We see in the Hollywood films of the late 1950s and early 1960s the emergence of a subgenre that might be called the closet drama—that is to say, the melodrama that takes the phenomenon of closetedness as its central theme. Tea and Sympathy (dir. Vincente Minnelli, 1956), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), Suddenly, Last Summer (dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1959) and The Children’s Hour (dir. William Wyler, 1961) (all of which, incidentally, originated as stage plays) make the closet into a MacGuffin, a plot device that mobilizes a range of dramatic scenarios (the confrontation, the confession, the investigation, etc.) and catalyzes various displays of emotion (confusion, curiosity, anger, shame, disgust, etc.). All are put on even greater display in Richard Brooks’ film adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof than in the stage version, because by soft-pedaling the homosexuality of the play the film makes the space of the closet even more spectacularly impregnable—as impregnable, in fact, as Elizabeth Taylor’s Maggie, whose childlessness becomes the most telling signifier of her husband Brick’s queerness. (As in Suddenly, Last Summer, as D. A. Miller has pointed out, the spectacle of homosexual desire, too horrific to show “head-on,” as it were, plays out on the level of the image of Taylor’s voluptuous female body.)
Thus Cat on a Hot Tin Roof consists mostly of people slowly circling the locus of the closet—asking questions, making insinuations, lobbing accusations, but failing in the end to penetrate it. Closet dramas are like mysteries: they are structured around the investigation (and, in some cases, the revelation) of homosexuality. The investigation amounts to a nauseated, but dogged, sniffing-out; in this regard the investigative figures are not so different from the hungry cannibals who devour Sebastian Venable in Suddenly, Last Summer, the follow-up to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof that delivers the spectacular climax from which Cat skittishly backs away. Homosexuality in the closet drama constitutes a truth-knowledge to be learned, a secret to be found out, a riddle to be solved. Stanley Kauffmann intuited as much when he first saw Suddenly, Last Summer, in which Montgomery Clift basically takes up the investigation where the end of Cat, released the year before, left off: Clift “becomes a sort of private eye trying to solve his ‘case,’ rather than a physician intent on cure.” Kauffmann notes that the final scene of that film resembles “the obligatory scene in most mysteries where the detective assembles all the suspects and finally unmasks the criminal.” The gay mystery plot would later become literalized in such films as The Detective (dir. Gordon Douglas, 1968), in which Frank Sinatra investigates a gay man’s murder; the notorious Cruising (dir. William Friedkin, 1980), something of a racier version of The Detective, with Al Pacino in the Sinatra role; and the gay-porn serial killer thriller Killing Me Softly (dir. John and Lem Amero, 1979).
As closet dramas go, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is, finally, a tease: it threatens to open the closet door only to nail it shut. The film ends with the same assemblage of characters that we find in Suddenly, Last Summer—an audience to an outing—only to deny them, and us, that narrative pleasure. The homosexual in this text remains, in the end, a mystery.