Based on the Pulitzer Prize winning play by Tennessee Williams, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof examines the relationships and lies in a Southern family. Brick (Paul Newman) is an ex-football player who drinks too much and has recently broken his leg in a drunken attempt to relive his days as an athlete. His wife, Maggie (Elizabeth Taylor) knows the reason he drinks is guilt over a friend’s death. The couple has not been intimate in a long time, while Brick’s older brother Gooper (Jack Carson) has five unruly children and another on the way. Gooper’s wife, Mae (Madeleine Sherwood), is the ugliest little lady you can find in the south, but at least she’s fertile. She lords it over the lovely Maggie and uses her pack of “no-neck monsters” to try to win over the favor, and inheritance, of her father-in-law, Big Daddy (Burl Ives).
Everyone is gathering at the plantation to celebrate Big Daddy’s sixty-fifth birthday. The doctor has just lied to him that his cancer is cured, but the reality is that he doesn’t have much time left. Still, all the family celebrates, except Brick who drinks alone upstairs, solemnly thinking about all the mendacity. Big Daddy wants to leave the land to Brick, his favorite son, but first needs to confront his drinking problem. When Brick accidentally lets it slip that his father is near death, Big Daddy has even more reason to try to patch things up with his son.
The great thing about this film is that there is tension between everything and no one is left out. There’s Brick’s excessive drinking, leaving land to the drunk son rather than the first born with a family, Big Daddy’s death creeping closer, an unhappy childless marriage, guilt over a dead friend, Gooper’s unfulfilled need to please his father and those damn kids that everyone hates. Most of the film is simply conversations, but they’re so fueled and blazing with all these problems, every word is important. And when a new problem comes up, or a lie is found out, it’s like gas on the fire.
One thing I could not ignore is how horrible those bratty little kids of Gooper and Mae’s are. They’re enough to make the calm and collected Maggie absolutely lose it, multiple times. At one point, one of them sneaks into the room she and Brick are in and blow a shrieking whistle right behind her. If all this fighting going on isn’t enough for your nerves, that whistle, and the other stunts those kids pull, can break them.
When the film came out, Tennessee Williams hated it. In fact, he would tell people waiting in line for the movie, “This movie will set the industry back fifty years. Go home!” The film had to change details in the play, including all references to homosexuality, a major theme in the play. It was also the first film based on his work to be in color, which may have depleted the intended artistic tone. But the studio wanted to make sure their audience could see Newman’s baby blue eyes. What a priority.
Until I realized how disappointed Williams was with this film, I was leaning towards declaring it my personal Best Picture of 1958. Plays by Williams are some of my favorite to read, but alas, I have not read Cat on a Hot Tin Roof yet, but now I absolutely have to. For now, I have to agree with Williams, if someone cut out a major theme in my work, dolled it up with pretty colors when it’s supposed to be more bleak, I’d be angry too.
“There ain’t nothin’ more powerful than the odor of mendacity!”