A version of this post originally appeared as a part of our series of Summer Under the Stars recommendations in August 2010. It’s being reprinted here as part of the LAMB’s “Acting School 101” tribute to Elizabeth Taylor.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) is based on a play by Mississippi-born playwright extraordinaire, Tennessee Williams. The story centers around dysfunctional couple Brick and Maggie (also called “Maggie the Cat”), whose marriage has crumbled because of a betrayal on Maggie’s part. Brick has succumbed to the lure of alcohol while mourning the recent suicide of his best friend, Skipper—a relationship that both Maggie and Brick’s father (“Big Daddy”) question as having been more amorous than friendly. As the members of the family fight over the inheritance of their dying patriarch, Maggie fights for a toehold in her relationship with Brick while trying to ensure Brick receives the bulk of the inheritance.
Williams was born in the town of Columbus, Mississippi, which also happens to be home to the first state-supported college established for women in the United States. That wonderful school, Mississippi University for Women, is the lovely alma mater of all three True Classics bloggers.
I cannot tell you how many times I’ve driven past Williams’ birthplace, which sits on Main Street in downtown Columbus and serves as the welcome center for the city (it always makes me smile, because seeing that house, in a sense, is like a big ol’ “welcome home”). I have spent time sitting on his porch, watching the traffic go by. And I have repeatedly marveled at the fact that a city that once shunned its connection to the overtly homosexual Williams and his scandalous, outrageous body of work has now so thoroughly embraced the man that an entire week in September is dedicated to his memory and his work every year.
The play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1955 and premiered on Broadway that same year. The play was both celebrated and reviled for its frank depiction of homosexual lust and its blatant sexism in regards to the character of Maggie. Williams possessed a gift for honestly portraying some of the less attractive aspects of humanity (see also Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire, or Violet in Suddenly, Last Summer), and in Cat, he constructs one of the most mendacious families to ever appear in literature. In the Pollitt family, everyone lies to everyone else, every person lies to him or herself, and truth is a commodity that no one seems to think even exists.
Yet, of course, when the play was adapted for the screen, changes were made to diminish nearly all of the references to homosexuality and sexual frustration per the rules of the Production Code, and the portrayal of some characters (particularly that of Brick and Maggie) was softened to make the characters seem more sympathetic to the audience. And in the end, the movie version suffers from those changes, because the searing intent of the original material was lost. In fact, Williams hated this film version so much that he actively encouraged people not to see it. It’s easy to see why the movie drew such pique from the playwright: Williams’ commentary on the destructiveness of homophobia and sexual suppression in American society is completely lost in the film’s sanitized, benign approach to the original material.
In this film version, Brick is played by Paul Newman, and this performance earned him his first Academy Award nomination (he would later win Best Actor for 1986’s The Color of Money). Newman portrays Brick with a barely-leased sensuality that ultimately works well for the character. His interactions with Elizabeth Taylor, who plays Maggie, provide some of the best moments of the film, particularly when he is rejecting her advances outright—he makes it seem like the most natural thing in the world to rebuff your beautiful wife when she’s offering herself to you without reservation. Marvel at the restraint.
For her part, Taylor delivers one of the strongest performances of her career as Maggie, brilliantly moving from bewildered hurt to strong-willed determination almost seamlessly (Taylor, too, was nominated for an Oscar for her performance–she would win her two statues a few years later, first for 1960’s Butterfield 8 and later for her monumental performance in 1966’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?). Taylor fully embodies Maggie, who is, to say the least, a difficult dramatic character to play, and she makes her real without engaging in histrionics (which, let’s face it, would be an easy thing to do with this material).
The supporting cast features excellent turns by Burl Ives as Big Daddy and Judith Anderson (so chillingly perfect as Mrs. Danvers in 1940’s Rebecca) as Big Mama. Jack Carson effectively steps out of his typical buddy-sidekick roles as Brick’s brother, Gooper, and Madeleine Sherwood is appropriately annoying as Gooper’s greedy (and perennially pregnant) wife, Mae.
Though it is far from loyal to the original text, the movie is nonetheless entertaining on its own merits. And though Williams will likely roll over in his grave at any indication of approval, we do suggest you give it a shot. At the very least, you can stare at Paul Newman’s gorgeous mug for two hours. Let’s face it … there are worse ways to spend your time.