Welcome to Screen Gems, our weekend dive into queer and queer-adjacent titles of the past that deserve a watch or a re-watch.
The Closest So Far: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
Why is it so hard for us to get a great version of Tennessee Williams’ masterpiece Cat on a Hot Tin Roof? The original film version from 1958 starred screen icons Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman and scored a host of Oscar nominations. That still makes us laugh: Williams despised the film adaptation, which does not make a lick of sense (more on that in a moment). Thankfully, the 1984 remake of the play, which stars Jessica Lange and Tommy Lee Jones, does make a lot more sense. Unfortunately, it suffers elsewhere.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof tells the story of the Pollitt family. Brick (Jones) and his wife Maggie (Lange) return to the southern estate of Brick’s parents, Big Daddy (Rip Torn) and Big Mamma (Kim Stanley). Brick is nursing a broken leg and grieving over the suicide of his childhood friend Skipper, and hitting the booze hard to dull his pain. The family has come to celebrate a clean bill of health for Big Daddy–or so they say. In reality, Big Daddy has terminal cancer, and the family has conspired to keep him from learning his own diagnosis. As Brick descends further into depression and drink, his brother Gooper (David Dukes) plots to take control of the family fortune from Big Daddy, squeezing out Brick in the process.
Williams uses Cat to meditate on the poison of lies–even the well-meaning kind. The 1958 adaptation of the play completely missed that point by excising one of the text’s central revelations: Brick’s friend Skipper was gay, and a confrontation between the two prompted his suicide. By removing that plot point, Brick’s motivation–and the entire climax of the story–collapses. Fortunately, the 1984 version retains the references to Skipper’s sexuality, and the possible gay affair between him and Brick. That version retains the power of the play’s statements on guilt, shame, lies and mendacity.
On the other hand, Lange and Jones both give oddly wooden performances, and the cinematography feels stuffy and claustrophobic–we never feel like we’re watching a movie, so much as a camera turned on a stage. Thank goodness then that the ’84 version contains all of Williams’ poetic dialogue, as well as a magnificent performance by Kim Stanley, who seems to have sprung out of a different (and much better) movie.
We realize this all sounds like a wacky and self-defeating recommendation. That leads us back to our central thesis: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is one of the greatest works of American drama, but there has yet to be a film version that captures all that power. Word has it director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) has planned a new adaptation of the play with an all-black cast. Here’s hoping he finally seizes on the ripe opportunity to make a truly great version.
For the moment though, we recommend the 1984 version as the adaptation to watch. While it has its obvious flaws, it also has a plot that actually makes sense, and retains all the homoerotic power of the original. It also hints at the truly great movie waiting in the wings.
Streams on YouTube.