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Cat on a Hot Tin Pyramid

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Posted on Apr 1, 2011
Wikimedia Commons

By Deanne Stillman

(Page 2)

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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As we all look back on Elizabeth Taylor’s life and career, I wonder how we would see this iconic performance if you took “Cleopatra” out of the picture. “Cat” came out in 1958, before “Cleopatra,” and was widely acclaimed. So, too, were performances in films that came later, such as her work in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” But if we consider Elizabeth Taylor through the prism of “Cleopatra,” if we look at her grand adventures and passions by way of this glittering pyramid, she becomes an even greater figure than she was before it was filmed, immortalized not just on the silver screen but by a sojourn in Cleopatra’s tomb. And she returned to live the myth that was assigned to the Egyptian queen, had already been living before she became her. 

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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James M. Martin's avatar

By James M. Martin, April 5, 2011 at 8:29 pm Link to this comment

I “ran into” the Magic Couple once. It was at the Beverly Hills Hotel, where I’d gone to interview Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey.  Liz and Dick were in an intimate bar on one floor of the hotel and I was on my way down a small staircase leading to a landing below.  They glanced at me and I wanted to stop in my tracks.  I knew I was looking at royalty.  Two of the greatest gifts to stage and screen in the history of performing arts.  And when you see Liz off-screen and completely comfortable in her skin, the image is forever burned into memory.

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By John Rechy, April 4, 2011 at 7:05 pm Link to this comment

She was the first “celebrity” (overused word) to speak out—and forcefully—against governmental indifference to AIDS. Brava! beautiful lady.

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By Inherit The Wind, April 3, 2011 at 8:43 am Link to this comment

Yeah, this article is not only inaccurate, it’s boring and shallow and adds NOTHING to the history and myth of Elizabeth Taylor, or of Cleopatra.

Every great actor makes dogs, and even has bad acting days. Sir Alec Guinness winced at the scene in Star Wars when Obiwan puts his hand to his head after having “felt” a planet be destroyed, saying it was one of his worst acting failures.

“Cleopatra” is a piece of overblown trash, that wasted the brilliant actors in it. It makes “Spartacus”, from 2 years earlier look like genius.

A contemporary MAD Magazine spoof had an artist a la Jackson Pollock throwing stuff at a canvas, finally a whole trash barrel of garbage, rotten banana peels and all.  He turns around the easel and it’s the poster for .... Cleopatra.

“Maggie the Cat” was a fine, fine performance, but equally fine, and even more stunning was “Martha” in “Virginia Wolff”.

A great actress made one collossal POS and THAT is what she’s remembered for????

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By adeba, April 3, 2011 at 8:19 am Link to this comment

worst article I’ve ever read here!
If NPR can manage to talk about the woman who died, who decided to
accept an article from a woman who who wanted to write about cleopatra
& tossed out everything else?

Taylor had a remarkable life defined not by politics but passion. With the
exceptions of Michael Todd and Richard Burton, her friendships defined
her more than her marriages, and her decision to work for AIDS changed
the course of this country’s awareness of and engagement with the
disease.

Stopping discussion of her film career at Cleopatra, and never mentioning
Virginia Woolf is awful, but the ignorance and arrogance of this writer pales
in comparison to the failure of the editor who let it go by. This article
offends me most for its inaccuracy.  I am not a ’ fan’ of Taylor’s in the rabid
or sentimental sense, but no one with a real life as large and accomplished
as hers deserves to be reduced to a forced analogy of anyone else.

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By Frank, April 2, 2011 at 8:15 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Miss Taylor was probably a very nice person who had the misfortune to grow up in Hollywood which has used and and abused many nice kids.. Your analysis with Cleopatra is laughable and sad. May she rest in peace

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By samosamo, April 2, 2011 at 11:32 am Link to this comment

****************


Just like a bad dream that won’t go away.

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By deanne, April 2, 2011 at 11:31 am Link to this comment

hi bobcatg - appreciate your comments and thanks for the correction - you are right!

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By deanne, April 2, 2011 at 11:29 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

hi bobcatg - appreciate your comments, and also thank you for the correction - you are right!

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By bobcatg, April 1, 2011 at 10:10 pm Link to this comment

Elizabeth Taylor -damn! I hate to be a pedant- did not win an Oscar for “Cleopatra” but for “BUtterfield 8” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”.
But your analysis is wonderful on why she and Cleopatra were a mythic match.
We loved Elizabeth for her many facets and appreciate your appreciation of her.

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