UnGreat Films 4: Cat on a hot tin roof(1958)
A purple eyed wife asks her blue eyed husband to dress up for his dying dad’s birthday party. The crippled husband pours himself another drink. He is angry.
At her? We might think, but no. At himself? Yes, but he doesn’t want to acknowledge it. And hence the drink, which helps maintain the misery while making it bearable. Bearable for whom? For him. What about her? She is just hanging in there, bearable or not. Why? Because she can. Because she wants to. Because for a cat stuck on a hot tin roof, the only victory is staying on.
Is she the cat of the movie title? Yes, and no. He is the cat too, only he doesn’t know it yet. Surviving is victory. She spelled it out for him. A very boring kind, but still. No one else will know, but you will. And if it’s a secret you share with only yourself, you can survive however you wish. Drink, drugs, debauchery, etc., etc., etc.
But this reverie is interrupted by a plot: Things have to happen, feelings have to be hurt, a storm has to arrive. “Big Daddy”, not named for irony, comes back in his private plane with good news from his colon checkups. He can keep drinking his fine whiskey till eternity. The Wife goes with The Mother to welcome him, where he disregards his wife for his daughter-in-law, choosing youth over everything else.
At home, after the shindig is over, with a huge cake and shenanigans-none of which interested him- Big Daddy heads on up to his beautiful son’s room, who’s still dressed in grey pajamas mixing soluble liquids. The scene is being set up for a long confrontation between father and son that establishes this film in my imagination.
It starts off with Big Daddy boasting about all the work he has to do, all the swampland he still has to convert to pasture(which, he ought to know, is not the ecologically prudent thing to do), all the pleasure he has to have, now that he’s regained his vitality, now that his colon isn’t cancerous. He slowly sends off the merry persons out of the room, until he’s alone with his son. Then come the hard questions.
“Why do you drink?”, while denying him a glass. “Disgust” comes the reply. “Disgust with what?”. “Mendacity, Sir. You know what it is? It’s lies and liars”. The conversation has moved one floor down. We’re at ground level. Having asked all the questions so far, Big Daddy launches into a tirade: “What does anybody know about mendacity? I could write a book on it. All these pretenses, highpocricies that I have to keep up with. All these swindling politicians and money-grabbers whose pockets I’ve filled. Boy, I’ve lived with mendacity. What is there to live with other than mendacity?”
“There is liquor, Sir. You can live with drink”. “That’s not living, that’s excuses. Why do you talk like this? Because you can’t play football anymore? Because your friend died? Tell me, son. You’re a 30 year old kid who’ll soon be a 50 year old kid who doesn’t realize that in real life one has to be a hero for all 24 hours, and not just for the duration of a football match. The truth is pain and sweat, paying bills, and making love to someone you don’t love anymore. Truth is dreams that don’t come true and nobody prints your name in the newspaper until you die.”
An old man with thick rimmed spectacles stands in a courtroom holding up placards of nuclear fission materials, and asks the immortal question, “What is the cost of lies?”.
But here, 50 years before the HBO series, someone had already asked the more modern question: What is the cost of telling the truth? If the cat can keep itself on the roof no matter how hot it gets, then what’s the point of knowing the temperature? Especially when knowledge brings no relief, merely exposing a system of lies and deceit that one is powerless against. I must be careful arguing for something so subversive, but our everyday lives are built on a network of delusions so deep that to probe them endlessly can yield no good to anyone, and the person asking questions must stop or risk losing their sanity.
The movie moves to the basement, revealing a final layer of the argument. Big Daddy finds out that his positive diagnosis was fake news, manufactured to save him facing the bitter truth. This takes the certainty out of his voice, and the claustrophobia of the basement overwhelms him, bringing out a new demeanor. The son, now dressed in a becoming shirt, offers to comfort him with tales of love long gone, while confessing that his disgust with mendacity is really disgust with himself, about his inability to confront his failings, his failing to prevent his friend’s suicide among others.
This argument brings about a more palatable conclusion to the discussion than previously suggested. We may be willing to live with other people’s lies and test the durability of the skin of our paws, but to live with our own lies is an altogether different hell. Hell is oneself. There definitely comes a time when the cost of these lies is too much, and there is no more a victory in staying on on a hot tin roof that is about to explode.
The movie has a lovely family reconciliation with promises of sobriety befitting the times, and for a while the comfortable relationship with other people’s lies is given a jolt.