During the 2017 holiday season, I got a great deal on the Best of Warner Bros. 100 Film Collection. Diane and I haven’t seen most of these movies, but we are committed to watching one a week and writing a short review.
1958’s “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” is a decidedly-less sweaty watch than our previous “based on a Tennessee Williams” production, “A Streetcar Named Desire”. It has the same level of drama, intrigue, and Southern accents though. Plus, Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman are just as attractive as Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando (if not more so). Adapted from a play of the same name, “Cat …” demands attention from the moment it invites you into the home life of the well-to-do Pollitt family. Attention, for the most part, well-deserved.
As a movie, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” fails to take advantage of the medium. Through and through, this is still a play and it feels every bit as claustrophobic with characters spending their time slowly moving as a group from one room to the next. Outside of a brief trip to the airport and a quick look at the horses, the camera (and players) never leaves the Pollitt family home.
Still, “Cat …” is an intense watch. Largely due to the performances, for a movie that spends its entire run time following people yelling at and talking over one another, it’s a wonder it isn’t boring. Elizabeth Taylor’s Maggie “the Cat” oozes sex as she saunters around in her well-rounded figure, but never at the expense of playing a well-rounded character. She wants her husband Brick (Paul Newman) to love her again.
Despite her intensity and familiarity, Newman plays Brick in the film’s early going as passive as possible around Maggie. The film opens with him drunkenly failing to recapture his glory days as an athlete before we meet him again in his family home weathering the Mississippi heat with glass after glass of whiskey. The movie’s strongest hook is cast early on: why has Brick turned to alcoholism? What happened between him and Maggie?
She tries to breeze past his coolness with more important things. Brick’s father, a wealthy entrepreneur, is dying and Brick’s older brother “Gooper” (played by Jack Carson, previously seen in several movies on our list) is angling to be his successor. Along with Gooper’s wife, who is referred to throughout the film as “sister-woman”, Maggie doesn’t want the pair to cut her or Brick out of the estate.
At first it may seem like Maggie is being selfish or only looking out for herself. I think the story does a good job of pushing back on this assumption. Gooper’s wife, Mae (Madeleine Sherwood), is terrible. Throughout the movie, she makes snide remarks about Brick and Maggie when both seem somewhat civil to her. Worse, she forces her five children to sing over-and-over again to “impress” the family patriarch, Big Daddy (golden voiced Burl Ives). The fact that Big Daddy and Maggie both hate the children – the rest just ignore them – really resonated with us both.
The story, and everyone’s deep-seated mistrust of one another, slowly unravels as the seams start pulling apart. One issue I had was the big reveal of why Brick and Maggie are no longer on good terms with one another. The film does its best to lay the groundwork for Brick’s recently deceased best friend to be a potential homosexual romance, but it’s forced to hold back from pulling the trigger.
In our research, this was a criticism that Tennessee Williams himself had of the film. It would have been truly groundbreaking to witness for 1958. Whether Brick himself is gay is undercut by the film’s happy, hetero ending, but there is enough implied for modern audiences to fill in the gaps and answer these questions for themselves.
With top notch performances, a good dramatic arc, and a lot of southern phrases, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” stands up. It’s an important “toe in the water” for a story revolving around a homosexual repression gone sour. I would’ve preferred the whole foot, but there is a real benefit for being so coy when looking back from a much more gay friendly future makes the conflict on Paul Newman’s gorgeous face all the more powerful. Chiseled out of self-doubt, self-loathing, and repression, and opposite the sexual icon of Elizabeth Taylor, “Cat …” is bound to cause conflicts for any sexual orientations.
For other reviews, make sure to check out the Warner Brother’s Top 100 Film’s page.