Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

12/03/2022

The Conviction of Convention

There has been a great deal of commentary around how the 1958 film version of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof plays too liberally with the play. “The Hays Code has been defunct for over 50-years, yet its scar tissue is visible throughout Hollywood filmmaking to this day.” So Joshua Sorenson insists, before looking at how the film removes the homosexual aspects of the original and turns Brick’s (Paul Newman) lack of desire for his wife Maggie (Elizabeth Taylor) into suspicion over his wife’s past fling with his now-dead best friend, Skipper. “While numerous films were altered to conform to the code—as was the way if they wished to be released stateside—adaptations were affected the most.” Here Sorenson notes that “Brick struggles with his homosexual feelings toward his recently deceased friend Skipper.” (Film Daze)

However, we can note that in one of the written play’s asides, Williams tells us when speaking of Brick: “Some mystery should be left in the revelation of character in a play, just as a great deal of mystery is always left in the revelation of character in life, even in one’s own character of himself.” Williams’ play as a theatrical production could itself have been seen as a compromised project. Williams says: “I wanted Elia Kazan to direct the play, and though these suggestions were not made in the form of an ultimatum, I was fearful that I would lose his interest if I didn’t re-examine the script from his point of view. I did.” (LitHub) Kazan of course had directed both the original Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire and the film version too. He wasn’t only an important figure in American culture (winning the Academy Award for On the Waterfront) he was also in the mid-fifties an important person for Williams more directly. 

The quote from the playwright is contained in a piece by Dan Sheehan on the various changes made to the play over the years in its many productions. This interests us only tangentially. Our purpose is to suggest that though the film version may be more conservative than Williams’ original, or even the Kazan version that was its first stage production, the film can be seen as a different thing, neither an improvement nor a diminishment of Williams’ play but rather a film that fits into fifties melodramatic narrative. Co-written by director Richard Brooks and James Poe, Williams may have been unhappy with the result, and especially the eradication of the clear homosexual undertones of the play, but this can give to the film an underlying ambiguity that the explicit would have undermined. It needn’t quite be the “disastrously diluted” (Guardian) work that Michael Billington believed it to be, a film that, according to Billington, “was a badly neutered Cat that inspired Williams on one occasion to tell a queue waiting in line for tickets: "This movie will set the industry back 50 years. Go home!" (Guardian

Yet if we insist that the film is about desire and sacrifice and the interaction between the two, and the apparent contradictions between them, we can see subtleties absent from the play that overt homosexuality might have destroyed. The original play starred Barbara Bel Geddes and Ben Gazzara, attractive actors indeed, but not quite movie-star beautiful, and this is all very well for the play (despite various remarks within it pointing up Brick’s immense attractiveness) but not quite what the film conveys, which is partly the irony of two physically, sexually charged actors who throughout the narrative don’t get to share a bed until the end of the film. This isn’t an uncommon trope in Hollywood cinema, stretching far beyond the fifties and is often vital to romantic comedy. What the trope needs are obstacles or misunderstandings to keep the couple apart. Christopher Orr reckons the genre has declined: “Among the most fundamental obligations of romantic comedy is that there must be an obstacle to nuptial bliss for the budding couple to overcome. And, put simply, such obstacles are getting harder and harder to come by.” In the past, there was “parental disapproval, difference in social class, a promise made to another. But society has spent decades busily uprooting any impediment to the marriage of true minds. Love is increasingly presumed—perhaps in Hollywood most of all—to transcend class, profession, faith, age, race, gender, and (on occasion) marital status.” (The Atlantic) That is probably a dubious point since most people still marry within their class and race. 

Another article from The Atlantic published three years after Orr’s, goes by the title ‘The Unique Tensions of Couples Who Marry Across Classes’. However, we might only see a half-contradiction; that films have become more liberal in their narrative parameters and society less liberal. Is it not one of the criticisms of the modern conservative; that left-leaning Hollywood doesn’t reflect public opinion? “Hollywood is always a bit surprised when a Christian-themed movie or a red-meat patriotic film like American Sniper becomes a hit, because such works embody a basic conservative value set that most of the industry doesn’t share.” (American Conservative) This suggests there is no reason why Hollywood cannot find obstacles for their romantic comedies; they just might have to look outside narrow liberal parameters to do so. 

