If playwright Tennessee Williams wrote today in 2012, his plays would barely be considered more than soap operas or a teenage melodrama on the WB. What was controversial in the 1950's barely makes a ripple in the age of TMZ and Twitter. Because Williams' plays in the 1950's did have controversial subject matter like rape, homosexuality, sexual debauchery, and mental illness, adaptations of his plays into films in the 50's often disguised or muted the subject matter due to the Hayes Code which set motion picture censorship guidelines.
Tennessee Williams was a master of the title. A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, NIGHT OF THE IGUANA, and CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF are fantastic titles that catch one's attention immediately. And they don't give away much about what the subject is about. I have heard the title CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF for probably thirty five years and never saw the play or film. But I always wondered what it was about. I knew there was a character named Big Daddy. I knew it took place in the South. I knew that numerous actors have played the key roles over the years on stage and even television including Laurence Olivier and Rip Torn as Big Daddy, Natalie Wood, Kathleen Turner, and Jessica Lange as Maggie, and Robert Wagner and Tommy Lee Jones as Brick. And I knew when it recently came on Turner Movie Classics that I needed to see the film version of CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF (1958) to finally see what the cool title was all about. For the record, CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF is how Maggie describes herself, stuck in a loveless marriage, a cat ready to jump off the hot roof but not sure where she might land if she does. CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1955. This 1958 film is the first and most famous adaptation of the play.
CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF is directed by Richard Brooks who also co-wrote the screenplay with James Poe, based on the play by Tennessee Williams. Brooks was very good at adapting plays and books to the screen and did so with novelist Joseph Conrad's LORD JIM (1965) and Truman Capote's IN COLD BLOOD (1967). Brooks would even direct another film version of a Tennessee Williams play in SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH (1962) also with Paul Newman. Like a lot of plays that are adapted into films, Brooks stages most of CAT in the house of Big Daddy but he's able to shoot a few scenes outdoors to open up the film and make it more cinematic.
This is evident in the opening scene at night as we see Brick Pollitt (Paul Newman), former high school star football player and ex-broadcaster, current alcoholic, back at his old high school track trying to jump some hurdles, imagining the crowd chanting his name like the old days. Brick ends up spraining his ankle and for the rest of the film, he either leans on a crutch or hops around the plantation on his good ankle. Brick and his wife Maggie (Elizabeth Taylor) are up from New Orleans visiting Brick's father Big Daddy (Burl Ives) for his 65th birthday. Also visiting for the weekend are Brick's older brother Gooper Pollitt (Jack Carson), his wife Mae (Madeline Sherwood) and their five kids. It sounds like a pleasant weekend but in a Tennessee Williams play, underneath the seemingly nice family reunion is a divided family about to reveal a lifetime of lies and secrets.
Big Daddy returns to his 27,000 acre Mississippi plantation with his wife Big Momma Pollitt (Judith Anderson) from the city after supposedly getting a clean bill of health from several doctors. But his personal physician Dr. Baugh (Larry Gates) has lied to Big Daddy and Big Momma. Big Daddy has terminal cancer. Only Gooper knows the truth. Big Daddy may have a physical cancer but there is also a psychological cancer eating away at the Pollitt family. That cancer is the word "mendacity" which means to lie. Brick wants nothing to do with his wife Maggie, who he blames for the death of his best friend Skipper. Their marriage more or less a charade, Brick won't sleep with Maggie who desperately wants to have a child with Brick. He even suspects Maggie may have slept with Skipper. Brick also wants nothing to do with his father Big Daddy or his birthday. Maggie's afraid Brick will lose out on getting any piece of Big Daddy's estate. Gooper and Mae are also positioning themselves to get Big Daddy's plantation.
Big Daddy crushes everyone's feelings. He's always loved Brick more than Gooper even though Gooper has done everything that Big Daddy has asked him to do. Big Daddy can't stand Big Momma. Thinking he's going to live longer, Big Daddy even plans on leaving his devoted wife. He wants to give his land to Brick but wants Brick to earn it. Big Daddy can't understand why Brick drinks so much or won't have a child with Maggie. "You won't live with mendacity, " Big Daddy tells Brick. "Well, you're an expert at it." Brick doesn't want his father's land or money. He resents everything about his father. Both Brick and Gooper feel inferior to their larger than life father.
