Friday, September 20, 2013

Too Hot to Handle

Maggie (Elizabeth Taylor): Truth! Truth! Everybody keeps hollerin' about the truth. Well, the truth is as dirty as lies.

I suppose you couldn't find a more vivid illustration of the phrase dysfunctional family than Tennessee Williams' play about the fictional Pollitt family of Mississippi, "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof."

The movie version, starring Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor and Burl Ives, premiered on this day in 1958.

Williams won a Pulitzer Prize for the play, but the film adaptation, with which Williams was displeased, won no Oscars. It was nominated for several, but Ives, who was Big Daddy, the family patriarch, wasn't recognized with so much as a nomination. In my opinion, that was a crime.

(Ives, it should be noted, did not go unrecognized by the Oscars that year. He won the best supporting Oscar for a movie that was released less than two weeks after "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof""The Big Country.")

The movie sure had a heavyweight cast and it told a pretty heavy story, too, about a couple whose marriage was on the rocks and the dysfunctional family from which one (Newman) came.

In hindsight it was sort of like a dramatic version of "Everybody Loves Raymond." Newman was the golden boy, a football star in his youth; he had a brother (Jack Carson), the dutiful son always in his sibling's shadow even though he was the one who built a successful life, married and gave Big Daddy grandchildren (lots of grandchildren).

Big Daddy was, of course, the patriarch, and Big Mama (Judith Anderson) was the matriarch.

Big Daddy was dying of cancer, but he and his family were in denial, enabled by their family doctor who first told them the cancer was in remission but eventually told Big Daddy the truth.

Apparently, the screenwriters rewrote portions of Williams' play, deleting the homosexual angle of the story and inserting a scene of reconciliation between Newman's character and Big Daddy.

It did not produce Williams' desired effect.

Yet, even with those concessions to the mores of the day, "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" was still too hot for the Oscars to handle. As I say, the homosexuality was toned down considerably, but, in its place, the writers explored themes like adultery, alcoholism and infertility that were rarely featured in movies of that time.

That may have been a little too daring, and it may have worked against those who were associated with the film — which really is too bad because, whether you speak of the movie or the play on which it was based, it's always been my opinion that it was the best of Williams' works.

And I've always felt it was one of Taylor's best performances.

If I'm asked to choose my absolute favorite Liz Taylor performance, I'll pick Martha in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" every time. But her performance as Maggie would easily make my Top Five.

I guess what has always impressed me about that performance is the fact that Taylor, in her mid–20s at the time, was capable of such passion and empathy at a time when, privately, she was mourning the death of her third husband, Mike Todd.

I don't think I would select "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" as Newman's best performance — but it was one of 'em. In fact, I would say the cast was flawless. The material was altered from the original, but the power of the story was undiminished.