RAMNATH N PAI RAIKAR | NT NETWORK
Following the stage and screen success of his play, ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ (1947), one of the most influential playwrights of the 20th Century, Tennessee Williams came up with another stage creation, ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ (1955), premiered on the stage on March 24, 1955, as directed by Elia Kazan. This play, dealing with motifs such as social mores, greed, superficiality, mendacity, decay, sexual desire, repression and death was Williams’ personal favourite. The play also went to win Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Actor Burl Ives and actress Madeleine Sherwood starred in the Broadway performances of the play, in the roles they subsequently enacted in the movie. Ben Gazzara played Brick in the stage production and rejected the film role as did Elvis Presley. Athlete turned film star Floyd Simmons was also tested for the role. The story goes that MGM had bought screen rights to the particular play shortly after it took Broadway by storm, originally planning to star James Dean as Brick. However, it took so long for the studio to come up with a screenplay that would be true to Williams’ sexually charged story while still getting past the Hollywood Production Code, that Dean never made it to the screen in the role as he was killed in a car crash after starring in only three films. Finally, the role went to Paul Newman, a rising young star, who would later inherit several roles planned for Dean.
Lana Turner and Grace Kelly were both considered for the part of ‘Maggie, the Cat’ before the role went to Elizabeth Taylor. In fact, the delay in selecting the actress for this role cost MGM, especially when Grace Kelly left acting to become Princess of Monaco. The timing was perfect for Taylor, however. She had just scored meaty roles in ‘Giant’ (1956) and ‘Raintree County’ (1957) and, at the urging of her third husband, Mike Todd – himself a film producer – was eager to establish herself as a solid dramatic actress. Todd in fact, himself negotiated a new contract for Taylor with the MGM, with whom she had started her career more than a decade earlier.
The film production began on March 12, 1958, and by March 19, Taylor had contracted a virus, which kept her off the shoot. For the same reason, on March 21, she cancelled plans to fly with Todd to New York, where he was to be honoured the following day by the New York Friars’ Club. The plane crashed, and all passengers, including Todd, were killed. Beset with grief, Taylor remained off the film until April 14, 1958, at which time she returned to the set in a much thinner and weaker condition. The make-up artist for the film, William Tuttle therefore suddenly faced a challenge of erasing all signs of grief and desolation seen in the lead actress and ensure that the on-screen Taylor bore no resemblance to the tragic widow off-screen. The way Taylor finally looked in this colour film was a testimony to both the star’s tenacity and the artistry of the MGM production team.
The music score, “Love Theme from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” was composed by Charles Wolcott in 1958. He was an accomplished music composer, having worked for Paul Whiteman, Benny Goodman, Rudy Vallee, George Burns and Gracie Allen. From 1934 to 1944, Wolcott worked at the Walt Disney Studios. In 1950, he transferred to MGM Studios and as the general music director composed the theme for this film. The remaining songs on the soundtrack are composed by a variety of artists such as André Previn, Daniel Decatur Emmett and Ludwig van Beethoven.
Tennessee Williams was reportedly unhappy with the screenplay of the film, which removed almost all of the homosexual themes and revised the third act section to include a lengthy scene of reconciliation between Brick and Big Daddy. Paul Newman, the film’s star had also stated his disappointment with the adaptation. The Hays Code limited Brick’s portrayal of sexual desire for Skipper, and diminished the original play’s critique of homophobia and sexism. Williams so disliked the toned-down film adaptation of his play that he once told people in the ticket queue, “This movie will set the industry back 50 years. Go home!”
Despite interference with the play, the film was highly acclaimed by critics and audiences alike and received six Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Cinematography (Colour). But then ‘Cat…’ may have been too controversial for the Academy voters; the film eventually didn’t win any Oscars and the Best Picture award, that year went to ‘Gigi’ (1958), another MGM production. Ironically, Ives, who was not nominated for his role in ‘Cat…’ won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for ‘The Big Country’ (1958), at the same ceremony.
‘Cat…’ was produced at a budget of $2,345,000. According to MGM records the film earned $7,660,000 in the US and Canada, and $3,625,000 elsewhere, registering total collection of $11,285,000. It was one of the top-ten box office hits of the year 1958.
The film was subsequently remade as a television film, ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ in 1984, starring Jessica Lange and Tommy Lee Jones in the roles of ‘Maggie, the Cat’ and Brick. This adaptation for television was originally premiered on Showtime television network on August 19, 1984 and revived the sexual innuendos, which had been muted in the 1958 film.