A storm rages on Big Daddy's birthday night as the truth finally emerges from this house of lies. Brick spills the beans to Big Daddy that he's dying. Maggie reveals that she did not sleep with Skipper. Brick reveals that he's always felt inferior to his larger than life father, only wanting his father's love. Gooper confides he's done everything Big Daddy has asked him to do and yet he's still not as good as his alcoholic, ex-football player brother Brick. The storm passes and the Pollitt family seems to reconcile as everyone tells the truth for once in this house of mendacity. Brick even asks Maggie up to the bed room.
I mentioned that Tennessee Williams subject matter is creatively vague so here's my attempt at some of the touchy subjects addressed in CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF. Maggie is sexually frustrated by her husband. "Maggie the cat is alive. I'm alive," she says. She's hot for her handsome husband Brick who, in true Williams fashion, has some issues of his own. She may not be able to have children. Or is Brick impotent. Why Brick wouldn't want to sleep with beautiful Maggie makes no sense unless ... Brick's best friend Skipper is the wedge between Brick and Maggie. We never meet Skipper (he committed suicide) but it's implied in several scenes that Brick and Skipper, high school football teammates, may have had a homosexual relationship or encounter. Brick finding comfort with his friend Skipper in the shadow of Big Daddy's expectations. Maggie may have questioned Skipper about it, although Brick seems to think Maggie and Skipper slept together. And then there's Big Daddy. He can't understand why Brick and Maggie have a childless marriage but he knows one thing. Maggie's a fine looking woman. Early on Big Daddy almost seems to imply if Brick won't sleep with her, then he will. "If I was married to you three years," Big Daddy tells Maggie, "you'd have the living proof. You'd have three kids already and a fourth in the oven."
CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF'S characters are almost the exact opposite of those in Williams A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (1951). STREETCAR had a strong male lead in the brutish Stanley Kowalski and Blanche Dubois was the psychologically weak one. In CAT, Maggie is the stronger one, the cat scratching and clawing to keep Paul Newman's weak Brick in Big Daddy's good graces. Brick's crutch just isn't for his bad ankle, it's symbolic of his weakness in never reaching his potential.
Director Brooks does a nice job staging CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF. He keeps the the characters often in the same frame, moving them around in interesting juxtapositions. All the characters have several juicy scenes, usually in twos. Whether it's Maggie and Brick fighting up in the bedroom or Brick and Big Daddy exposing each other's weaknesses down in the cellar, Williams dialogue comes alive. Big Daddy's cellar is an interesting set, sort of like the giant warehouse in CITIZEN KANE full of lost dreams and hopes. It's cluttered with Big Momma's mementos from past European trips but a lifesize poster of Brick in his football glory dominates the cellar, the idolized vision of Brick, the prodigal son. Brick symbolically tears the poster apart during his argument with Big Daddy.
Although he's the third bill in CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, Burl Ives as Big Daddy is the center of the film, a hurricane to the Pollitt family causing psychological destruction to his kin. My only contact with Ives had been as the voice of the friendly Sam the Snowman in the animated Christmas TV special RUDOLPH THE RED NOSED REINDEER (1964) so to see Ives play such a nasty patriarch is a credit to what a good actor Ives is. Elizabeth Taylor as Maggie is beautiful and sensual, not the sweet young girl that starred in NATIONAL VELVET (1944). Maggie's sexual longing for Brick is palpable. Believe it or not, Paul Newman's Brick is probably the weakest link of the three. Newman was the hot young actor in the late 50's already with several credits to his name like SOMEBODY UP THERE LIKES ME (1956) and THE LEFT HANDED GUN (1958). Newman is gorgeous to look at it but Brick should probably be a little less handsome since he's past his prime and battling alcohol. Newman seems a little too young for the role. In some scenes, Ives' Big Daddy just overpowers him but Newman plays Brick's utter disgust for Maggie credibly. What must've seemed like an actor's dream to have to use a crutch for most of the film becomes a nuisance as Newman has to hop around in some scenes or lean on the crutch in others. This crutch may be the most obnoxious prop in film history. Jack Carson who I enjoyed as Joan Crawford's lecherous business partner in MILDRED PIERCE (1945) is fine as Brick's sad older brother Gooper.
For me, A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE is still Tennessee Williams masterpiece but CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF is another fine effort from Williams depicting a southern family at war with each other. Although this film version of CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF apparently has a more upbeat ending than the stage play, director Richard Brooks shows a lot of respect for Tennessee Williams material and his adaption and direction make CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF a worthy addition to the many Tennessee Williams plays adapted to the big screen.