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?

    If a man asks himself how gay was the first, second or third man who he believed loved him yet dumped him for a woman, he's probably well on his way to a fourth. Love never saves the day for a doormat who can't or won't realistically evaluate the sexual and emotional availability of his current paramour. The playwright presents Brick Pollitt as such a man for our consideration with no apologies, since he's somebody lifted directly from Tennessee Williams' own life as a gay man.

Supine, apparently vulnerable. And of questionable availability.
   Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (Between Men: Homosocial Desire) would place Brick squarely at that continuum point where American homosocialism spills over into overt homosexual desire which demands decisive homophobic apprehension. Brick and Skipper's socially-required male bonding exercise had certainly gotten out of hand, as they say. Missionary women like Maggie (for whom Skipper couldn't get it up) aren't above pulling the homo association lever when seeking to eliminate male sexual competition or male friendship. With the death of Skipper she earns her just desserts: the narcissistic Brick, whose diminished allure is now quite localized, is most generous in sharing around his internal disgust.

As textbook male (opposed to female) American bonding, Sedgwick would no doubt reject the idea that there was anything like loving in Brick and Skipper's relationship, and double down in maintaining that it was one driven by sexual desire and killed by homophobia. It can be additionally argued that there's as much hate as fear in homophobia anyhow, and Brick's absolute rejection of Skipper at his most vulnerable underscores that. His pathetic insistence on the superior cleanliness of their love is but a case of protesting too much and too late. Some scholars have unsuccessfully speculated about Classical mythology elements in the Brick saga, while missing more obvious truths about Classical societies success at melding homosociality and homosexuality without any homophobia whatsoever.

We'd probably all like to erase the homophobes like Brick Pollitt from our pasts...when our darker thoughts aren't being entertained by them lying in their self-made beds of misery. Skipper may have died for Brick and Maggie's sins, but Tennessee Williams reminds us that we don't have to. In case we miss the point, Brick really is a mean self-pitying drunk. Fondly remembered for his "strong" female characters, Williams' males are also a fascinating lot, each in his own right. With many drawn from real life, the playwright prostitutes them, cannibalizes them, cuckolds them, castrates them and sets them on fire. In short, he's not known for romanticizing the American male, or for overvaluing him by virtue of sexual purpose in the absence of anything else worthwhile.

The Taylor Factor

   My father hated Elizabeth Taylor, and dismissed her as "sly". Pandro S. Berman, the producer of many M.G.M. Elizabeth Taylor vehicles (including her Oscar-winning BUtterfield 8) dismissed her as "a shitty actress...the worst." Taylor's considerable matinee fanbase dismissed such criticisms outright, claiming that they connected strongly with "what she's feeling". And my brother dismissed my father as a repressed homosexual like Brick, so that's enough baggage to prepare a man for the onslaught of Taylor and her tits and her need for a good fuck in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof. Anyhow, that holy trinity constituted the entire marketing campaign for the film if the truth be told...along with that other Great Truth: Elizabeth Taylor was the consummate professional movie star inasmuch as she knew to the last dollar what she was worth at the box office and demanded to be paid accordingly.

A rare Newman appearance at the "empty bed blues" publicity shoot.

   Paul Newman apparently prepared himself for Brick as per Tennessee Williams: a fuckup who isn't making much progress in coming to terms with his complicity in the death of the man not at the apex of a sexual triangle...Maggie and Skipper being competitors for his "love". Newman quickly found out that his character's defining loathsomeness - self-hating homophobia - would be altogether sliced out in favor of a alcoholically conventional heterosexual "misunderstanding" regarding Maggie fucking-but-not-fucking Skipper.

The play states otherwise, and Brick's disgust with Maggie is that of at least a jealous latent homosexual. The actor's repugnance towards his leading lady during the film's exposition hints at an excellent understanding of the source material, but Cat the movie had other ideas for Brick and Paul. There are a few subtle treats from Paul lazily aiming his crutch at her back like a shotgun. But though we're verbally assured he's "still in good shape", Newman must have smelled a rat when over-clothed for scenes clearly requiring Panavision perusal of good shape other than Elizabeth Taylor's.