We aren’t necessarily quoting conservatism positively, as if films ought to have more right-wing messages, especially when plenty are on offer when might is right meets a wilful lack of gun control in American moviemaking. But one may wonder how to create a plausible obstacle towards an ending that you don’t wish to be pessimistic over. If we accept that Cat on a Hot Tin Roof wants to be such a film, then it needs a different premise and through-line than the play. Let us imagine it as propositional: if two beautiful people who the audience knows must surely desire each other, do not sleep together, then what plausible obstacle can be put in their way to make us believe in this abstinence, and how can it be resolved all the better to register sacrifice within that desire? The answer needn’t reside in a categorical obstacle, which would have been in this instance Brick’s homosexuality, but on no more than a misunderstanding. Brick believes Maggie slept with Skipper before the latter’s death and hasn’t forgiven her, nor himself for his guilty feelings over Skipper's suicide. But if Maggie didn’t sleep with Skipper, even though Skipper wanted to sleep with her, and Maggie did want to make Brick jealous and reveal Skipper wasn’t much of a friend after all, since he wanted to sleep with his best mate’s wife, then we can have once again Maggie and Brick returning to the marital bed, a place where the matriarch Big Mamma reckons a healthy marriage resolves its problems. 

Yet this brings us to the sacrificial aspect of the film. While Brick’s brother Gooper has done his bit for continuing the gene pool, with five children, Brick is the favourite, handsome son who has married a local beauty. Within the film’s logic, how can they not produce kids? The film casts as Gooper and his wife Mae actors who are plain-looking and they produce five simultaneously irritating and anonymous children. Madeleine Sherwood as Mae reprises her stage role and is brilliantly dowdy, wearing smocks throughout as if dressed for perpetual pregnancy. In contrast, Maggie is seen in a waist-hugging skirt and blouse, a slip, and a white chiffon, afternoon dress made by the film’s designer Helen Rose very specifically to fit “Taylor’s legendary curves to a T”. The dress went on to become a fashion hit, selling for $250. (BodyMindBeautyHealth.com) If the plain Mae produces five “no-neck monsters”, what sort of child will Brick and Maggie create? The film could seem superficial on this point, but let us propose it has its own depths, and it rests on film’s awareness that to convey passion it must do so chiefly through beauty. Film is a bi-sensory medium — it doesn’t have access to smell, touch and taste even if of course it can often evoke them. What it does have access to is visual and auditory information. These are its chief means of conviction. The smell of pheromones and the touch of caresses that may drive someone to passion can be evoked on screen but they cannot be represented. Physical attractiveness and the timbre of a voice can be. Director Richard Brooks constantly proposes that here are two people who ought not to be able to keep their hands off each other but, because of the misunderstanding between them, they remain estranged. 

Yet this is where the sacrificial aspect meets with the misunderstanding and allows the beautiful people to make love. It is also how the film in this instance improves on the play, and it lies in Big Mamma saying no more than thank you after Maggie announces that she and Brick will be having a child. Does Big Mamma believe her? It is n odd thing to say and quite different from what she says in the play, while in both the original and the Broadway versions she talks about it being Big Daddy’s dream come true. In the film, it suggests that she is aware that Maggie isn’t telling the truth but that her lie is there to give her dying husband the grandchild he is seeking. The film makes clear early on that Big Daddy likes Maggie — when Gooper, Mae, the kids and Maggie welcome him at the airport, he wants to ride in the car only with Maggie and nobody else. He would want Maggie to have his grandson as much as he would want Brick to produce one, and Maggie’s lie will give him the impression that his desire has been satisfied. 

Yet maybe in Big Mamma’s ‘thank you’ is an awareness that within Maggie’s lie there is potential truth: that Maggie and Brick will now try and have a child. After all, this is a lie in a play all about lies: the mendacity Big Daddy and Brick discuss in the basement. Yet the film presents Maggie’s lie as an escape from mendacity rather than its confirmation. Maggie offers her announcement just as Gooper and Mae are trying to secure Big Daddy’s estate in the event of his death. They are the ones with the offspring. Yet if we are moved at all by Maggie’s claim and Big Mamma’s ‘thank you’ it will rest on us assuming that Maggie hasn’t made the claim as a lie to match Gooper and May’s venality but as a willingness to give Big Daddy a last hope as he will soon be dead. There are lies, damn lies and lies that tell their own truth. Maggie’s is both a lie and a declaration: that she is pregnant should be read as her determination to become so. And hence we have the overly submissive and happy ending where Brick calls her up the stairs and Maggie rushes up, at last given the opportunity to satisfy her man. 

