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Cat on a Hot Tin Pyramid
Posted on Apr 1, 2011
And now there is something else that must be mentioned, a major inaccuracy in the film that has come to light—at least for many of us, I think—and it bears mention because it goes to the strange thing that happened when the two notorious women, Cleopatra and Elizabeth Taylor, met forever on celluloid.
Quite simply, Cleopatra—the mother of all sirens—was not drop-dead gorgeous. Nor was she beautiful. In fact, you could say that she was not even pretty. We know this from coins bearing her image which are reproduced in Schiff’s book. Having seen those images, I now realize that if the great Hollywood production called “Cleopatra” had not been made, or if it had been made with anyone other than Elizabeth Taylor, Cleopatra may well have vanished into the Sahara, where she has resided all along, rolled out occasionally by academics, Egyptology freaks, feminists and students of literature. You see, her tomb has never been found. Because of that, until the movie with Taylor came along, she was not on the way to becoming another King Tut, for instance, popping up in a latter-day traveling circus of mummified remains and relics with hordes of moderns queued up at the deathbed. Elizabeth Taylor resurrected her and, oddly, the movie rendered the discovery of her tomb pointless; one of the last scenes takes place inside it.
As for Elizabeth Taylor, well, her own life eclipsed the story that was portrayed on the screen, adding to the ancient queen’s allure and conflating the timelessness of the enduring saga with her own. During the filming of “Cleopatra,” Elizabeth Taylor became Cleopatra, or perhaps Cleopatra had become Elizabeth Taylor, and as the years went by we watched as Richard Burton adorned her with diamonds and we witnessed her every public proclamation of love for pearls and emeralds and things that are luxe, and it became impossible to think of one woman without the other, and as great an actress and figure as Taylor was, I wonder if she would have achieved such magnitude had she not played the infamous and long-gone royal who presided over a state that was encased in gold and swathed in gems.
Prior to making “Cleopatra,” Elizabeth Taylor had starred in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” the powerful film based on a play by Tennessee Williams about the passing of a generation in an old Southern family. Here is a movie in which personal lies—some at least—are the truth, a fact of life that only a great writer can deliver. In one of her finest performances, Elizabeth Taylor plays the noble and tormented Maggie, aka Maggie the Cat, wife of the troubled and handsome scion Brick, played by Paul Newman. As Big Daddy (Burl Ives) prepares to die and hand off his fortune, his idiot son Gooper and conniving daughter-in-law Mae try to push Maggie and Brick aside. But of course the truth outs and Big Daddy says so: “Didn’t you notice a powerful and obnoxious odor of mendacity in this room? ... There ain’t nothin’ more powerful than the odor of mendacity. You can smell it. It smells like death.” And then comes the honest lie. As Big Daddy prepares to honor Brick, Maggie seals the deal with “an announcement of life beginning. A child is coming. Sired by Brick out of Maggie the Cat. I have Brick’s child in my body and that is my gift to you.” “Yes sir,” Big Daddy replies, “the girl has life in her body.” But she is not pregnant, and later she thanks Brick for backing her up in her lie. He tells her that they’ll make it come true. And thus the metaphor of the script has materialized. “I feel all the time like a cat on a hot tin roof,” Maggie tells her husband early in the story. “Cats jump off roofs and land uninjured,” Brick says. “Do it. Jump.” But she can’t, she explains; she loves Brick and where would she go? “What is the victory of a cat on a hot tin roof?” he asks. “Just staying on it,” she says, “as long as she can.” But in telling her lie, she has also jumped off the roof into the unknown.
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Last week, Elizabeth Taylor was buried at Forest Lawn, cemetery to the stars. Soon there will be a public funeral and it will be grand, no doubt, an elaborate tribute to the queen of the Hollywood nation-state. And always there is her voice, calling out from “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” “I’m alive!” she says, across time and forever. “Maggie the cat is alive!”
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