~Jack Nicholson as Col. Nathan R. Jessup in A Few Good Men
“There ain't nothin' more powerful than the odor of mendacity!”
~Burl Ives as Big Daddy
Last week I watched Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor and Burl Ives in the powerful Tennessee Williams drama Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Whoa, what a scorcher.
THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS
Burl Ives is Big Daddy, and he’s coming home to celebrate his 65th birthday.. He’s just finished having a medical exam to find out what was ailing him, and lo, he got a clean bill of health, so now he’s smiling. He's ready to live large once again. The problem, from the start, is a problem of mendacity.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is one of numerous Hollywood productions of Tennessee Williams plays and Williams introduces its theme early.
Mendacity: the quality of being mendacious; untruthfulness; tendency to lie.
Brick (Paul Newman) is an alcoholic failed football star who has gone away and remained distant from his family; Maggie (Elizabeth Taylor) the wounded wife pushed away by consequences she’d never anticipated. Newman had “big time” written all over him, but it wasn't to be as he now deals with his disillusionments. Gooper, his brother, became a lawyer and did all the right things to earn Big Daddy’s blessing, but the story is complicated and Williams is brilliant at skimming off the layers of the onion to reveal the story’s heart.
Big Daddy is a self-absorbed, insensitive modern day (1950’s) plantation owner who has more wealth than he knows what to do with. The situation that takes place in the space of a day tells the story of all their lives. Brick, who seems despicable at the first, is actually sees clearly how distorted the family dynamics are, and he wants nothing to do with any of it. His brother Gooper and his wife Mae are determined, as the good son and daughter-in-law, to get the blessing and all the goods that come with it. They've been faithfully producing potential heirs to the “Big Daddy” throne and waste no amount energy kowtowing and sucking up.
The pivotal theme is mendacity. Big Daddy is definitely going to die and he doesn’t know it, yet. This fact, which initially only the doc is aware of, begins to seep through the family and we see, one by one, the various ways in which the characters respond. Ultimately Brick lets it slip. Big Daddy is stunned.
The film sets up Brick’s character in the opening scene where at three in the morning he tries to run the hurdles, while booze-plastered. We see a brash young man who drinks too much, is careless and breaks his ankle in a foolish manner. The broken ankle serves as an external metaphor for the internally crippled man who deals with his pain through rivers of whiskey.
As the film progresses the scales begin to come off the characters’ eyes. What Williams does so effectively is to enable the audience to see who these characters are before they each discover for themselves who they really are. It’s a Hitchcock device, except instead of a gun in the drawer that only the audience is aware of, it’s our knowledge that at some point Big Daddy’s going to discover the truth (that his cancer is incurable) that creates tension. Like Brick’s broken ankle, Big Daddy’s cancer is likewise symbolic of his inner condition. Unlike Brick, whose ankle will heal, Big Daddy’s condition is terminal.
They’ve all been living lies in one way or another. Ultimately we learn the root beliefs that formed the motivational drive in each character, with the ultimate revelation coming in the final basement scene with Brick and Big Daddy. It’s a moment of truth that flows from the story yet of which the audience has know foreknowledge.
This is not a film formulated strictly to entertain. It is a story designed to unveil uncomfortable truths, to enlighten. I have no doubt Williams’ aim is for viewers to leave the theater introspectively, asking themselves how much mendacity and self-deceit they themselves live with.
If you hear echoes of the parable of the prodigal son, you’re probably not far off from the impetus for the original play.
As for the acting, it’s first-rate throughout. Newman, Taylor, Ives and the supporting cast are stellar.