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Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: Deluxe Edition

The Tennessee Williams Collection

Among the sweatiest of Tennessee Williams' southern character studies, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1955 gave Broadway an iconic sizzler in provocative Maggie "the Cat," a passionate, determined young wife with a smoldering case of the sexual fantods. In 1958, the inevitable Hollywood adaptation forged an iconic screen image in Elizabeth Taylor's Maggie, her body heat barely contained within a clinging white slip. No retrospective montage of Taylor's career is without it, and today, as we're watching the film again on this newly and beautifully transferred DVD, the sight of her is still one to give us the vapors. She was 26 years old, in her 26th film.

As her alcoholic, broody, and cripplingly repressed husband Brick Pollitt, Paul Newman's was a make-or-break performance. The artless Production Code watered the gin of this Pulitzer-winning play's translation from stage to screen. Although Brick's sexual confusion got cut down to nothing — well, almost nothing — the role of the self-loathing, aging football hero broken by the suicide of his best friend gave rising star Newman (MGM's "new Brando") a prestige-picture opportunity that springboarded his career to its later signature peaks. Together Taylor and Newman's intimate scenes, which amp up tension out of Maggie and Brick's paralytic lack of intimacy, are the emotional wheels of a film that's simultaneously gunning its engine on a tempestuous reunion at the Pollitt plantation mansion.

This gathering of the dysfunctionals is ostensibly a 65th birthday celebration for the family's patriarch tycoon, Big Daddy. Played with image-defying bearishness by Burl Ives, Big Daddy is an obese, cancer-stricken Mississippi Lear, raging at the lies and "mendacity" polluting his materially wealthy, but emotionally and spiritually impoverished, world. The grasping, gold-digging fawners surrounding Big Daddy and vying for his fortune include Brick's conniving older brother Gooper (Jack Carson) and Gooper's grotesque, perpetually pregnant wife Mae (Madeleine Sherwood), whose five "no-neck monsters" are such odious children they may have turned the entire Mississippi Delta on to birth control. Australian Judith Anderson (later Dame Judith) impresses in a second against-type role as fluttery, spiteful "Big Mama" Ida. A now-clichéd literary Old South incarnate, here's a family trapped in its social network of deception, greed, hypocrisy, and denial, where "liquor and death do remain the only exits" — in other words, 180-proof Tennessee Williams.

Williams is one of America's foundational dramatists. This production's bowdlerized screenplay diminishes his raw sensitivity and plugs in some safe triteness about the value of family over material possessions. And its core topical hot spots — definitions of manhood, acknowledged female sexuality, even any residual ambiguities about Brick's sexuality — are hardly flashpoint material anymore. Still, this potentially over-scrubbed production kept enough of Williams' energy and poetic Americana intact, fleshing it up with an ensemble of career-imprinting performances and MGM production lavishness.

Despite a few dips into obviousness and (unavoidable) melodrama, its pacing and drive come through some assertive directorial discernment by tough-guy director Richard Brooks (Sweet Bird of Youth, Blackboard Jungle, Elmer Gantry, In Cold Blood). Brooks also adapted the script with James Poe, and, despite an apparent lack of interest in Southern verisimilitude, did a seamless job "opening up" Williams' single-set play.

The film's Academy Award nominations went to Taylor, Newman, and Brooks, also Best Picture, Cinematography, Color, and Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium. None won, and it's an inexcusable Academy gutterball that Ives wasn't even nominated. All the same, this was MGM's top box-office hit of the year.

*          *          *

Warner Home Video's 2006 "Deluxe Edition," part of the Tennessee Williams Film Collection, brings us a big improvement over the studio's previous edition from 2001. The image (1.85:1, anamorphic) is strikingly clean, bright, and sharp, with vivid color and detail. The clean, clear DD 1.0 audio is stout and faultless. It really is a pleasure to see what this disc does for the film's art direction and for the cinematography by distinguished cameraman William H. Daniels, especially when they're pointed out by Donald Spoto in his excellent commentary track.

Spoto, author of The Kindness of Strangers: The Life of Tennessee Williams, begins by saying that his commentary will be "nothing like an academic or an intellectual discussion ... movies, after all, are meant to be enjoyed." He's not entirely true to his word — yes, this is a relaxed, enjoyable track from a knowledgeable pro who is easy to listen to and possesses a sense of humor. He does not sound "academic." However, he is "intellectual" in all the word's good connotations. His thorough film scholarship guides us through the production history, annotates the film's visual components and Brooks' choices as director, and gives us plenty of good information on Taylor, Newman, Williams, and everyone else involved. Spoto notes the specific changes forced into the screenplay, the themes and sidelong metaphors represented in key scenes, and how the play and film fit within their censorious 1950s contexts. He speaks well and is so at ease that we quickly ease into it right along with him.

Also on hand is a new featurette, "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: Playing Cat and Mouse" (10 mins.), a lightweight but worthwhile focus on Newman and Taylor, with talking-head material from Spoto, Drew Casper, Eric Lax, and Madeleine Sherwood. It emphasizes the film's turning-point position in its two co-stars' careers, and the death of Taylor's third husband, Mike Todd, in a plane crash one week after filming began. Taylor, originally expected to be on that plane, kept working despite the impact of the tragedy.

Finally, the theatrical trailer is here too. Keep-case.

—Mark Bourne

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