Friday, August 23, 2013

Movie – Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is based on the Pulitzer Prize winning Tennessee Williams play of the same name.  It had first appeared as a Broadway play directed by Elia Kazan (On the Waterfront) and starring Ben Gazzara as Brick and Barbara Bel Geddes as Maggie the Cat.  When it came time to make the film, Kazan passed on it despite already having done two other Williams adaptations – A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and Baby Doll (1956).  Instead, Richard Brooks adapted and directed it.  The two main roles were cast with Paul Newman as Brick and Elizabeth Taylor as Maggie the Cat.  The result was six Oscar nominations, including the “big five” of Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay.  It did not win a single Academy Award, though.  It was beaten out by Gigi in multiple categories, Newman lost to David Niven in Separate Tables, and Taylor lost to Susan Hayward in I Want to Live.  I’ve seen all five Best Picture nominees for that year (Auntie Mame, The Defiant Ones, and Separate Tables were the other three) and I feel that Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was definitely the best film of the five.

Even though “serious” films were still usually shot in black and white then, Brooks insisted on using color to take advantage of distinctive features of his two leads – their eyes.  Taylor’s violet eyes were probably the most famous in Hollywood and Newman’s piercing blue eyes were also much talked about.  The other Oscar nom the film received?  It was for Best Color Cinematography.  Brooks received both adapting and directing nominations, but it was not until two years later that he won an Oscar for adapting Elmer Gantry.  He would go on to be nominated for both adapting and directing two more films – The Professionals (1966) and In Cold Blood (1967), but he would not win.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is filled with family struggles, ambition, drinking, and emotions running very high.  There are multiple inter-family dynamics at play.  Brick saw his best years when he was playing football in high school.  One night he drunkenly tries to run some hurdles at his old school and injures his leg.  He’s on crutches the rest of the film.  He’s married to Maggie, but it’s definitely not a happy pairing.  Brick is mourning the death of his close friend and football buddy Skipper.  He blames Maggie for Skipper’s death, at least in part.  (I won’t spoil why.)  There are hints that Brick’s affections for Skipper were more than just friendship.  Combine that with the fact that despite years of marriage Maggie is still childless and it’s pretty clear that Brick may be a closeted homosexual.

I have not seen the original play, but I have read that Brick is clearly gay in it, and that when the movie got made they removed that aspect of his character.  Williams reportedly disowned the movie because of this change.  Knowing none of this when I watched it, I thought that it was clear that Brick was romantically attached to his friend.

Brick and Maggie gather with Brick’s brother Gooper (Jack Carson), Gooper’s wife Mae (Madeleine Sherwood), and their five spoiled brats at the family plantation in order to celebrate the 65th birthday of Brick’s and Gooper’s father.  It’s also to try to keep up with Gooper, who has been angling for their father’s fortune for years.  Big Daddy (Burl Ives reprising his Broadway role) and his wife Ida, aka Big Momma (Judith Anderson), arrive home amidst rumors of Big Daddy having cancer.  His doctor also accompanies them and gives everyone good news – Big Daddy does not have cancer.

This places the whole family under one roof, with Gooper and Mae pissed that they are not going to soon be rich, with Brick spending all his time upstairs drinking away his sorrows and his life, with Maggie being constantly tormented by Mae about not having been able to produce a child, and with Brick wanting nothing to do with Maggie – which does nothing to dim her desire for him.  He’s not going to try to divorce her, though, because that would give Gooper and Mae no end of satisfaction.  Brick and Maggie have a number of huge arguments upstairs, not the least of which is Brick’s refusal to even come down to greet his father.  Taylor’s performance had to have been influenced by the death of her then-husband Michael Todd on the exact same day that filming started.

As if tensions were not high enough, the doctor has a bombshell for Brick and Gooper: their father really is sick with cancer and he only has a few months to live.  The doctor lied to Big Daddy and Ida to ease their emotional suffering.  The doctor has been administering to Big Daddy’s pain to make it as easy as possible for him.  Well, Gooper immediately tells his wife Mae and soon both of them are badgering Ida to get a will wrapped up that ensures they inherit everything, which confuses Ida since she believes her husband is healthy.  Brick tells Maggie, whose reaction is the opposite – she feels sad for Big Daddy and Ida because she likes them.  Big Daddy has always been kind to her.  Were it not for her “inability to produce children” she and Brick would clearly be the ones favored by Big Daddy to inherit.

As you might expect, there are a number of confrontations in the film.  There is a fantastic scene between Big Daddy and Brick in the cellar where a lot of the family history comes out, we learn about what drives Big Daddy, and we learn about the source of tension between him and Brick.  Both do a great job.  And Ives hadn’t even really been known much for his acting (he was seen more as a singer).  It was his Broadway performances in this play that brought him to note.  It was almost a given that he would reprise the role in the movie.  And I’ve even read that Williams might have written the role with Ives in mind.  The thing is, Ives didn’t even get nominated for his performance in this film, but that same year he not only got nominated, but won, for his performance as another powerful family patriarch in The Big Country.  One other note: Ives was almost 20 years younger in real life than the character of Big Daddy.  In fact, he was only one year older than Jack Carson who was playing his son.

About the only thing negative I have to say about Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is that the “southern accents” are distracting.  Normally I don’t have an issue with an accent; if it’s close enough, I’m fine with it.  That’s for one person, though.  When you have an entire extended family whose various accents sound like they weren’t even raised in the same region of the country, let alone the same household, it just feels strange.

If you appreciate great performances and intense family dynamics then this movie is for you.  Newman and Taylor may get the bulk of the juicy scenes, but the supporting players are right there with them.  By the end of the film you have been given multiple cathartic experiences.  Unless you just don’t like to see conflict then I highly recommend this film.

Chip’s Rating: 4 out of 5 stars


  1. I didn't know this movie was shot in color because of the famous blue and violet eyes. Makes sense, though; Elizabeth Taylor is definitely more radiant in color.

    Tennessee Williams isn't exactly my bag, but I do like the intensity of the drama here, and that yes, despite every intention of suppressing the homosexual undercurrents, they still have a way of coming to the fore. I'd probably rate this similarly to you.

    1. "I didn't know this movie was shot in color because of the famous blue and violet eyes."

      It was finding that out that caused me to come up with this category in the first place. I knew I wanted to recommend this film, so I brainstormed some other people whose eyes were notable then found my favorite movies that had them in them.