Filmsite Movie Review
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)
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Background

Cat On a Hot Tin Roof (1958) is the powerful, highly-charged, moving story of a neurotic, dysfunctional Southern family with its rivalries, tensions, and avarice. Its provocative screenplay by Richard Brooks and James Poe was adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name by Tennessee Williams. [It was Williams' second Pulitzer Prize win.] MGM's posters proclaimed: "ALL THE SULTRY EXPLOSIVE DRAMA OF TENNESSEE WILLIAMS' PULITZER PRIZE PLAY IS NOW ON THE SCREEN." A sexually-explicit, made-for TV remake was created in 1976, starring Robert Wagner, Natalie Wood, Maureen Stapleton and Laurence Olivier in the lead roles. A second made-for-TV production was co-produced by pay-cable station Showtime and PBS's American Playhouse in 1984, starred Tommy Lee Jones, Jessica Lange, Rip Torn, and Kim Stanley.

The film, one of the top ten box-office hits of its year, was honored with six major Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Paul Newman with his first Oscar nomination), Best Actress (Elizabeth Taylor with her second of four consecutive nominations), Best Director (Richard Brooks, who had replaced George Cukor as the film's original directorial choice), Best Adapted Screenplay (Richard Brooks and James Poe), and Best Cinematography (William H. Daniels) - but it failed to win any awards. Curiously, Burl Ives was nominated and won an Oscar in 1958 as Best Supporting Actor in The Big Country rather than for his performance in Cat On a Hot Tin Roof. The play was originally directed by film director Elia Kazan, starring Ben Gazzara, Barbara Bel Geddes, Burl Ives, and Mildred Dunnock - with Ives as the only one reprising his role in the film version.

Because of strict censorship Production Codes in the late 1950s at the height of Hollywood's concern about film content, all references to homosexuality and four-letter words were deleted, watered down, or obscured from the shocking, original play, and the ending was considerably changed from the original Tennessee Williams play.

Major star Elizabeth Taylor was deeply affected by the tragic airplane crash death of her husband Mike Todd, only a little over a week into the shooting. Her role was as the passionate, sexually-frustrated, feline Maggie ("The Cat" in the film's title) whose advances and lustful sensuality are thwarted by the unloving temperament of her alcoholic, injured, impotent, and apathetic husband Brick (Paul Newman) who is still suffering from the suicidal death of his (homosexual) friend Skipper, and also has suffered a broken ankle. [In the play, Maggie had allegedly seduced Skipper, an instance of heterosexual infidelity - to keep their homosexual relationship at bay - an important plot element missing in the film.] The action occurs on the occasion of the 65th birthday of 'Big Daddy' Pollitt (Burl Ives reprising his stage role) - the patriarchal plantation head (who is secretly suffering from terminal cancer), when the greater Pollitt family gathers and inevitably quarrels - greedily - over the granting of the expected inheritance.

The Story

The film opens in the middle of the night (3 am in the morning) with Brick Pollitt (Paul Newman), a good-looking but tormented, brooding, boozing, ex-high school football star, setting up hurdles on a track next to the football field of his alma mater - East Mississippi High School. After hearing the imaginary encouraging cheers of an audience in the stands, the scene of his past glories, he hears the starting gun and leaps forward in an attempt to relive the glory days of his athletic youth. He crashes and stumbles to the ground over the fourth high hurdle, and from the ground looks up at the empty seats in the stadium. In the following scene the next day, he is confined to the second-floor bedroom/sitting room of the Pollitt plantation mansion with a broken ankle.

The Pollitt family has begun to gather to celebrate the sixty-fifth birthday of the domineering Mississippi plantation owner and patriarch, Big Daddy Pollitt (Burl Ives). Outside on the lawn, Margaret "Maggie" (Elizabeth Taylor), Brick's beautiful young wife, criticizes her brother-in-law Gooper Pollitt (Jack Carson) and his shrewish, fertile wife Mae (Madeleine Sherwood) for allowing one of their five obnoxious children ("no-neck monsters") to dip her hands into the ice cream. Upstairs in the bedroom/sitting room, Maggie tells a cooly-detached Brick that she is sickened by her brother-in-law's children and her sister-in-law's perpetual fertility:

One of those no-neck monsters hit me with some ice cream. Their fat little heads sit on their fat little bodies without a bit of connection...you can't wring their necks if they got no necks to wring. Isn't that right, honey?...Think of it, they've got five monsters and number six comin' up.

