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August 4, 2013

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

by Franz Patrick


Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)
★★★★ / ★★★★

It is the 65th birthday of the leader of the Pollitt family, Big Daddy (Burl Ives), and his daughter-in-laws are ready for a fight. Knowing that Big Daddy is going to die from cancer, Maggie (Elizabeth Taylor), married to Brick (Paul Newman), and Mae (Madeleine Sherwood), married to Gooper (Jack Carson), are desperate to impress Big Daddy because he has the power to sign over 28,000 acres of plantation to their husbands. Meanwhile, we learn that Brick, a former high school football celebrity, is an alcoholic, has recently quit his job as a sport announcer, and despises the sight of his wife. Attending the party and impressing people are the last things on his mind.

“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” directed by Richard Brooks, crackles with intelligent dialogue that cuts. Insults are shouted from across the room. The backhanded compliments are peerless in rancor while the low blows, like reasons why the very fertile Mae thinks Maggie and Brick are unable to conceive, are jaw-dropping and shameful. It is like being invited to a friend’s family event and everything is awkward, embarrassing, and fascinating.

As each character is pitted against one another, we learn something new about them that either makes us detest them even more or understand, even just a little bit, why they feel the need to put up a front for others to see. While it is very entertaining to watch Brick and Maggie throw verbal spears at each other, the core of the film, at least for me, is Brick’s volatile relationship with his dying father.

Both are hardened individuals who consider masculinity and being emotionally cold as a definition of being a man. I know men, young and old, just like them which gives the story resonance. Neither is happy with the way he has led his life. Although Big Daddy is successful financially, there is a lack of love–genuine love that hurts, tickles, and binds–among his family. He treats his wife (Judith Anderson) of forty years as someone who is essentially a waste of space and fails to give his grandchildren, as annoying and spoiled as they are, grandfatherly affections that they can remember when he is no longer around.

Based on Tennessee Williams’ play, the film is criticized for downplaying Brick’s homosexuality and his relationship with his friend, Skipper, who committed suicide. Released in the late 1950s, it was deemed that the subject matter was too risqué. Despite this, the powerful undertones does not escape those with keen eyes and ears. The word “friend” when discussing the late Skipper is thrown around so passionately, it is near impossible not to consider that perhaps there is something more between Brick and his former football buddy and what Maggie knows (or not know) about her husband.

“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” based on the screenplay by Richard Brooks and James Poe, shines a light on its acerbic and avaricious characters for us to judge. Despite their many negative attributes, Brooks ensures that they not simply be caricatures to be satirized. It dares us to sympathize with their private shames.

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