Only Miss Taylor got to feature a plunging neckline on-screen

Our boy's deft readings of Williams' snappy dialog are a man-bitch at the top of his game, but it's not enough to head off the obscenely camp spectacle of Elizabeth Taylor trying to get knocked up by a drunk. Ever the thespian with a commercial eye on her own brand, she battled M.G.M. regularly in order to expose more tits rather than less. Her brand of "earthy" sexuality conforms religiously to the more bestial imperatives of heterosexuality, and in her finest hour as Maggie was delighted enough with herself to promise offspring of animal mating. A remarkable actress (known euphemistically as an "instinctive" actress) in much the same way as Divine was a remarkable actress, Taylor as Maggie effortlessly accesses enough dick desperation to fire up any and all pornographic imaginations, while at the same time wholly endorsing the brand of marital prostitution which only ever rewards the greediest of privileged white women - the tedium of holding down a job rarely got anywhere near an Elizabeth Taylor vehicle.

Her Maggie The Cat can however claim the dubious honor of being the first in more than nine lives too many. She undoubtedly immortalized the property by becoming the sympathetic template of steamy dominant allure which attracts wannabes to the part. So much so that a couple of generations have forgotten that the play is an ensemble piece about disgusting people - Maggie especially.

  Is It Homophobic To Remove The Homophobia From A Hetero-centrist Movie?

   Filmgoers in 1958 knew enough from Kinsey to be aware that 37% of American males had experienced orgasm with another male, so a quasi-intelligent script with other messages didn't have to draw attention to things which it (and the audience)  preferred to avoid. Brick's prurient "problem" wasn't to be homosexuality per se, and MGM 's strategic workaround was to imagine that men who are sexually repulsed by women simply haven't bonded properly with their fathers. Invoking a faux-Freudian approach to the end of getting Elizabeth Taylor mounted was apparently just what both the doctor and the censor ordered. 

It probably still makes perfect sense to many that aborted father/son bonding might just lead to  accidents on the road of peer male bonding, with Brick and Skipper's exemplary immaturity to blame for a catastrophic brake failure. In a lengthy, confected movie-only basement scene, Paul Newman and Burl Ives (as Big Daddy) engage in their belated but curative bonding ritual, replete with enough sexism and misogyny to get things back on track, American-style. Indeed, after a long day of hard drinking, Paul Newman is remarkably refreshed, lucid and damned near ready to perform stud service. The freewheeling Burl Ives as retiring alpha male alludes to the fact the he himself had "been around" but it hadn't stopped him producing male heirs, and more. As for Newman, he gives it all he's got but even he seems to be aware that his Brick has been irretrievably sabotaged...but hey if a hard-on is on the way then so what?

 The filmed Cat On A Hot Tin Roof's greatest offense isn't side-stepping apparent homosexuality. It's toxic premise is that male bonding when done properly ensures and strengthens generational patriarchy. As written by the playwright, American male bonding produces homophobia as it reinforces toxic masculinity. While Tennessee Williams was happy to let the cards of dysfuctionality fall where they may for the sake of a good show, MGM seized on the vanity that real men take charge of their fertile plantations - be they acreage or women - regardless of their appalling shortcomings as individual men.

 Adjunct to What We Pick Up At The Movies is Cat On A Hot Tin Roof's relevance to the homosexualist psyche now, as opposed to then. What's our takeaway, and who if anybody do we identify with? Attractive though he might be, is Paul Newman in his pajamas actually the definitive portrait of our nemesis? Was Tennessee Williams right in urging people to not see the movie because it set cinema back fifty years?  Or is Cat On A Hot Tin Roof at its core the grind-house trailer park filth epic John Waters never made?

    I haven't written a letter to Daddy - his address is heaven above. But if I get around to it I'll probably suggest we watch Cat On A Hot Tin Roof one last time together and just take it from there.


No comments:

Post a Comment