The ending is weak, perhaps, but not the build-up to it. The film’s purpose is to convince us that these two very attractive people have reason enough to leave the marital bed unused, and by the end of the film will have reason enough to use it again. A misunderstanding can allow for such a reversal but homosexual desire cannot: a point made in Todd Haynes’ version of fifties melodrama, Far From Heaven. Haynes has the advantage of rather more liberal codes than fifties Hollywood but by setting his film in that decade he cannot impose more liberal codes upon the characters. He can only examine them more openly. In one scene, the husband and wife discuss his homosexuality and she reckons they can get through it together; that he will desire her again, but he realises he cannot now that he has had assignations with men that satisfy his yearning. In Far From Heaven, Cathy and Frank have kids but the film indicates this was the misunderstanding: that Frank wouldn’t quite have known what his desires were and conformism led to marriage and children. Now that he knows what his sexual inclination so clearly happens to be, he has no choice but to reject Cathy. It isn’t whether or not a film acknowledges homosexuality; it is whether it is consistent with its own emotional reality. If Cat on a Hot Tin Roof emphasized Brick’s queer yearnings, and yet still wanted the happy ending where Brick and Maggie will try and have a child, it would have seemed a lot more false than doing what it does do: base it chiefly on a rectifiable misapprehension: that Skipper was a great friend and that Maggie wasn’t faithful. Maggie was faithful and Skipper wasn’t much of a friend, and thus the misunderstanding is removed and desire can return.  

It is often assumed that one must be faithful to the text of make it cinematic: to respect an author’s words if the filmmaker has been keen in the first place to adapt the work, or to play with the text so much that it becomes a new thing. Often television is a very good place for faithful adaptations, where the purpose is to offer the play to a home audience on a large scale, rather than a limited audience in the theatre. It helps democratise the form and the BBC has a long history of such adaptations, with Play of the Month running from 1965 to 1983. Plays included The Caucasian Chalk CircleThe SeagullDeath of a SalesmanHedda GablerMacbeth and Oedipus. The plays were directed on TV by amongst many others, Alan Clark, David Jones, Jack Gold and Michael Lindsey Hogg. The actors were often well-known and respected: Helen Mirren, Janet Suzman, Leo McKern, Ian McKellen. Yet other, cinema filmmakers have made the work their own, using the play as an opportunity to expand their vision and their sensibility: from Derek Jarman’s The Tempest to Kurosawa’s Ran, from Pasolini’s Oedipus Rex to Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho.

However, sometimes an adaptation need not be an expression of directorial sensibility to become cinematically specific. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof director Richard Brooks also made In Cold BloodLord JimElmer GantryThe Sweet Bird of YouthThe Brothers KaramazovThe Last Time I Saw Paris and Looking for Mr Goodbar. The common link here isn’t sensibility but adaptation, with Brooks a pragmatic director of other people’s work, and with an awareness of what cinema happens to be as a medium with its own set of expectations. Speaking of Looking for Mr Goodbar, Brooks said, “this movie had to be shot in a big city… Someplace where people can get lost, that looks big. The movie isn't set in Chicago specifically so much as it's set somewhere in a big, lonely American city. Could be Kansas City, St. Louis, Detroit. But not New York or L.A. or San Francisco -- people are sick of seeing them on TV. Chicago they don't see so often.” (RogerEbert) He could have spoken similarly of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, that the viewer’s perceptions matter, and part of that would be in casting Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman knowing that viewers wouldn’t expect this married couple not to go to bed together. 

Michael Billington may have been for many years one of Britain’s best-known theatre critics, and so we should perhaps take seriously his dismissal that Maggie and the film was a badly neutered cat, especially when backed up by Williams’ own dismay at what the film did with his work. Nevertheless, perhaps better to see the film not for its lack of fidelity towards Williams but its faithfulness towards Hollywood expectation. The general notion is that Hollywood takes art and disrespectfully turns it into entertainment, and there is no shortage of adaptations that can seem like weak versions of the original work, just as there is no shortage of quotes making clear Hollywood’s general philistinism. F. Scott Fitzgerald reckoned “Isn’t Hollywood a dump — in the human sense of the word. A hideous town, pointed up by the insulting gardens of its rich, full of the human spirit at a new low of debasement.” (F. Scott Fitzgerald: Centenary Exhibition) Gore Vidal said that “movies were not there simply to reflect life or tell stories but to exist in their own autonomous way and to look, as it were, back at those who made them and watched them.” (Hollywood) Yet in Vidal’s comment there needn’t be scorn: it is centrally what we go to a particular type of film for: to see a version of life a little better than one’s own, a bit more glamorous, seductive and sensational, even if close to unattainable even for the purveyors of it. As Cary Grant said: “Everyone wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant. I pretended to be somebody I wanted to be until finally I became that person.” (Cary Grant: A Biography) Obviously when one feels that a serious work eschews glamour for a notion of authenticity, and then the film insists instead on the alluring, then comments like Billington’s are probable, if not inevitable. 

