After a relatively slow start to his career, playwright Tennessee Williams struck gold with a series of hits that captivated audiences on both stage and big screen. “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” is one of those hits. The film adaptation is loaded with Williams’ signature sizzling dialogue and rich, complex characters. A brilliant cast including Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman, Burl Ives, and Jack Carson spark this story of fractured relationships, family dysfunction, and the word of the day mendacity. It’s sharp, edgy, and chock full of fiery energy.
Williams’ play first hit Broadway in 1955 and it would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The film opened in 1958 and was a big success. Richard Brooks co-wrote and directed the adaptation which (as was usually the case) slightly dulled the edges of the play in order to adhere to the Motion Picture Code. Williams didn’t like the changes, so much so that he often pointed people away from the film version. Many of his plays took from his own tumultuous and contentious life making them deeply personal but sometimes turgid and overblown. Judging the movie on its own merits, I find Brooks’ version to be overflowing with great scenes, a perfectly captured setting, and dialogue that pierces with shards of realism.
With the exception of two brief scenes the entire story takes place on a huge family estate in the Mississippi Delta. It places us with the Pollitt family, an assortment of deeply flawed and sometimes contemptible people each with more emotional baggage than any world traveler. The family patriarch is Big Daddy (Ives) who may be struggling with some life-threatening health issues. His two sons and potential heirs each have their own problems. Brick (Newman) is a raging alcoholic who hobbles around on a crutch after breaking his ankle pulling a drunken stunt. His relationship with his wife Maggie (Taylor) is as stormy as the Deep South weather. The other son Cooper (Carson in what turned out to be his final role) is more interested in his inheritance. Spurred on by his manipulative wife Mae (Madeleine Sherwood), Cooper is the quintessential brown-noser who hopes to be first in line for his daddy’s fortune.
There are so many complicated family dynamics at work. Brick and Maggie have a cold and bitter relationship that stems from harbored anger and pain. There is clear animosity between the brothers which is often fueled by their boisterous wives. There is also a disconnect between a wealthy and success-driven father and the two sons that simply wanted his love. All of these conflicts and others are woven together to create the stinging, vitriolic fabric that makes up the story. Amazingly the various family angles never conflict and there is almost a twisted poetic quality to the various contentions and quarrels.
The story is fantastic but it’s the cast who makes it simmer. Elizabeth Taylor was never more beautiful and her sultry natural beauty and Southern charm is ever-present. Paul Newman is perfect as the angry and closed-off Brick. Surprisingly he was not the first choice. Robert Mitchum, Montgomery Clift, and even Elvis Presley all turned down the role. Carson plays a character type that he was well known for and Sherwood is convincing as the hateful and conniving Mae. But I haven’t even mentioned Judith Anderson who plays Big Daddy’s wife Big Mamma (of course). She lives in a delusional bubble where she pretends everything with her family is okay. Anderson is wonderful and many times she is the glue that binds the various fits of dysfunction we see.
Brimming with Southern personality, big but fitting performances, and a script with a bite, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” is as mesmerizing today as it was over 50 years ago. Perhaps some of the edge is missing from the Broadway production, but I found it to be a delight. It’s a beautiful cinematic creation that still proudly shows its stage show roots. And it only gets better when you consider the phenomenal cast lead by Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman. For some it falls short of a more popular Tennessee Williams adaption “A Streetcar Named Desire”. For me this film stands right there with it.