Former football star, Brick Pollitt (Paul Newman), along with his wife, Margaret ‘Maggie, the Cat’ (Elizabeth Taylor) has arrived at his family home in eastern Mississippi to celebrate Big Daddy’s (Burl Ives) 65th birthday. Late night in a drunken state, Brick attempts to jump hurdles to recapture his glory days of high school football, only to fall and break his ankle leaving him dependent on a crutch.
Depressed, Brick has spent the last few years drinking while resisting the affections of his wife, who taunts him about the inheritance of Big Daddy’s wealth. This has resulted in an obviously tempestuous marriage; there are speculations as to why Maggie does not yet have a child while Brick’s brother, Gooper (Jack Carson) and his wife, Mae (Madeleine Sherwood) have a whole pack of children and are expecting another.
The hospitalised Big Daddy along with Big Mama (Judith Anderson) arrives home for the birthday via his private aeroplane. Despite the best efforts of Gooper’s family to draw his attention to them, Big Daddy has eyes only for Maggie. The news is that Big Daddy is not dying from cancer. However, Dr Baugh (Larry Gates) later meets privately with first Gooper and then Brick where he divulges that the news is a deception. Big Daddy has inoperable cancer and will likely be dead within a year, and the truth is being kept from him. Brick later confides in Maggie with the truth about Big Daddy’s health, and she is heartbroken. Maggie wants Brick to take an interest in his father for both selfish and unselfish reasons, but Brick stubbornly refuses.
As the birthday party winds down for the night, Big Daddy meets Brick and expresses annoyance at his alcoholic son’s behaviour. At one point Maggie joins them and reveals what happened a few years ago on the night Brick’s best friend and football teammate, Skipper committed suicide. Maggie was jealous of Skipper because he had more of Brick’s time, and says that Skipper was lost without Brick at his side. She decided to ruin their relationship “by any means necessary”, intending to seduce Skipper and expose his loyalty to her husband. However, Maggie then fearing the result backfiring runs away without completing the plan. Brick blames Maggie for Skipper’s death, but actually blames himself for not helping Skipper when he repeatedly phoned Brick in a hysterical state before committing suicide.
After an argument, Brick lets it slip that Big Daddy will die from cancer and that this birthday would be his last. Shaken, Big Daddy retreats to the basement. Meanwhile, Gooper, who is a lawyer, and his wife argue with Big Mama about the family’s cotton business and Big Daddy’s will. Brick descends into the basement, a labyrinth of antiques and family possessions hidden away. He and Big Daddy confront each other before a large cut-out of Brick in his glory days, and ultimately reach a reconciliation of sorts.
Soon, the Pollitt family begins to crumble under pressure, with Big Mama stepping up as a strong figure. Maggie says that she’d like to give Big Daddy her birthday present: the announcement of her being pregnant. After the jealous Mae calls Maggie a liar, Big Daddy and Brick defend her, even though Brick knows the statement is untrue while Big Daddy has doubts about it. Even Gooper finds himself admitting, “That girl’s got life in her, alright.” Finally, Maggie and Brick reconcile, and the two kiss, with the implication that they will possibly make Maggie’s ‘lie’ the ‘truth’.
The title of the film, ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ comes from a scene in the play/ film when Brick rebuffs Maggie’s flirting, and she pleads to know why he consistently rejects her, further describing her pent-up frustration as akin to that of “a cat on a hot tin roof” with nowhere to go.
When Elizabeth Taylor returned to the set of ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’, following a three-week break due to the death of her husband, Mike Todd in an air crash, seeing how much weight she had lost, director Richard Brooks ordered real food to replace the prop food for a dinner scene, and then demanded extra takes, forcing the actress to start eating again.
During post-production of ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’, Elizabeth Taylor started an affair with her husband, Mike Todd’s closest friend, the very married singer and actor, Eddie Fisher. When Fisher’s wife and MGM actress, Debbie Reynolds filed for divorce, the scandal almost destroyed Fisher’s career. It however helped make ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ the studio’s biggest box-office hit of the year, with almost $10 million in box-office returns. When Taylor won an Oscar nomination for her performance, Reynolds cancelled her plans to present an Academy Award at the ceremony. Though Taylor lost her award to Susan Hayward for ‘I Want to Live!’ (1958), she still dominated coverage of the awards. And just to add a comic footnote to the proceedings, Fisher sang one of the nominated songs, the aptly titled “To Love and Be Loved.”