Yet rather than insisting a film betrays its origins, better sometimes to accept that a film reimagines the original because it has its own structural concerns coming out of the new properties a film demands. While Burl Ives (as Big Daddy) and Sherwood reprise their stage roles, casting Newman and Taylor potentially creates a different expectation in the audience and a different expectation in the play. It no longer becomes, we have argued, about repressed homosexuality but repressed desire, and desire repressed by a negative misunderstanding created partly by Maggie’s manipulations, and redeemed by more of Maggie’s mendacity — but through a positive lie. Maggie may have wanted to give the impression that she might well have slept with Skipper but in the film, this is central to the very problem that she is trying to rectify: her sexual relationship with her husband. But the second lie comes after she has acknowledged the truth to Brick; that she hoped to make him jealous and show how Skipper wasn’t a great friend. The second lie she tells helps bring to a resolution the first lie and also allows for Big Daddy to believe his favoured son will produce an heir; that he will now be able to die thinking that Brick will become a father. 

The film has to reimagine certain moments so that the throughline, which may seem conservative, is nevertheless consistent. Maggie might be less strong and less calculating than in the play, and Brick, less sexually conflicted, but from the film’s point of view that needn’t be its concern. Seen very much as an adaptation of Williams’ play it can find a position between a tougher, more adventurous exploration of sexuality that one could expect from the theatre, and nevertheless an edgier account of sexual mores likely to be found on film. True, 1958 also saw the release of Vertigo and Touch of Evil, but this was still the era of IndiscreetSouth Pacific and Separate Tables. Compared to the play, Brooks’ film can appear compromised and conventional; compared to most films of its era, it is daring enough. 

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

The Conviction of Convention

There has been a great deal of commentary around how the 1958 film version of Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof plays too liberally with the play. "The Hays Code has been defunct for over 50-years, yet its scar tissue is visible throughout Hollywood filmmaking to this day." So Joshua Sorenson insists, before looking at how the film removes the homosexual aspects of the original and turns Brick's (Paul Newman) lack of desire for his wife Maggie (Elizabeth Taylor) into suspicion over his wife's past fling with his now-dead best friend, Skipper. "While numerous films were altered to conform to the codeas was the way if they wished to be released statesideadaptations were affected the most." Here Sorenson notes that "Brick struggles with his homosexual feelings toward his recently deceased friend Skipper." (Film Daze)

However, we can note that in one of the written play's asides, Williams tells us when speaking of Brick: "Some mystery should be left in the revelation of character in a play, just as a great deal of mystery is always left in the revelation of character in life, even in one's own character of himself." Williams' play as a theatrical production could itself have been seen as a compromised project. Williams says: "I wanted Elia Kazan to direct the play, and though these suggestions were not made in the form of an ultimatum, I was fearful that I would lose his interest if I didn't re-examine the script from his point of view. I did." (LitHub) Kazan of course had directed both the original Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire and the film version too. He wasn't only an important figure in American culture (winning the Academy Award for On the Waterfront) he was also in the mid-fifties an important person for Williams more directly.

The quote from the playwright is contained in a piece by Dan Sheehan on the various changes made to the play over the years in its many productions. This interests us only tangentially. Our purpose is to suggest that though the film version may be more conservative than Williams' original, or even the Kazan version that was its first stage production, the film can be seen as a different thing, neither an improvement nor a diminishment of Williams' play but rather a film that fits into fifties melodramatic narrative. Co-written by director Richard Brooks and James Poe, Williams may have been unhappy with the result, and especially the eradication of the clear homosexual undertones of the play, but this can give to the film an underlying ambiguity that the explicit would have undermined. It needn't quite be the "disastrously diluted" (Guardian) work that Michael Billington believed it to be, a film that, according to Billington, "was a badly neutered Cat that inspired Williams on one occasion to tell a queue waiting in line for tickets: This movie will set the industry back 50 years. Go home! (Guardian)

