Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Homo On A Hot Tin Roof: The Paul Newman Edition



History often likes to inform us that America in the 1950s was a cultural and intellectual backwater, a swamp of moralistic naivete. It wasn't, with only mass media like newspapers and Hollywood movies promoting sexual repression. Important writers featured in Playboy alongside nude women, and live theater was booming and edgy with notable queers like Tennessee Williams at the fore. Literary homosexualists like Gore Vidal and James Baldwin roamed free to varying degrees. As Hollywood lost its screen monopolies and battled television for attention, it found itself shackled by extreme censorship as it struggled to present the sex audiences hungered for. Not that a company town with a bordello sensibility like Hollywood was breaking its neck to present gay story-lines: a man doesn't get a dick or pussy choice at a whorehouse door.  

Motherfucking makes it to comic books

   The movie business left to its own imaginative devices was only ever beholden to sensation and smut for adult consumption. By the Fifties it still had to look outside itself for modern plays and books which could bestow upon the product some class, of the artsy-fartsy kind. The matches made in literary agent's offices usually yielded up bowdlerized on-screen stories which became bizarre and senseless while nevertheless invoking East Coast cerebralism. Hoisting de-sexed screenplays onto screens as art was the brief for many or most....putting asses on seats while not coming off like Commies or Jewfags was the goal. The era took itself seriously enough for coastal reciprocity: on her way to tragic sainthood Marilyn Monroe made a Stanislavsky stop at the Actor's Studio in New York, and married Arthur Miller as well. If Freud couldn't go to the circus, then the circus would go to Freud...and find some goddam motivation to polish turds for Academy Awards consideration.

Psychoanalysis was all the rage but few questioned its motives in secretively keeping homosexuality a dirty but highly lucrative mental illness. It was good enough for self-styled progressives to deflect Kinsey's findings on male sexuality towards frankly open vilification of the "fairy", as contrapuntal to what a red-blooded post-war American male was all about. Hollywood's Production Code was committed to reinforcing Catholic fundamentalism (with more than a tinge of antisemitism) for largely Protestant audiences. So much so that its queer erasure imperatives went as far as ensuring only the barest coded nods to homophobia, lest homophobia itself fall under intelligent scrutiny.  And thus Hollywood was poised to play its part in the keeping of secrets...that theme which links the ethos of the era, as represented in art and psychiatry.

   No movies from the waning Golden Era of Hollywood about maybe-queer male sexuality have enjoyed as good a revisionist run as Cat On A Hot Tin Roof.  The 1958 M.G.M. potboiler adaption of Tennessee Williams' Pulitzer-winning play has had a post-modern life of its own, due in no small part to having the hinted-at homosexuality of its protagonist excised. Latter-day critics usually give the film a pass despite this. And they have a point if the film's bastardry undercuts the playwright so emphatically that mention of the unmentionable would sabotage the counter-purposes of the film. Testing Roth v. United States (1957), Cat On A Hot Tin Roof sandbags its prurient sex with more than enough Catholic intent to mask sexploitation for the sake of sexploitation.

Erstwhile, Way Down South In Dixie...

As articulated by Tennessee Williams, Cat is the story of Brick Pollitt and not Maggie The Cat. The true lead character, he's the wretched focus of a dysfunctional family confronting the end of a patriarchy, albeit one with as much homosexual as generational history. The Pollitt plantation was established by two gay men, and came into the hands of Brick's father Big Daddy by virtue of their sponsorship of him whilst a very young go-getter. (After Straw died, Big Daddy became Ochello's "partner".)

Not thinking about the dick that got away
  A raging homophobe, Brick is mighty uncomfortable ensconced in the very bedroom of the plantation's founders. Like most addicts, he manages to elicit sympathy of the "buyer beware" kind...for hurts and losses not honestly articulated. Big Daddy isn't buying any of it, and as he needles his son about his sexuality he reminds the failed frat-boy jock that tolerance was a quality he's brought to the family and the plantation. But while genteel queerness and much cotton pickin' may have assured the Pollitts' ascendancy, of immediate concern is the carnal. When it comes to the livestock management aspects of human sexuality as applied to inheritance, the surly but favored son just won't do his studly duty.

Brick's alcoholism runs his life, and of course the film can't help itself from jumping into that disease's cause, in the name of steering dysfunctionality to a breeding, functional (read: "heterosexual") resolution which necessarily requires our hero to just get it up. While Williams was more than happy to leave his characters nuanced enough for directorial interpretation, he never suggested reinventing the Pollitt herd as a palatable group of human beings.

How Homosexual Is Brick?