May 18 marks what would have been the 100th birthday of writer-director Richard Brooks, who died at age 79 in 1992. Brooks may never have been a household name but he directed quite a few famous movies, from Blackboard Jungle (1955) to In Cold Blood (1967) to Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977), plus two Tennessee Williams adaptations, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) and Sweet Bird of Youth (1962), both starring Paul Newman. Brooks won his only Oscar for his screenplay of Elmer Gantry (1960), which he also directed and which certainly ranks among his top and most enduring achievements.
Lost amid Brooks’ more popular and highly touted pictures is The Catered Affair, with a screenplay by Gore Vidal based on a teleplay by Paddy Chayefsky. Coming on the heels of the multi-Oscar-winning Marty (1955), also based on a Chayefsky teleplay, The Catered Affair was the next entry in the modest “ordinary people” genre, with Chayefsky doing for Irish New Yorkers what he had done for Italian New Yorkers in Marty. It’s a likable, absorbing little drama, perhaps as underrated as Marty was overrated. Marty himself, Ernest Borgnine, was back, now as an Irish cabbie instead of an Italian butcher. Borgnine was pretty much the go-to Chayefsky actor of the moment, crowned with the Best Actor Oscar that was part of Marty‘s haul. Though he is not playing the central character, as he did in Marty, Borgnine gives a fine, low-key, believable performance.
Thelma Ritter created the role of the cabbie’s wife on television, and it’s easy to imagine how marvelous she would have been in the film version, the kind of opportunity for her that might have resulted in her only Best Actress Oscar nomination. But this was not to be. The role went to Ritter’s All About Eve co-player, the great Bette Davis. This is a textbook example of miscasting. For all her formidable gifts, Davis, try as she might, cannot convince anyone that she is a plain, ordinary Bronx housewife, something Ritter would have accomplished on sight. The character wants to give her daughter a wedding she’ll remember, even though they can’t afford it. There’s no denying Davis’ commitment to the role, but the effort shows, in her bad accent, her clipped line readings, her mannered movements. It’s so obviously an actress acting that you never accept anything about her as authentic. She’s incapable of loosening up, much too tense and self-consciously controlling her performance, never “throwing away” a single moment.
And yet this poor man’s Father of the Bride still works, thanks to Brooks’ sensitive direction, John Alton’s black-and-white photography, and Debbie Reynolds’ performance as the daughter. Reynolds was perhaps headed for the mid-’50s musical-comedy oblivion of many of her MGM co-workers, women like Jane Powell, Ann Blyth, Kathryn Grayson, Ann Miller, and Esther Williams. But her dramatic performance here proved that there was much more to Reynolds than perkiness and spunk, and her stardom thrived for another decade. Her simple, honest acting is a revelation, one deserving of an Oscar nomination. Engaged to a glasses-wearing Rod Taylor, a schoolteacher, Reynolds doesn’t want any fuss, especially as Davis’ plans snowball out of control. Reynolds is so fresh and natural, so effortlessly touching and true. It’s a real breakthrough performance, and you start wishing that the colossal Davis would take some acting tips from Reynolds, who just lives and breathes inside her character.
Ultimately, this is a feel-good kitchen-sink drama, with everything working out a bit too neatly, even though Davis doesn’t get her catered affair. Despite the flaws in the casting and the too-easy resolutions, The Catered Affair is a good, honorable movie, a worthy directing credit on the filmography of the impressive Richard Brooks.