DID YOU READ

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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New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…

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IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. 

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number! 

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time. 

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by. 

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IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo. 

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim. 

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t? 

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?” 

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud. 

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

The-Craft

The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”

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Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).

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Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.

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Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.

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Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.

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Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!

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Inter-not

Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.

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Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.

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If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.