Yet if we insist that the film is about desire and sacrifice and the interaction between the two, and the apparent contradictions between them, we can see subtleties absent from the play that overt homosexuality might have destroyed. The original play starred Barbara Bel Geddes and Ben Gazzara, attractive actors indeed, but not quite movie-star beautiful, and this is all very well for the play (despite various remarks within it pointing up Brick's immense attractiveness) but not quite what the film conveys, which is partly the irony of two physically, sexually charged actors who throughout the narrative don't get to share a bed until the end of the film. This isn't an uncommon trope in Hollywood cinema, stretching far beyond the fifties and is often vital to romantic comedy. What the trope needs are obstacles or misunderstandings to keep the couple apart. Christopher Orr reckons the genre has declined: "Among the most fundamental obligations of romantic comedy is that there must be an obstacle to nuptial bliss for the budding couple to overcome. And, put simply, such obstacles are getting harder and harder to come by." In the past, there was "parental disapproval, difference in social class, a promise made to another. But society has spent decades busily uprooting any impediment to the marriage of true minds. Love is increasingly presumedperhaps in Hollywood most of allto transcend class, profession, faith, age, race, gender, and (on occasion) marital status." (The Atlantic) That is probably a dubious point since most people still marry within their class and race.

Another article from The Atlantic published three years after Orr's, goes by the title 'The Unique Tensions of Couples Who Marry Across Classes'. However, we might only see a half-contradiction; that films have become more liberal in their narrative parameters and society less liberal. Is it not one of the criticisms of the modern conservative; that left-leaning Hollywood doesn't reflect public opinion? "Hollywood is always a bit surprised when a Christian-themed movie or a red-meat patriotic film like American Sniper becomes a hit, because such works embody a basic conservative value set that most of the industry doesn't share." (American Conservative) This suggests there is no reason why Hollywood cannot find obstacles for their romantic comedies; they just might have to look outside narrow liberal parameters to do so.

We aren't necessarily quoting conservatism positively, as if films ought to have more right-wing messages, especially when plenty are on offer when might is right meets a wilful lack of gun control in American moviemaking. But one may wonder how to create a plausible obstacle towards an ending that you don't wish to be pessimistic over. If we accept that Cat on a Hot Tin Roof wants to be such a film, then it needs a different premise and through-line than the play. Let us imagine it as propositional: if two beautiful people who the audience knows must surely desire each other, do not sleep together, then what plausible obstacle can be put in their way to make us believe in this abstinence, and how can it be resolved all the better to register sacrifice within that desire? The answer needn't reside in a categorical obstacle, which would have been in this instance Brick's homosexuality, but on no more than a misunderstanding. Brick believes Maggie slept with Skipper before the latter's death and hasn't forgiven her, nor himself for his guilty feelings over Skipper's suicide. But if Maggie didn't sleep with Skipper, even though Skipper wanted to sleep with her, and Maggie did want to make Brick jealous and reveal Skipper wasn't much of a friend after all, since he wanted to sleep with his best mate's wife, then we can have once again Maggie and Brick returning to the marital bed, a place where the matriarch Big Mamma reckons a healthy marriage resolves its problems.

Yet this brings us to the sacrificial aspect of the film. While Brick's brother Gooper has done his bit for continuing the gene pool, with five children, Brick is the favourite, handsome son who has married a local beauty. Within the film's logic, how can they not produce kids? The film casts as Gooper and his wife Mae actors who are plain-looking and they produce five simultaneously irritating and anonymous children. Madeleine Sherwood as Mae reprises her stage role and is brilliantly dowdy, wearing smocks throughout as if dressed for perpetual pregnancy. In contrast, Maggie is seen in a waist-hugging skirt and blouse, a slip, and a white chiffon, afternoon dress made by the film's designer Helen Rose very specifically to fit "Taylor's legendary curves to a T". The dress went on to become a fashion hit, selling for $250. (BodyMindBeautyHealth.com) If the plain Mae produces five "no-neck monsters", what sort of child will Brick and Maggie create? The film could seem superficial on this point, but let us propose it has its own depths, and it rests on film's awareness that to convey passion it must do so chiefly through beauty. Film is a bi-sensory medium it doesn't have access to smell, touch and taste even if of course it can often evoke them. What it does have access to is visual and auditory information. These are its chief means of conviction. The smell of pheromones and the touch of caresses that may drive someone to passion can be evoked on screen but they cannot be represented. Physical attractiveness and the timbre of a voice can be. Director Richard Brooks constantly proposes that here are two people who ought not to be able to keep their hands off each other but, because of the misunderstanding between them, they remain estranged.

