Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Leonard Quart

Produced by Lawrence Weingarten; directed by Richard Brooks; screenplay by Richard Brooks and James Poe based on the play by Tennessee Williams; cinematography by William H. Daniels; edited by Ferris Webster; music by Charles Wolcott; art direction by William A. Horning and Urie McCleary; starring Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor, Burl Ives, Jack Carson, and Madeline Sherwood. Blu-ray, color, 108 min., 1958. A Warner Archive Collection release.

The original 1955 play production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof ran for nearly seven hundred performances, won Tennessee Williams his second Pulitzer Prize, and restored a reputation that had been badly damaged by the failure of his nonnaturalistic Camino Real. Since the play was first produced, it has aroused controversy over its ambiguous homosexual relationship, and Williams was also unhappy with a number of the productions. For example, the play’s Broadway director, the brilliant Elia Kazan (who had directed A Streetcar Named Desire), clashed with Williams over the shape of the third act. He gave it a more positive resolution than Williams’s version, which later stage productions sometimes used.

A frustrated Maggie (Elizabeth Taylor) and a sullen, alienated Brick (Paul Newman).

The big-screen adaptation of the play, produced by MGM in 1958 by the intelligent, socially committed but unimaginative director/writer Richard Brooks (Blackboard Jungle, In Cold Blood) featured major stars like Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman, and—forcefully reprising his stage role as Big Daddy—Burl Ives. The film was highly acclaimed and was nominated for several Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and both Taylor and Newman were nominated for their performances. As for the homosexuality that was at the play’s center, the Hays Code expunged any hint of it from the film. 

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is set in Big Daddy’s mansion on an immense estate, the largest in the Mississippi Delta, one with many black servants. Big Daddy is an obese dying man, but the doctors have lied to him by giving him a supposedly clean bill of health. His family gathers around him, ostensibly for a sixty-fifth birthday celebration, and a swaggering Big Daddy is buoyant because he thinks he has a new lease on life. But there is a will to be signed, and some of the family members and hangers-on are there to insure that they will inherit some of his wealth.

The film’s other central figures are his son (both parents’ favorite), the handsome, alcoholic, ex-football star Brick (Paul Newman) and his voluptuous, sexually frustrated wife “Maggie the Cat” (Elizabeth Taylor, wearing only a clinging white slip in some scenes). There is also Brick’s stolid, corporate lawyer older brother “Gooper” (Jack Carson), who has always been unloved and treated by Big Daddy as if he didn’t exist. Gooper is scheming to get hold of his father’s money, and has a calculating, avaricious wife Mae (Madeline Sherwood, repeating her stage performance), who works hand in hand with him. They have five hostile, aggressively odious children,  “no-neck monsters,” performing on cue from Mae for Big Daddy, who can’t abide them. Mae is singularly repellent, parading her fertility and even embarrassing Gooper with her barrage of nastiness towards the childless Brick and Maggie (and the sexual ambiguity of their marriage).  Even if Mae is a caricature, she remains a vivid presence throughout the film. The family is rounded out by the slightly hysterical, unseeing, and beaten-down Big Mama, Ida (Judith Anderson). She has loved Big Daddy for the forty years of their marriage, but he treats her with utter contempt and she is shunted aside by him, becoming merely someone for him to bully and demean. 

Big Daddy (Burl Ives) confronting Brick.

The film’s focus is on a dysfunctional family—conventional fodder for many Hollywood narratives—but in Williams’s version the theme is heightened by its language and complex characterization and turned into poetic drama. In Cat, Brick seeks to become numb by drinking, even though he can never get really drunk and forget his guilt over the suicide of Skipper, his best friend and former football teammate. Brick is melancholy, detached, emotionally unresponsive, his heart dead to a vital and fiery Maggie’s hunger for sex and love. In Maggie’s words to him, “We aren’t living, just occupying the same cage.”

Maggie, who comes from poverty, is no innocent. She prods Brick to make an appearance at the birthday party so she can assure her fair share of Big Daddy’s money (though her greed isn’t as powerful as her desire for Brick and for having a child by him). Since the homosexual attraction between Brick and Skipper has been dropped, the film primarily sees Brick’s sexual withdrawal as due to a suspicious, past incident between Maggie and Skipper, and the whole question of Brick’s sexual identity never comes up. In the film, Brick is filled with guilt and self-hatred for having hung up on Skipper just before he committed suicide. The audience is made to believe that Brick’s self-destructive behavior is the result of his rejecting a friend because he was “weak.” Brick also blames Maggie for sleeping with Skipper, thereby pushing him to suicide, which she denies.

Even in the sanitized film version, there is more to Brick’s alcoholism and withdrawal than a feeling of responsibility for Skipper’s suicide. The film portrays Brick as unable to come to terms with adulthood, the charmed life he once led as a handsome star athlete being long over. He has become just one more washed-up ballplayer turned sports announcer, unable to grow up.

Maggie pleading with a self-hating alcoholic Brick.

Big Daddy is blunt, honest, angry, cruel, and insensitive. He is also the most powerful, vibrant presence in the film (as in the play), a man with an intense appetite for life.  Ives gives a charismatic performance in the role as he rails against “mendacity”—the hypocrisy and life lies that dominate his crass materialistic world, of which he is an integral part. His directness allows him to confront Brick for being unable to deal with the fact that dreams aren’t always realized. By his own lights, Big Daddy is a truth teller (though true self-knowledge may elude him), but the film suggests that his power and his inability to offer affection, only material things, has helped turn a sobbing Brick into “a thirty-year-old kid,” a man who has difficulty dealing with life. It’s a plausible explanation that is true to the play, in which the submerged homosexual relationship between Brick and Skipper had more of an emotional charge. Even in the film, however, one always senses a hidden sexual subtext inherent in Brick’s behavior.

The film is technically glossy, seamlessly performed by its stars, and has the advantage of being adapted from one of Williams’s best plays. Richard Brooks always explained that he was first and foremost a writer. “Directing is only writing with a camera. Editing is writing. Scoring is writing. It all has to do with a story, how to tell a story.” Indeed, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is more a filmed play than an imaginative work of cinema. At times, the dialogue seems too explicit. Still, the film is sufficiently and eloquently true to the original, despite a concluding reconciliation scene between Brick and Big Daddy that contains more than a touch of the pedestrian and the sentimental. Still, in Brooks’s adaptation, Williams’s belief in the difficulties and the need for human connection in a loveless, hypocritical, emotionally impoverished world powerfully resonates.  This is a rare film adaptation of a major artist’s work that, even if flawed, doesn’t compromise the heart of his vision.

The Warner Archive Blu-ray disc contains a brief 2006 documentary, Playing Cat and Mouse, which has interviews with author Donald Spoto, biographer Eric Lax, Madeleine Sherwood, and others who discuss the production.

Leonard Quart, a Cineaste contributing editor, is the author or co-author of numerous books on film.

Copyright © 2016 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XLII, No. 1