Viewer Guide: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Whiplash with Richard Peña

April 20, 2018 | Richard Peña

Your weekly peek into what’s coming up next on REEL 13, written by host Richard Peña.


Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)

Tonight’s classic is Richard Brooks’ film Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, a 1958 drama adapted from Tennessee Williams’ Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway play.

Starring Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman, this first film adaptation of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof provided the stars with two of their most iconic roles. The action is set in the Mississippi Delta at the grand plantation home of Big Daddy Pollitt, a self-made cotton tycoon played by Burl Ives. Taylor is Maggie Pollitt, Big Daddy’s daughter in law married to his son Brick, as portrayed by Newman. The extended Pollitt family is gathering to celebrate not only the patriarch’s 65th birthday but the clean bill of health given to him after a visit to the area’s best cancer specialists.

Yet what should be a joyous family event is clouded by deceptions. After the death of his high school friend Skipper, Brick has descended into a kind of alcoholic stupor, refusing to sleep with Maggie and thus leaving the couple childless after four years of marriage. This open secret is not lost on Brick’s brother Gooper and his wife Mae, played by Jack Carson and Madeleine Sherwood, who just arrived at Big Daddy’s plantation with their bratty pack of children. Gooper and Mae’s machinations to steer the family fortune their way only serve to agitate Maggie even further as she struggles to salvage her marriage to Brick and protect their rightful share of Big Daddy’s money.

As a gay writer working in the deeply sexist, racist and homophobic mid-century of America, it’s not hard to understand why Tennessee Williams would be drawn to exploring the “mendacity” that was so pervasive at that time. Williams was of course a “hot property” in the Fifties, on stage and screen, so Cat was rapidly picked up by MGM for a screen adaptation. But mid-50s Hollywood wasn’t quite ready for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’s daring exploration into “the awful truth” of Brick and Skipper’s barely repressed homosexual relationship. With screenwriter James Poe, director Richard Brooks struggled to find a way of bringing Cat to the screen that would be faithful to Williams’ original but get past the still-active Hollywood Production Code.

While shaping their script, they lost out on having their first choice for the role of Brick, the legendary James Dean, who had died in a car accident. Dean’s untimely death created an unexpected opportunity for another young actor, Paul Newman, with his work on the film turning out to be a major career break.

Likewise, both Lana Turner and Grace Kelly were reportedly first considered for Maggie the Cat. Encouraged by her then-husband Mike Todd to continue pursuing serious dramatic parts, Taylor was just two weeks into production when Todd was killed in a plane crash on a trip to New York. Taylor had originally planned to join him, but a case of bronchitis kept her home. Just 26 years-old, Taylor was shattered by Todd’s death, but returned to work after three weeks, saying that it would have been what Todd wanted.

A box office hit, the film was well received by the critics. But one person who truly wasn’t a fan was Tennessee Williams. Disgusted by MGM’s bowdlerization of what he considered his finest work, Williams complained about it to anyone who would listen. Reportedly, upon spotting a crowd lined up to buy tickets, the famously candid playwright yelled out “the movie will set the industry back 50 years. Go home!” Despite what the playwright thought, the film was honored with six Academy Award nominations, including Oscar nods for Best Picture, Actor, Actress and Adapted Screenplay.


Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons in Whiplash (2014)

Tonight’s indie is Whiplash, a 2014 drama starring Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons, directed by Damien Chazelle.

The “mentor movie” genre has a long and reliably popular Hollywood history, represented through the years by box office hits like To Sir, With Love; The Karate Kid; and Dead Poets Society. Representing just the second feature film from La La Land director Damien Chazelle, Whiplash brings an unexpected and at times shocking intensity to a genre that had tended to be sentimental and nostalgic.

Miles Teller stars as Andrew Neiman, a 19-year-old student musician studying to become a jazz drummer at the fictitious Shaffer Conservatory in New York City. Andrew’s often bashful exterior belies his fierce ambition to become not simply an accomplished drummer, but a legendary drummer on the level of such giants as Buddy Rich or Gene Krupa. When Andrew is unexpectedly selected to join the Conservatory’s studio band led by the formidable conductor Terence Fletcher, he is elated to become the youngest student in the elite assemblage of upperclassmen.

However, any joy Andrew might feel upon his sudden elevation is short-lived as he rapidly becomes acquainted with Fletcher’s brutal rehearsal technique of mercilessly breaking down his students with lacerating criticisms for the slightest misstep. Stalwart actor J.K. Simmons received a much-deserved Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his blistering performance here, creating a terrifying portrait of a merciless, arrogant bully who nevertheless, year after year, has gotten the results he wants with award-winning bands. Yet the harder Andrew works, the tougher it seems Fletcher gets on him, leading to an inevitable confrontation in which one of these two elemental forces will just have to break.

Written by director Damien Chazelle during the long period he was struggling to get La La Land produced, Chazelle has claimed that his film has autobiographical underpinnings, being loosely based on his own experiences as a drummer in a high school jazz band led by a tough conductor. Chazelle takes the character of Terence Fletcher to a whole other level, creating a Svengali-like figure whose undeniable success makes all under his power live with constant fear.

Figuring it would be a simpler project to get off the ground than La La Land, Chazelle initially produced an 18-minute short film from his Whiplash script starring J.K. Simmons and Johnny Simmons in the role of Andrew. The short film’s acclaimed screening at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival quickly paved the way to produce the full-length screenplay.

Rapidly shot over a grueling 19-day schedule, Chazelle totaled his car during the third week of production. Despite a possible concussion, he still returned to the set the next day to finish shooting on schedule. Eerily, actor Miles Teller was also involved in a high-speed car accident when he was on his way to a music festival in 2007. While not formally trained, Teller had some experience as a rock & roll drummer, but still required a crash course in jazz drumming technique.

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