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The Invisible ‘B’ in LGBT Discourse: A Reading of Brick Pollitt in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

November 10, 2012 | By

While in terms of narrative form and structure, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is cast in the mould of a classic Hollywood film, it has important points of departure, particularly in the way in which the central male character has been portrayed, in that it allows us to make a bisexual reading in the text.

Robert Brooks’ 1958 cinematic adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ Pulitzer Prize winning play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, tells the story of a feline Maggie (Elizabeth Taylor) whose sexual advances are unfailingly thwarted by her alcoholic and apathetic husband Brick Pollitt (Paul Newman), who is still suffering from the suicidal death of his bosom friend Skipper. The action occurs on the occasion of the 65th birthday celebrations of ‘Big Daddy’ Pollitt (Burl Ives) — who unknown to himself and his wife Ida, is suffering from a terminal disease — when the greater Pollitt family including Brick’s brother Gooper and sister-in-law Mae, gather and quarrel over the imminent granting of the sizeable Pollitt inheritance.

My primary focus in this piece is the character of Brick Pollitt and his relationships to Maggie and Skipper. Queer readings of this character have sought to establish Brick as an unresolved gay person who is unwillingly to accept his homosexual feelings for his male best friend and uses his marriage to masquerade as a heterosexual man. Here, my intent is to unravel how far the narrative of the film provides us with possibilities of destabilizing easy monosexual readings of characters’ sexualities. Thus, intimately connected to this examination is the analysis of the narrative technique deployed in the film.

The film begins with a visibly drunk Brick setting up hurdles in a high-school athletic field at 3 a.m. in the morning, preparing to jump over them to the sound of cheers which only he can hear. Characters imagining absent voices is an oft-repeated dramatic technique which Tennessee Williams employs to instate the troubled subjectivities of his principal characters. In A Street Car Named Desire, Blance du Bois (essayed by Vivien Leigh in the film) is frequently tormented by her auditory hallucination of the trumpet music which was playing when she had last danced with her homosexual husband. The point of these scenes is that they indicate a traumatic past in the characters’ lives. Furthermore, since very little ever ‘happens’ in this film at the level of active events, such narrative signposts draws attention to the inner drama in the characters’ hidden lives.

From this opening scene we move to the sequence in which Gooper’s eldest daughter throws ice-cream at Maggie’s feet. This whole sequence swiftly frames the peripheral characters – Gooper as hen-pecked husband and Mae as the domineering avaricious wife. We follow Maggie upstairs. She declares her intense dislike of Gooper and Mae and informs her husband Brick that his father is dying and that his brother is plotting to cut him off his share of the family inheritance. What strikes us instantly about Brick is the fact that he is an alcoholic and his strange apathy to all that his wife is saying. Soon enough Maggie reacts, “There are some things in this world you’ve just got to face.” That this statement is proleptic is something that emerges only in hindsight but within 5 minutes of screen time, the immediate context of the film has been laid out for the audience.

Maggie fixing her stocking and Brick’s strange indifference to such displays instantly locates their relationship in a troubled zone. Here, the low camera angle framing Brick’s apathetic expression and only Maggie’s legs cannot simplistically be seen as the male tendency to fetishize the fragmented female to avert castration complex; rather it is a skilful cinematic technique which serves to convey the sexual distance that exists in their relationship. It is also noteworthy that this whole sequence serves to intensely eroticise the Maggie-Brick relationship, from Maggie’s perspective. Maggie’s repetitive references to Brick’s irresistible body, her sexual advances and the pain that his refusal engenders are important departures from the philosophical tradition which de-sexualizes love, particularly love harboured by women, as simple ‘caring’ and ‘respect’.

What further complicates this relationship is the insinuation that Brick harbours a latent homosexuality. Up to this point, we get no indication of this. Rather, and this is important for the point that I wish to make about Brick, it is his prowess as a heterosexual lover that is looked on with nostalgic recalling. In what Maggie perceives to be a moment of sexual tension between the two, she reminds Brick that he was “so excited to be in love with me”, “you were such a wonderful lover.” These observations of Maggie provide testimony to Brick’s heterosexuality. These and further narrative signposts which I will identify, inhibit an easy reading of Brick as a closeted homosexual. Rather, it may be more profitable to explore the possibility of bisexuality in Brick’s character, a sexual identity that is frequently overlooked in both gay and heteronormative discourses, with their stern insistence on monosexual allegiance.[1]

Robert Scholes has pointed out that “A fiction is presented to us in the form of a narration which guides (my italics) us as our own active narrativity seeks to complete the process that will achieve the story.” [2] He also says, “Our primary effort in attending to a narrative is to construct a logical (my italics) order of events.”[3] Scholes’s words underscore the importance of a convincing logic informing our subjective readings of a text rather than a capricious randomness that celebrates multiplicity simply for its own sake. Can we then wrest meaning from a text by focussing only on some aspects of the narrative and neglecting others?