Yet this is where the sacrificial aspect meets with the misunderstanding and allows the beautiful people to make love. It is also how the film in this instance improves on the play, and it lies in Big Mamma saying no more than thank you after Maggie announces that she and Brick will be having a child. Does Big Mamma believe her? It is n odd thing to say and quite different from what she says in the play, while in both the original and the Broadway versions she talks about it being Big Daddy's dream come true. In the film, it suggests that she is aware that Maggie isn't telling the truth but that her lie is there to give her dying husband the grandchild he is seeking. The film makes clear early on that Big Daddy likes Maggie when Gooper, Mae, the kids and Maggie welcome him at the airport, he wants to ride in the car only with Maggie and nobody else. He would want Maggie to have his grandson as much as he would want Brick to produce one, and Maggie's lie will give him the impression that his desire has been satisfied.

Yet maybe in Big Mamma's 'thank you' is an awareness that within Maggie's lie there is potential truth: that Maggie and Brick will now try and have a child. After all, this is a lie in a play all about lies: the mendacity Big Daddy and Brick discuss in the basement. Yet the film presents Maggie's lie as an escape from mendacity rather than its confirmation. Maggie offers her announcement just as Gooper and Mae are trying to secure Big Daddy's estate in the event of his death. They are the ones with the offspring. Yet if we are moved at all by Maggie's claim and Big Mamma's 'thank you' it will rest on us assuming that Maggie hasn't made the claim as a lie to match Gooper and May's venality but as a willingness to give Big Daddy a last hope as he will soon be dead. There are lies, damn lies and lies that tell their own truth. Maggie's is both a lie and a declaration: that she is pregnant should be read as her determination to become so. And hence we have the overly submissive and happy ending where Brick calls her up the stairs and Maggie rushes up, at last given the opportunity to satisfy her man.

The ending is weak, perhaps, but not the build-up to it. The film's purpose is to convince us that these two very attractive people have reason enough to leave the marital bed unused, and by the end of the film will have reason enough to use it again. A misunderstanding can allow for such a reversal but homosexual desire cannot: a point made in Todd Haynes' version of fifties melodrama, Far From Heaven. Haynes has the advantage of rather more liberal codes than fifties Hollywood but by setting his film in that decade he cannot impose more liberal codes upon the characters. He can only examine them more openly. In one scene, the husband and wife discuss his homosexuality and she reckons they can get through it together; that he will desire her again, but he realises he cannot now that he has had assignations with men that satisfy his yearning. In Far From Heaven, Cathy and Frank have kids but the film indicates this was the misunderstanding: that Frank wouldn't quite have known what his desires were and conformism led to marriage and children. Now that he knows what his sexual inclination so clearly happens to be, he has no choice but to reject Cathy. It isn't whether or not a film acknowledges homosexuality; it is whether it is consistent with its own emotional reality. If Cat on a Hot Tin Roof emphasized Brick's queer yearnings, and yet still wanted the happy ending where Brick and Maggie will try and have a child, it would have seemed a lot more false than doing what it does do: base it chiefly on a rectifiable misapprehension: that Skipper was a great friend and that Maggie wasn't faithful. Maggie was faithful and Skipper wasn't much of a friend, and thus the misunderstanding is removed and desire can return.

It is often assumed that one must be faithful to the text of make it cinematic: to respect an author's words if the filmmaker has been keen in the first place to adapt the work, or to play with the text so much that it becomes a new thing. Often television is a very good place for faithful adaptations, where the purpose is to offer the play to a home audience on a large scale, rather than a limited audience in the theatre. It helps democratise the form and the BBC has a long history of such adaptations, with Play of the Month running from 1965 to 1983. Plays included The Caucasian Chalk Circle, The Seagull, Death of a Salesman, Hedda Gabler, Macbeth and Oedipus. The plays were directed on TV by amongst many others, Alan Clark, David Jones, Jack Gold and Michael Lindsey Hogg. The actors were often well-known and respected: Helen Mirren, Janet Suzman, Leo McKern, Ian McKellen. Yet other, cinema filmmakers have made the work their own, using the play as an opportunity to expand their vision and their sensibility: from Derek Jarman's The Tempest to Kurosawa's Ran, from Pasolini's Oedipus Rex to Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho.

