Cat On A Hot Tin Roof
US (1958) Dir. Richard Brooks
For many people in today’s world the dysfunctional family began with The Simpsons but they have nothing on the Pollitt Family, the central clan of this film based on the 1955 play of the same name from Southern heavyweight Tennessee Williams.
The patriarch of the family, Big Daddy (Burl Ives), returns home from a medical examination to celebrate his 65th birthday with his nearest and dearest – wife Big Mama (Judith Anderson), eldest son Gooper (Jack Carson), his wife Mae (Madeleine Sherwood) and their five, soon-to-be six kids, youngest son Brick (Paul Newman) and his wife Maggie (Elizabeth Taylor).
The latter are trapped in a loveless marriage despite Maggie’s best efforts to win her alcoholic husband over. Meanwhile Gooper and Mae seem to think they are entitled to Big Daddy’s estate once he passes on, while Big Daddy himself is unaware that in fact he has terminal cancer with a year to live. Instead of a night of celebration, it becomes a night of revelations and confrontation.
Aside from an early tracking shot which follows Maggie sashaying her way across the lawn in her tight white skirt, the film’s stage play origins are immediately apparent in the near static shots and single sets. It’s not as inert as the early talkies where the cameras never moved by there is barely any real deviation from the basic theatre set up evident in this production. Thus is befalls upon the cast and Williams’s acerbic and garrulous dialogue to hold our interest.
Yet in many ways the story demands a claustrophobic atmosphere thus the intimate stage setting provides just that, since the centrifugal force of the entire story is one of conflict and duplicity. The location is Big Daddy’s mansion with the guest couples each to their own room thus privacy is at a premium, something that irritate Maggie as she tries to fix her marriage while her nosey sister-in-law Mae teases her about their childless union.
Depressed at the loss of his best friend Skipper and his once prolific sporting career Brick has hit the bottle hard, breaking his ankle the night before the party in an act of drunken hubris. He chooses to stay away from the family to drown his sorrows leaving Maggie to represent them alone, further stoking the flames of dissension for the gossiping Mae. Skipper’s death is relevant to the widening gulf in the marriage, exacerbated by the lack of communication between Brick and Maggie over the truth of what happened.
While the other two marriages seem fine it is because the couples are less progressive (for wanting a better term) and the women know their roles in the marriage; that said Mae certainly cracks the whip on Gormless Gooper – a lawyer would you believe – which sort of puts paid to that suggestion, but their greedy goals appear similar. Big Mama might just be a term of endearment but in Big Daddy’s absence she is just as fiery when she has to be.
A lot of how these roles are presented won’t sit well with modern audiences, especially those who don’t believe in blanket subservience to the patriarchal order. Big Daddy‘s word is final and his gruff treatment of others is accepted by others a gospel, which may explain why his doctor chose to lie about his terminal condition.
Equally antiquated are the terms “sister woman” or brother man” which are bandied about as job description labels which nobody today I am sure would take heed of. There is admittedly a quaint lyrical charm to this presumably Southern protocol but it isn’t one I would endorse out of the sheer informality it breeds among a so-called family unit.
And being based in the South, the servants of the house are all black but no signs of any indignities or white supremacist bullying or name-calling are present, suggesting this was presented purely as a sign of the times. Williams however did have some issues he wished to address beyond the mendacity within the Pollitt family, such as the perils of alcoholism, but another unfortunately fell afoul of Hollywood’s censorship board, the Hayes Code.
Very fleetingly alluded to but never expressly defined in the film was the possible homosexual side to Brick, with his relationship with Skipper being the shameful secret he kept from his family and the root for his reluctance to sleep with Maggie. The play goes into deeper detail but the Hay’s Code refused to allow this and all explicit references were cut from the script. Williams himself apparently urged filmgoers to boycott the film due to this amendment but it was a box office hit anyway and earned many Oscar nominations but didn’t win.
The acting might seem dated due to the hardy Southern accents which sadly feel like a modern overly affected parody; yet conversely it makes up much of the film’s charm, putting much of the esoteric verbiage into context. Burl Ives, the avuncular folk singer in a rare straight role, is a perfect choice for Big Daddy, in both stature and in that bellowing Southern presence.
Paul Newman was just four years into his career at this point and this was one of the tuning points for him, earning an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. I must confess I’ve never been a fan of Elizabeth Taylor as an actress, as alluring a screen presence as she was, but I doff my cap to her for enduring much personal tragedy to make this film – while suffering a severe illness she lost her second husband Mike Todd in a plane crash. Taylor puts in quite a turn under the circumstances, especially with so much dialogue about death, and shows off her star quality in the process.
A lot of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof is a product of its time but the issues discussed are still pertinent today, with Williams displaying some perspicacity with this jagged and acutely taut tale of his.