Using this theoretical premise, I would argue that Brick’s visibly anxious turning away from Maggie’s sexual advances (remember his disquiet when she starts shutting the doors and windows in their room) disputes a reading that sees him being sexually indifferent to his wife. Nor can it be simply read as the homosexual man’s anxiety about heterosexual performance, which has already been disproved by Maggie’s avowed approval of Brick’s sexual prowess. Furthermore, after Maggie passionately hugs Brick, telling him that she can no longer accept his refusal to make love to her, and he restrains her appeal, Brick proceeds to lock himself in the bathroom and passionately hugs Maggie’s dressing gown with a deeply felt tenderness and hurt. On hearing Maggie trying to appease his mother, he tries to fling away her gown in disgust, only to find out that it has stuck to his finger. These narrative clues encourage a reading of Brick’s eroticized affection for Maggie as being an inalienable aspect of his being, the effort to depersonalize which results in the deepest agony. Moreover, when Maggie, taking opportunity of the doctor’s presence, drops Brick Big Daddy’s birthday card for him to sign, Brick registers an expression that seems amused at her little ‘feminine’ machinations.

The emotional intensity between the two picks up a little later when Brick starts reacting with violent anxiety the moment Maggie mentions Skipper. This is not the first mention of this off-screen character; it will be remembered that the doctor had mentioned that Brick and Skipper were part of a football team. Even as Maggie exhorts him, “Why won’t you face the truth”, Brick anxious response is “I don’t want to hear about it”. Talk of Skipper is thus a grim reminder of Brick’s relationship with him, the contours of which are still very unclear. What is evident is that Brick is extremely anxious to annihilate any discussion about his past with Skipper. In violent defence he screams out, “Skipper and I had a friendship; why won’t you let that be”, and instantly places the three in a triadic relationship. It emerges that whatever the nature of the relationship between the men, it was inimical to Maggie’s interests. Importantly, Brick misses in his attempt to hit Maggie, falls and hurts his broken ankle, in what can only be seen as a narrative punishment for concealing the truth about himself. The narrative will thus not endorse mendacity.

The first overt indication of a possible homosexual relationship between Brick and Skipper emerges in Brick’s confrontation with Big Daddy. As his father alleges that he started drinking after Skipper’s death, Brick puts up a somewhat disproportionately excited defence: “What are you trying to say” and then, “you are trying to pull it through the gutter”. Although Big Daddy does not overtly allege it, Brick starts an aggressive defence against the charge of homosexuality. It is here that the homosocial crosses over into the homoerotic. The narrative punishment that we have seen earlier repeats itself. As Brick denies sexual relations with Skipper and tries to strike his father, he misses his step, falls and hurts himself again. The sarcastic ring of Big Daddy’s “How did Maggie take this great, true (italics mine) friendship” further crystallises Brick’s homoerotic relationship with his male friend.

At this juncture, two things need to be underscored. Research done on the sociology of sports illustrates that when boys start playing competitive sports they are not simply learning a game but simultaneously entering a highly hierarchically organized institution.[4] Brick Pollitt, with his conventional gorgeous looks and prowess at a ‘manly’ sport like football, would unquestionably occupy one of the highest positions of that masculinity scale. Insinuations of homosexuality in Brick thus unsettle the reassuring American fantasy of the macho, aggressive, drinking, heterosexually promiscuous male athlete. Secondly, as Andre Bazin points out [5], an important difference between theatre and cinema is that while the spectator of a play is in an oppositional relation with the central character, in cinema the relation is one of identification. This throws up interesting possibilities for Cat. At one level, heterosexual men in the audience are probably uncomfortable with Maggie’s desire for Brick’s body but on another, they are inclined to identify with Brick whose possibly bisexual identity problematizes the complacency of their own heterosexual identities.

Brick’s open altercation with Maggie reveals interesting aspects of both Brick’s and Skipper’s sexual identities. She alleges that Skipper did not want them married because that would mean less time for themselves. This further corroborates the homoerotic nature of the two men’s relation. More interestingly, she says that when she went up to Skipper’s room, he was more than willingly to make love to her. To Bricks rejoinder “he was drunk” she replies “so are you most of the time; I don’t seem to make out so well with you.” This complicates not just the reading of Brick as a closeted gay person but also Skipper’s sexual identity. His willingness to make love to Maggie challenges a reading which configures him as solely homosexual. Additionally, it emerges that Brick’s refusal to make love to his wife had stemmed from his belief that she had slept with his best friend. One wonders if this would have troubled Brick so much if he had been gay. Surely a gay man married to a woman would not need to wait for his wife to sleep with his gay lover to stop making love to her. Evidently then, Brick’s sexual identity is more complex, one which is struggling to accommodate his erotic relationships with both Maggie and Skipper.

Indeed, Maggie sleeping with Skipper is a betrayal at two levels. One, it is his wife cheating on him with his best friend; at another, it is his gay lover cheating on him with his wife. In this sense, Maggie and Skipper emerge as projections of his bisexual inclination, wherein Skipper’s death is a symbolic death of his homosexuality, a denial of an essential part of his sexual identity. The self-flagellation that Brick inflicts on himself after Skipper’s death is his masochistic way of dealing with the guilt of denying an aspect of his sexuality. As Maggie confesses that nothing happened between herself and Skipper, this guilt alleviates and in the final scene he is able to kiss her in a defining moment of a newly negotiated subjectivity.

