Elizabeth Taylor (1932- 2011) was known as a breathtakingly beautiful actress who portrayed both smoldering sexuality and unhinged fragility. These qualities are best exemplified in the film adaptations of Tennessee Williams’s plays: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) and Suddenly, Last Summer (1959). Williams’s plays are known for the broken dream and the heartbreaking effects on facing reality on those who cannot face reality. In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Suddenly, Last Summer, the broken dream is the virile heterosexual man that people believe Brick and Sebastian to be. Elizabeth Taylor plays the character who makes the characters see the homosexual men and the destructive nature of their desire. In these moments she is dressed in white.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
Here, Taylor plays Maggie the Cat, a woman trying desperately to get her husband into their marriage bed. However, Brick (Paul Newman) is consumed by his grief over the death of his friend, Skipper. Due to the Hollywood Production Code, the homosexual relationship had to be implied. The white dresses she wears throughout the film suggest the purity of heterosexual desire. She tells Brick “Maggie the Cat is alive! I’m alive!” to emphasize that his friend Skipper is dead so his homosexual desire should be dead as well. She tries to get Brick to talk about his desire for Skipper even when Brick tells Big Daddy that Maggie had sex with Skipper out of revenge.
Later in the film, Maggie proclaims, “The truth, the truth! Everybody keeps hollering about the truth. Well, the truth is as dirty as lies!” Although the truth in this scene was Big Daddy’s cancer diagnosis, it can also mean the truth that Maggie has to lie about her pregnancy in order for Brick to face the fact that he cannot live as a homosexual male.
Suddenly, Last Summer
In this film, Taylor plays Catherine Holly who is traumatized by the death of her cousin, Sebastian Venable. Her aunt has put her in a mental institution and insists that Catherine get a lobotomy because everyone else wants to remember their version of Sebastian, a good man who liked to write poetry in the summer. For most of the film, Catherine wears dark colors showing the darkness of ignoring the truth. In the film’s climatic scene, Catherine, dressed in white and seated in a white chair, tells everyone the truth that they do not want to hear while under a truth serum. Using heterosexual desire to bring about homosexual pleasure, Sebastian made Catherine wear a white bathing suit to bait young boys. However, those young boys eventually turn on Sebastian and kill him in a cannibalistic fashion. Once the truth is revealed, Catherine is at peace.
In both films, Elizabeth Taylor shows that she was the perfect actress to convey Williams’s strong yet fragile object of heterosexual desire.
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