the extent of Skipper and Brick’s relationship, but it strongly hinted at homosexuality on the part of one, or perhaps both. The film version is scrubbed clean of any direct references, but there some rather obvious allusions, always in lines of dialogue that are quickly silenced, like this evocative exchange between Brick and Big Daddy:

Brick: Skipper and I were friends. Can you understand that?

Big Daddy: Gooper and Mae said that Skipper —

Brick: Skipper is the only thing that I’ve got left to believe in. And you are draggin’ it through the gutter!

Big Daddy: Now just a minute!

Brick: You are making it shameful and filthy, you!

Censorship demanded many more changes to “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”‘s text and subtext, particularly to its ending. But whether intentionally or not, the changes to Williams’ play by screenwriters James Poe and Richard Brooks (who also directed the film), turn “Cat” into an example of the exact thing that Brick rails against in his drunken argument with Big Daddy: mendacity. He drinks, he claims, to numb himself to the lies and liars of the world around him. It might have been nice to have all of the play’s original homosexual content transferred to the film. But the reality of 1958 America was not a kind one to gay men and women, who often had to live unhappy heterosexual lives against their will. Hiding Brick’s truth, relegating it to innuendos and entendres, reflects the sad world Brick lived in. In some ways, it makes it even sadder.

Though Taylor doesn’t provide the film’s best performance — that would be Ives’ in my opinion, as the boisterous, menacing, charming, obsessive, and extraordinarily complex Big Daddy — she more than earns her Academy Award nomination in the role (she ultimately lost to Susan Hayward for “I Want to Live!”). Even as its treatment of Brick’s possibly homosexuality date the film to the conservative 1950s, its treatment of Maggie belongs to a later, freer era. Or maybe an earlier one; in many ways, Taylor reminds me here of her character in 1944’s “National Velvet.” Once again, Taylor plays a self-made woman, willful and determined to carve out a place for herself over the objections of skeptical men. After watching just a few of her starring roles, it’s quickly becoming very easy to see what generations of American women saw in her (my grandmother was a huge fan). She was simultaneously strong and feminine during a time when those words were too often considered mutually exclusive.

Those words certainly describe Maggie in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” But while the film’s title suggests Maggie as some sort prowling beast, the movie ultimately shows Maggie’s sexuality in a positive light. Note the way Maggie is always dressed in white, even while wearing some of the luckiest lingerie in movie history. Notice too how often Brooks lights her more brightly than her co-stars, particularly during the climactic scenes between Big Daddy and the rest of the family, where Maggie who provides the potential olive branch that will help repair Brick and Big Daddy’s broken relationship. Maggie isn’t a predator; she is a beacon and a healer, for Brick and for the entire family. Her ultimate effect on her husband may not be a realistic solution to Brick’s emotional turmoil, but in a mendacious film about mendacious times, it feels like a hopeful one.

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Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.

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Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:

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The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.

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They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!

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Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.

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Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.

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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.