Keeping in mind the severe emotional disconnect that Brick has always felt with Big Daddy, it is his friend Skipper whom he idealised as an invincible, dependable hero. Thus it is Skipper who comes to occupy the position of the real father. However, give that the symbolic father is such a rigid cultural order, Skipper is able to occupy this only briefly as Brick soon realises the lack that reasserts itself in Skipper. It may be said that Brick does not really need Maggie to declare that Skipper was tough only on the outside and “pure jelly” within. That the phallus is fraud is certain to have emerged in Brick’s own interaction with Skipper. Consequently, Brick takes on the burden of defending the real father’s failure to be ideal, (he forms a professional football team with Skipper so that the latter does not ever fail, which he does when Brick is unable to play in one game) and assumes the responsibility of the lack of jouissance so that the authority of the ideal father can remain. Brick’s hanging up on Skipper hearing he has made love to Maggie, is Brick’s failure to defend the ideal of Skipper. This results in a neurotic guilt which finds symptomatic expression in his alcoholism.

Brick’s addiction to alcohol however works in a more complex way. In psychoanalytic terms, the suspicion (because it is only in the end that Maggie speaks about it) that Maggie has slept with Skipper takes Brick’s sense of lack to a traumatic point because he realizes that Maggie’s attention is directed not at himself but possibly at Skipper who occupies for Brick the position of real father. His addiction to alcohol is thus a metaphorical substitution of the child’s fort-da game, the death drive to master the trauma felt by the absence of the mother. Alcoholism thus becomes a form of jouissance that Brick uses to take refuge from reality. Since jouissance is also about enjoyment of suffering, it preserves the neurotic structure of compulsive alcoholism. Till the end, he does not know precisely whom Maggie wants. It is this perplexity that restrains him from making love to her. The moment Maggie reveals that she did not desire Skipper for himself but rather wanted to keep him away from Brick, the enigma is answered and he is able to make love to her again.

It is easy to read the final kiss in the film as reproducing the classic Hollywood ending in a reproduction of the cultural order of heteronormativity. However, I would like to attempt an alternative reading. The final kiss is obviously a heterosexual one but it is perhaps important to trace the trajectories that have led to such a kiss. The film began with Brick’s long-standing guilt. As the narrative progressed, driven particularly by Big Daddy, it emerged (at least to Brick himself) that this guilt is in-part, the guilt of his homosexual desires projected in Skipper. We remember that as Brick attempts to drive away in the rain, his car gets stuck in the mud and he can no longer run away from the desires that he has tried to repress. As he grapples with these desires, his defence mechanism collapses. The emotional crutches that he had hitherto depended on are no longer needed. In a symbolic delineation of this emergent subjectivity, the physical crutch that Brick had leaned on breaks into two. Hence, the final kiss, heterosexual though it certainly is, is possible only after Brick has begun to come to terms with his same-sex desires, an aspect of his sexuality he had hitherto tried to repress.

While in terms of narrative form and structure, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is cast in the mould of a classic Hollywood film, it has important points of departure, particularly in the way in which the central male character has been portrayed, in that it allows us to make a bisexual reading in the text. This is important because it empowers us to rescue the ‘B’ in LGBT discourse, something that is often rendered invisible by the demand of exclusive sexual allegiance to either sex. This is to my mind, an important addition to the whole project of queering popular cinema. It is to Cat on Hot Tin Roof’s credit that it allows for such a possibility, in spite of its historical location in a society intolerant of non-heterosexualities.

NOTES

[1] Bisexuals are often shunned both by gay and heterosexual people. Gay people frequently see bisexuals as either wanting to enjoy ‘the best of both worlds’ and avoid making a political commitment to the queer cause, or as closeted homosexuals. For heterosexuals, a bisexual person is no different from a gay person. See Angelides, Steven. 2001. A History of Bisexuality.

[2] Scoles, Robert. 1992. ‘Narration and Narrativity in Film’ in Mast, Gerald et. al. (Eds.) Film Theory and Criticism. Oxford University Press.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Connell, R.W. 1995. Masculinities. Polity Press: Cambridge.

[5] Bazin, Andre. 1992. ‘Theatre and Cinema’ in Mast, Gerald et. al. (Eds.) Film Theory and Criticism. Oxford University Press.

REFERENCES

Scoles, Robert. 1992. ‘Narration and Narrativity in Film’ in Mast, Gerald et. al. (Eds.) Film Theory and Criticism. Oxford University Press.

Connell, R.W. 1995. Masculinities. Polity Press: Cambridge.

Bazin, Andre. 1992. ‘Theatre and Cinema’ in Mast, Gerald et. al. (Eds.) Film Theory and Criticism. Oxford University Press.

Angelides, Steven. 2001. A History of Bisexuality. The University of Chicago Press: London.

(All pictures used in this article are courtesy the Internet)

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Romit Chowdhury has recently received his M.A. in Media and Cultural Studies from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. He has published articles, essays, reviews and short fiction in The Statesman, India Together, Infochange, Phalanx and Culture Unplugged.
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