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Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof(1958)

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teaser Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)

What should have been an easy job for make-up artist William Tuttle, letting the natural beauty and sexuality of stars Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman shine through in the film version of Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), became a major challenge immediately following the tragic death of Mike Todd, Taylor's husband at the time. Tuttle suddenly had to erase all signs of grief and desolation in his lead actress. That the on-screen Taylor bore no resemblance to the tragic widow off-screen was a testimony to both the star's tenacity and the artistry of the MGM production team.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was a film book-ended by tragedy. MGM had bought screen rights to Williams' Pulitzer Prize-winning play shortly after it took Broadway by storm. Originally they planned to star James Dean as Brick, the former college football star sunk in alcoholicdespair over the loss of his best friend, Skipper; fear that his feelings for Skipper were more than friendly; and a betrayal by his beautiful wife, Maggie. But it took so long to come up with a screenplay that would be true to Williams' sexually charged story while still getting past theindustry's Production Code censors, that Dean never made it to the screen in the role. He was killed in a car crash after starring in only three films. Instead, the role went to Paul Newman, a rising young star who would inherit several roles planned for Dean.

The delays also cost MGM their original leading lady 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 third husband Mike Todd, was eager to establish herself as a solid dramatic actress. Todd negotiated a newcontract for Taylor with MGM that gave her the role of Maggie and her freedom from MGM in return for just one more picture at the studio where she had started her career more than a decade earlier.

Early in the shooting schedule, Todd had to go to New York to accept an award. He wanted Taylor and director Richard Brooks to accompany him, but she had a virus, and Brooks was too busy trying to bring the production in on time, so they stayed behind. Despite her illness, Taylor barely slept, waiting for Todd to call, as he had promised, each time his private plane touched down. By the time the news reached her that the plane had crashed, killing all on board, she had been up all night, desperate because he hadn't called her at all.

Todd's funeral in Chicago was a nightmare, as fans besieged the heavily sedated Taylor throughout the trip to and from the cemetery. Afterwards, she holed up in her rented home while Brooks shot around her. Three weeks later, she visited the set and asked if she could start work that day, claiming that "Mike would have wanted it this way." Brooks arranged theschedule to catch her at her best, shooting her most difficult scenes in the early afternoon. Seeing how much weight she had lost, he ordered real food to replace the prop food for a dinner scene, then required extra takes, forcing Taylor to start eating again.

Despite her personal pain, Taylor dug into the role with a vengeance, turning in one of her best performances. By the time the picture was ready to come out, however, she had another problem. During post-production, she had started an affair with Todd's closest friend, the very married Eddie Fisher. When his wife, MGM actress Debbie Reynolds, filed for divorce, thescandal almost destroyed Fisher's career. But it 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 canceled plans to present at the ceremonies. Though Taylor lost to Susan Hayward for I Want to Live!, 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."

Producer: Lawrence Weingarten
Director: Richard Brooks
Screenplay: Richard Brooks, James Poe
Based on the play by Tennessee Williams
Cinematography: William Daniels
Art Direction: William A. Horning, Urie McCleary
Cast: Elizabeth Taylor (Maggie Pollitt), Paul Newman (Brick Pollitt), Burl Ives (Big Daddy Pollitt), Jack Carson (Gooper Pollitt), Judith Anderson (Big Mama Pollitt), Madeleine Sherwood (Mae Pollitt).
C-109m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning. Descriptive video.

by Frank Miller

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teaser Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)

Long before "dysfunctional family" became a familiar catch phrase, Tennessee Williams was dramatizing variations on this subject in his work. Take Cat on a Hot Tin Roof for instance. Lust, avarice, and impotence are just a few of the conflicts exposed within a plot line that centers on a dying Southern patriarch and his family's greedy aspirations. The word "cat" in the play's title refers to the character of Maggie, due to her bedroom stealth and feline-like resolve to get what she wants at any cost; the play's title refers to her sexual frustration, the result of a passionless marriage. Maggie's husband, Brick, is an ex-athlete grieving over the recent suicide of his best friend and tormented by his own closeted homosexuality. Their tentative relationship is aggravated by Big Daddy, Brick's terminally ill father, who is being courted by his other son for his estate and inheritance.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof earned Williams his second Pulitzer Prize and, under Elia Kazan's direction, was a smash success on Broadway, with Ben Gazzara, Barbara Bel Geddes, Burl Ives, and Mildred Dunnock in the key roles. For the film version, only Ives returned to essay the part of Big Daddy. Although it was rumored that Grace Kelly was once considered for Maggie the Cat, the role went to Elizabeth Taylor, who was just beginning to stretch her dramatic range in films. Paul Newman was cast as Brick and Judith Anderson won the part of Big Mama. George Cukor was originally the first choice for director but backed out when faced with the prospect of battling the censors over the possible deletion of certain crucial scenes. Instead, Richard Brooks was brought in to direct (he would also helm the film version of Sweet Bird of Youth, 1962) and, as expected, had to excise some of the dialogue and subject matter in regards to sexual matters.

At first Newman, a graduate of New York's Actors Studio, had reservations about starring with Elizabeth Taylor whose approach to acting was entirely different from his own. Yet, despite their different backgrounds, the two actors had a potent on-screen chemistry together. Unfortunately, it was during this film that Taylor's husband, Mike Todd, was killed in a plane crash, causing the production to be delayed until Taylor was emotionally ready to return to work.

Nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Actor (Newman), and Best Actress (Taylor), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof didn't win any Oscars. Ironically, Burl Ives, who gave a dynamic performance in the film as Big Daddy but wasn't nominated, took home the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role in The Big Country (1958).

If anyone was displeased with the film version it was Tennessee Williams, who always considered Cat on a Hot Tin Roof one of his favorite plays. Not known for his fondness for movie versions of his work, he made a point of visiting a Florida cinema that was showing Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and warned potential ticket buyers not to attend, exclaiming, "This movie will set the industry back fifty years! Go home!"

Director: Richard Brooks
Producer: Lawrence Weingarten
Screenplay: Richard Brooks, James Poe, based on the play by Tennessee Williams
Cinematography: William Daniels
Editor: Ferris Webster
Art Direction: William A. Horning, Urie McCleary
Cast: Elizabeth Taylor (Maggie "The Cat" Pollitt), Paul Newman (Brick Pollitt), Burl Ives (Big Daddy), Jack Carson (Gooper), Judith Anderson (Big Mama).
C-109m. Letterboxed. Close captioning. Descriptive video.

by Eleanor Quin

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