Suspicious of her greedy, prolific relatives who have produced five grandchildren for Big Daddy, she explains to him why they have assembled - to battle over the vast inheritance of the 28,000 acre Mississippi cotton plantation/estate and cut him out of the will: "I'll tell you what they're up to, boy of mine! They're up to cutting you out of your father's estate." With Big Daddy thought to be "dyin of" a terminal disease: "There's some things you gotta face, baby. There's some things in this world you simply got to face." And frequent "allusions" are being made between Brick and Rainbow Hill, a sanitarium for alcoholics - "it's a place that's famous for treatin' famous alcoholics and dope fiends." She sees a conspiracy brewing and urges her husband to fight for what is rightfully his:

You'd be a perfect candidate for Rainbow Hill. That's where Brother Man gonna tell Big Daddy to ship you. Over my dead body...And if they get you out of the way, Brother Gooper gets ahold of the estate and signs all the checks and cuts off our credit whenever he wants. How'd you like that, Baby?

Determined and desperate to inherit Big Daddy's estate, Maggie is dismayed that her irresponsible husband is impeding them by quitting work (as a sports announcer), drinking excessively, and breaking his ankle, but she feels that they have two big advantages even though she is childless:

Big Daddy dotes on you, honey. And he just can't stand Brother Man and Brother Man's wife, that monster of fertility. She's downright odious to him. I can tell. Just like I can tell he likes me. That's the second thing we got on our side. He likes me. The way he looks me up and down, over, he's still got an eye for girls.

Although Brick thinks her "kind of talk is disgusting," she feels he is a "back-aching Puritan." Love-starved from Brick, she admires her father-in-law's lechery, believing that he finds her sexually attractive: "I think it's mighty fine the way that ole fellow on the doorstep of death still takes in my shape with what I consider deserved appreciation."

After making more derisive comments about the social pretensions of Goober's wife Mae as a cotton carnival queen before she was married, Maggie is cut short - she freezes and catches sight of Brick in the mirror, looking at her with an enigmatic expression. Hurt and made hard by his indifferent love, she interprets his gaze not as contempt but as sexual interest and attention. But he recoils from her, rises on his crutches, sullenly makes another trip to the liquor cabinet, and shelters himself from reality by drinking himself into oblivion. The tension between the two is one of unhappiness and sexual discontent - Maggie and Brick no longer share a marital bed in their passionless marriage, since he refuses to sleep with her. She is intensely frustrated by her husband's rejection:

Maggie: Why are you looking at me like that?
Brick: Like what, Maggie?
Maggie: Like you were just lookin'.
Brick: I wasn't conscious of lookin' at you, Maggie.
Maggie: (seductively) I was conscious of it. (He coldly turns from her and rises on his crutches) If you were thinkin' the same thing I was...
Brick: No, Maggie.
Maggie: Why not?!
Brick: Will you please keep your voice down.
Maggie: No! I know you better than you think. I've seen that look before. And I know what it used to mean. And it still means the same thing now.
Brick: You're not the same woman now, Maggie.
Maggie: Oh, don't you think I know that? Don't you think I know that...
Brick: (cooly detached) Know what, Maggie?
Maggie: That I've gone through this horrible transformation, that I've become hard and frantic and cruel...Oh Brick, I get so lonely.
Brick: Everybody gets that.
Maggie: Living with somebody you love can be lonelier than living entirely alone - if the one you love doesn't love you.
Brick: ...Would you like to live alone, Maggie?
Maggie: No! No, I wouldn't.

In one of the film's most famous scenes, a sensual but deprived Maggie describes her obsessed, passionate feelings for a husband who won't bed her or touch her:

Maggie: Why can't you lose your good looks, Brick? Most drinkin' men lose theirs. Why can't you? I think you've even gotten better-lookin' since you went on the bottle. (As she caresses the brass bedframe) You were such a wonderful lover...You were so excitin' to be in love with. Mostly, I guess, 'cause you were (pause)...If I thought you'd never never make love to me again (pause)...why I'd find me the longest, sharpest knife I could and I'd stick it straight into my heart. I'd do that. Oh Brick, how long does this have to go on? This punishment? Haven't I served my term? Can't I apply for a pardon?
Brick: Lately, that finishin' school voice of yours sounds like you was runnin' upstairs to tell somebody the house is on fire.
Maggie: Is it any wonder? You know what I feel like? I feel all the time like a cat on a hot tin roof.
Brick (offering a solution): Then jump off the roof, Maggie, jump off it. Now cats jump off roofs and they land uninjured. Do it. Jump.
Maggie: Jump where? Into what?
Brick: Take a lover.
Maggie (angrily): I don't deserve that! I can't see any man but you. With my eyes closed, I just see you. Why can't you get ugly Brick? Why can't you please get fat or ugly or somethin' so I can stand it?
Brick: You'll make out fine. Your kind always does.
Maggie: Oh, I'm more determined than you think. I'll win all right.
Brick: Win what? What is, uh, the victory of a cat on a hot tin roof?
Maggie: Just stayin' on it, I guess. As long as she can.

Big Daddy's arrival at the airport is met with a fanfare from Gooper, Mae, their children, and Maggie. Using all weapons at her disposal to curry favor with Big Daddy, Mae has her brood of five children play 'Dixie' on a combination of instruments to greet him. Big Daddy's wife "Big Mama" Ida (Judith Anderson) joyfully delivers jubilant news about his medical report: "The exploratory operation proved there's nothin' wrong with Big Daddy. Nothin' at all. Just a little ol' spastic colon and that's all." Maggie tells her admiring father-in-law: "That's the best birthday present of all."

After getting a ride back home with Maggie, the crochety old Big Daddy, an immense rotund man, has a new lease on life with a clean bill of health: "Well, I'm gonna live, Maggie, I'm gonna live. You know, they had me real scared. You know, I've wasted so much time, you know, I've got a million different kinds of feelings left in me. And I want to use 'em. I want to use 'em all."

Big Daddy wonders why all the family members have specially gathered to fawningly idolize him:

Big Daddy: Why did you and Brick suddenly decide to drive up from New Orleans?
Maggie: For your birthday, what else?
Big Daddy: I had a birthday last year and the year before. I didn't see ya then.
Maggie: Well, you know how Brick is sometimes.
Big Daddy: Maybe he thought he was comin' to my funeral instead of my birthday?
Maggie: Why Brick loves you! Well he does.
Big Daddy: But does he love you?
Maggie: What do you want - Truth?
Big Daddy: If I was married to you three years, you'd have the livin' proof. You'd have three kids already and the fourth in the oven.

The news of Big Daddy's startling recovery is shocking to Mae and Gooper, according to Maggie: "You should have seen Mae and Gooper's face. They almost dropped dead from shock themselves." Maggie changes her clothes, ending up wearing only a sexy white slip in the heat. She takes full responsibility for Brick's contribution to the birthday celebration:

Brick: Big Daddy! Now what makes him so big? His big heart? His big belly? Or his big money?
Maggie: The heat has made you cross.
Brick: Give me my crutch.
Maggie: Why don't you put on your nice silk pajamas, honey, and come on down to the party? There's a lovely cool breeze.
Brick: (detached) Give me my crutch, Maggie.
Maggie: Lean on me, baby. (He turns and stiffly ignores her) (She warmly hugs him from behind) You've got a nice smell about you. Is your bath water cool?
Brick: No.
Maggie: I know somethin' that would make you feel cool and fresh. Alcohol rub. Cologne.
Brick: No thanks. We'd smell alike. Like a couple of cats in the heat.
Maggie: It's cool on the lawn.
Brick: I'm not goin' down there, Maggie, not for you and not for Big Daddy.
Maggie: At least you can give him his present that I remembered to buy for you for his birthday. Do you think you could write a few words on this card?
Brick: You write somethin' Maggie.
Maggie: It's got to be your handwritin'. It's your present. It's got to be your handwritin'.
Brick: I didn't get him a present.
Maggie: Well, what's the difference!
Brick: Then if there's no difference, you write the card.
Maggie: And have him know you didn't remember his birthday?
Brick: I didn't remember.
Maggie: Well, you don't have to prove it to him. Just-just write 'Love, Brick' for heaven's sakes.
Brick: NO!
Maggie: You've got to.
Brick: I don't have to do anything I don't want to! Now you keep forgettin' the conditions on which I agreed to stay on livin' with you.
Maggie: I'm not living with you. We occupy the same cage, that's all. You know, that's the first time you've raised your voice in a long time. Crack in the stone wall? I think that's a fine sign. Mighty fine.


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