Taylor Made

Richard Brooks, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, 1958, 35 mm, color, sound, 108 minutes. Brick Pollitt and Maggie Pollitt (Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor).

“ACRIMONY AND UMBRAGE, tears, door-slamming, broken dishes, jeers, cold silences, whispers, raised eyebrows, the determination to take no notice, the whole classic paraphernalia of insult and injury is Tennessee Williams’ hope-chest,” Mary McCarthy wrote in a spectacularly negative review of A Streetcar Named Desire for Partisan Review in 1948. Though I tend to share McCarthy’s antipathy to the playwright’s work, I don’t think the liabilities she lists are insurmountable. They are, in fact, elevated to fascinating, florid heights by Elizabeth Taylor in the three film adaptations of Williams plays she starred in: Richard Brooks’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Suddenly, Last Summer (1959), and Joseph Losey’s Boom (1968).

The first two movies both hinge on Taylor’s knowledge of a secret—homosexuality—so unspeakable that torrents of words around the subject inevitably spill forth. “It’s got to be told and you never let me tell it!” Maggie “the Cat” Pollitt shrieks in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to her constantly soused husband, Brick (Paul Newman), a onetime football hero who hasn’t touched his concupiscent wife in months. The unmarked antecedent of it in Maggie’s aggrieved claim is eventually revealed to be the wretched set of circumstances surrounding the suicide of Brick’s gridiron teammate Skipper: her jealousy of the closeness the two men shared; her attempt, abandoned at the last minute, to seduce her husband’s buddy; Skipper’s desperate phone calls to an indifferent Brick after Maggie’s machinations. Movie Maggie gets to “tell it,” but only part of it; the Motion Picture Production Code demanded the excision of the original play’s more explicit references to the true nature of Brick and Skipper’s relationship. Though Taylor’s speech in this Mississippi Delta–set story also demonstrates conspicuous elision, the letter g all but eliminated from the alphabet—“You were such an excitin’ lover”—the actress flourishes when delivering her character’s self-evident proclamations: “Maggie the Cat is alive!” (The line is spoken by a woman who had just escaped death: During the filming of Cat, Taylor was granted permission to fly with her third husband, producer Mike Todd, to an event in New York in his private plane, Lucky Liz, but a bad cold prevented her from making the trip. Lucky Liz crashed in New Mexico, killing Todd and the three others on board.)

Like Maggie, the ultimately talking-cured Catherine Holly in the garish Southern gay-gothic Suddenly, Last Summer also has a penchant for referring to herself in the third person: “She’s here, Doctor. Miss Catherine is here,” she says to John Cukrowicz (Montgomery Clift), a psychosurgeon. (Monty Clift is—barely—alive: Suddenly is the actor’s third and final film with Taylor, who rushed to his aid on May 12, 1956, the night he smashed his car into a telephone pole after leaving a dinner party at her house.) Dr. Cukrowicz has been summoned by the moneyed Violet Venable (Katharine Hepburn) to lobotomize Catherine, her niece. The imperious older woman insists on the procedure so her relative will cease “her dreadful, obscene babbling” about Sebastian, Violet’s beloved son, who died under mysterious circumstances while on holiday with Catherine in the Spanish resort town Cabeza de Lobo—a fictional place made even more mythic by Taylor’s insistent Castilian lisp when pronouncing the last syllable of the first word. What’s most unreal, though, are the sordid descriptions that come pouring out of Catherine after she’s given a shot of truth serum: Her gay cousin, we learn, was eaten alive by the young Iberian trade he had solicited. (Unlike that of Cat, this traumatic recapitulation was given a special dispensation by the Production Code, which, according to Vito Russo in The Celluloid Closet, concluded: “Since the film illustrates the horrors of such a lifestyle, it can be considered moral in theme even though it deals with sexual perversion.”)

As Catherine nears the climax of this gruesome flashback, Taylor lets out a piercing cry of Heeelllllppppp! The moment typifies what Wayne Koestenbaum, in his magisterial essay on the actress, “The Elizabeth Taylor Puzzle,” collected in Cleavage (2000), calls her “vocal incongruity”: “[H]er voice sometimes curdles, as when she screams at the end of Suddenly, Last Summer, and we hear a dip or hollow or indentation inside the scream...” The sounds that Taylor makes in Boom (written by Williams, adapting his 1963 play, The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore) startle, confuse, delight, and terrify, often all at once, as with her first words uttered in the film: “Pain! Injection!” Playing the monstrous, dying Sissy Goforth, who lives in a villa on an island in the Mediterranean that she has essentially declared a nation-state, Taylor speaks pidgin Italian and exchanges, as a bizarre greeting, a series of yahoos with Noël Coward (playing the Witch of Capri.). Responding to the recital of the first stanza of Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” by costar (and then spouse) Richard Burton, Taylor lets out, in her blowsiest register, a befuddled Whaaaaat? Pure folly and often unendurable, Boom was instructively categorized for me recently by a friend and fellow Taylor fan as part of the actress’s “avant-garde period.” I’m not sure which films would constitute the bookends of this “phase” of the actress’s career—1967’s Doctor Faustus to the 2001 TV movie These Old Broads? More generously, I’m inclined to say every project she starred in bears the trace of her innovation and experimenting, each role an exercise in breaking down—and rendering superfluous—the distinction between “good” and “bad” acting.

“Tennessee Williams” runs at Film Forum September 26–October 6. Boom screens October 3; Suddenly, Last Summer and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof screen October 4–5.