However, sometimes an adaptation need not be an expression of directorial sensibility to become cinematically specific. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof director Richard Brooks also made In Cold Blood, Lord Jim, Elmer Gantry, The Sweet Bird of Youth, The Brothers Karamazov, The Last Time I Saw Paris and Looking for Mr Goodbar. The common link here isn't sensibility but adaptation, with Brooks a pragmatic director of other people's work, and with an awareness of what cinema happens to be as a medium with its own set of expectations. Speaking of Looking for Mr Goodbar, Brooks said, "this movie had to be shot in a big city... Someplace where people can get lost, that looks big. The movie isn't set in Chicago specifically so much as it's set somewhere in a big, lonely American city. Could be Kansas City, St. Louis, Detroit. But not New York or L.A. or San Francisco -- people are sick of seeing them on TV. Chicago they don't see so often." (RogerEbert) He could have spoken similarly of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, that the viewer's perceptions matter, and part of that would be in casting Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman knowing that viewers wouldn't expect this married couple not to go to bed together.

Michael Billington may have been for many years one of Britain's best-known theatre critics, and so we should perhaps take seriously his dismissal that Maggie and the film was a badly neutered cat, especially when backed up by Williams' own dismay at what the film did with his work. Nevertheless, perhaps better to see the film not for its lack of fidelity towards Williams but its faithfulness towards Hollywood expectation. The general notion is that Hollywood takes art and disrespectfully turns it into entertainment, and there is no shortage of adaptations that can seem like weak versions of the original work, just as there is no shortage of quotes making clear Hollywood's general philistinism. F. Scott Fitzgerald reckoned "Isn't Hollywood a dump in the human sense of the word. A hideous town, pointed up by the insulting gardens of its rich, full of the human spirit at a new low of debasement." (F. Scott Fitzgerald: Centenary Exhibition) Gore Vidal said that "movies were not there simply to reflect life or tell stories but to exist in their own autonomous way and to look, as it were, back at those who made them and watched them." (Hollywood) Yet in Vidal's comment there needn't be scorn: it is centrally what we go to a particular type of film for: to see a version of life a little better than one's own, a bit more glamorous, seductive and sensational, even if close to unattainable even for the purveyors of it. As Cary Grant said: "Everyone wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant. I pretended to be somebody I wanted to be until finally I became that person." (Cary Grant: A Biography) Obviously when one feels that a serious work eschews glamour for a notion of authenticity, and then the film insists instead on the alluring, then comments like Billington's are probable, if not inevitable.

Yet rather than insisting a film betrays its origins, better sometimes to accept that a film reimagines the original because it has its own structural concerns coming out of the new properties a film demands. While Burl Ives (as Big Daddy) and Sherwood reprise their stage roles, casting Newman and Taylor potentially creates a different expectation in the audience and a different expectation in the play. It no longer becomes, we have argued, about repressed homosexuality but repressed desire, and desire repressed by a negative misunderstanding created partly by Maggie's manipulations, and redeemed by more of Maggie's mendacity but through a positive lie. Maggie may have wanted to give the impression that she might well have slept with Skipper but in the film, this is central to the very problem that she is trying to rectify: her sexual relationship with her husband. But the second lie comes after she has acknowledged the truth to Brick; that she hoped to make him jealous and show how Skipper wasn't a great friend. The second lie she tells helps bring to a resolution the first lie and also allows for Big Daddy to believe his favoured son will produce an heir; that he will now be able to die thinking that Brick will become a father.

The film has to reimagine certain moments so that the throughline, which may seem conservative, is nevertheless consistent. Maggie might be less strong and less calculating than in the play, and Brick, less sexually conflicted, but from the film's point of view that needn't be its concern. Seen very much as an adaptation of Williams' play it can find a position between a tougher, more adventurous exploration of sexuality that one could expect from the theatre, and nevertheless an edgier account of sexual mores likely to be found on film. True, 1958 also saw the release of Vertigo and Touch of Evil, but this was still the era of Indiscreet, South Pacific and Separate Tables. Compared to the play, Brooks' film can appear compromised and conventional; compared to most films of its era, it is daring enough.


© Tony McKibbin