At Home, BluRay/DVD Reviews

CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF (Warner Archives)

By • Aug 30th, 2016 •

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BluRay review by Roy Frumkes

One of the most difficult challenges to film directors is opening up plays and making them cinematic. Failures in this endeavor result in some of the most unpleasant film-going experiences, since the viewer is constantly reminded that what they are watching was originally confined to a stage.

Richard Brooks was unable to conquer this problem in his production of CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, despite countless large and subtle efforts to do so. Paul Newman, as Brick Pollitt, breaks a leg in the film’s first scene, jumping drunkenly over hurdles at the local sports field at night. Obviously that wasn’t a stage device. But immediately thereafter, we’re buried beneath an endless amount of first act talk, overwrought Tennessee Williams talk to boot, so that there’s no mistaking this for anything other than a stage-bound vehicle. Counter-balancing the weight of the omnipresent proscenium are Paul Newman’s piercing blue eyes, and Elizabeth Taylor’s alluring violets. And that’s all. (Richard Brooks insisted on color once he knew who his cast was, for just that reason.) There’s absolutely nothing else effectively combatting the presence of the theater stage for the first 20 minutes.

If you make it that far, and you well might since Warner Archive’s restoration team have made it a richly colorful film to watch, the entrance of Burl Ives (Big Daddy) shifts the film in a more visually gratifying direction. Ives was a large, commanding force, a singer before he was an actor, but the camera loved him and Tennessee Williams believed in him. He did DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS, WIND ACROSS THE EVERGLADES, CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF and THE BIG COUNTRY (for which he took home an Academy Award) in a row, a truly remarkable winning streak in terms of exercising good taste in his choice of roles, as well as his utilization of a compelling natural talent specifically compatible with the film medium. Newman and Taylor often come across as superficial and histrionic in dealing with all that verbiage; Ives gets right beneath the surface and keeps his performance three-dimensional for the duration. And it’s interesting to consider that Ives starred in the Broadway version of CAT three years before (directed by Elia Kazan), and so ostensibly should have been the most stagey of the three.

Marilyn Monroe apparently went after the role of Maggie the Cat. I actually think she would have been better than Taylor (who has never been one of my film faves). She would have sold the innocent unawareness of her husband’s homosexuality better. And while we’re on that subject, has any writer had more of their plays neutered into stressing something other than homosexuality than Tennessee Williams? It’s absurd seeing all involved dancing around it because of Hollywood standards. I wish all those Williams-baed films had made alternate takes treating the gay text honestly, put said takes in the vaults, and then, forty years later, spliced them into new versions. Can you imagine? They probably would have made more money the second time around.

The original screenplay was written by James Poe, which Williams apparently liked. Richard Brooks re-wrote it, and that one was not looked on as favorably by the playwright

Commentator Donald Spoto, who I enjoyed working under at NYC’s New School many years ago, has written a book about Williams, and enjoys imparting insights and facts to us, his voice sometimes building to a passionate crescendo reminding me of Peter Sellers as Doctor Strangelove. Amusingly, he points out early on that actor Larry Gates is not, in fact, Dick Cheney, whom he definitely resembles.

The mini-doc on the making of the film is interesting in several ways. It shows what Donald Spoto looks like, since he is interviewed as part of the doc. It establishes how important the film was to Newman’s and Taylor’s careers. And the clips it uses are pre-Warner Archive restoration clips, and my god what a difference. Newman’s eyes look Blue-Gray, whereas on the BluRay presentation they look turquoise. Also it discusses the tragedy of Taylor’s husband, entrepreneur Mike Todd, dying in a plane crash within the first two weeks of filming. Devastated, Taylor left the shoot, but only for a few days, then she returned and went on with the performance. I frankly find it almost incomprehensible how she was able to do that.

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