Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)

Elizabeth Taylor as Maggie Pollitt
Paul Newman as Brick Pollitt
Burl Ives as Big Daddy Pollitt

Directed by Richard Brooks
Produced by Lawrence Weingarten
Screenplay by Richard Brooks and James Poe

Running Time: 107 min.
Not Rated

There are many classic movies that I haven’t seen but have picked up the gist of through cultural osmosis. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is not one of those movie. I’ve heard of it, of course, and I know it’s based on a play by Tennessee Williams, who also wrote A Streetcar Named Desire (my knowledge of which comes entirely from The Simpsons), something called The Glass Menagerie, and that one play about the pedophile who gets cannibalized by his victims. So I had high hopes for this one.

The DVD case was not particularly illuminating. “This is Maggie the cat…” it said, presumably referring to the négligée-clad woman reclining on a bed. Okay. It also informed me that the movie would be starring her:

Elizabeth Taylor


Paul Newman

And him:

Burl Ives as Sam the Snowman

After watching it, I can say that this…certainly was a thing that I watched.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, aside from a brief opening scene, takes place over the course of a single day, during the birthday celebrations of a Tennessee patriarch who has just returned from tests at an oncology clinic.

Newman plays the younger son, Brick (seriously), an alcoholic ex-football player who despises his beautiful and doting wife, Maggie (played by Taylor), for reasons that remain a mystery for much of the movie. Also in attendance is older son Gooper (I couldn’t make this up if I tried) and his wife, Mae, who is intent on cozying up to Big Daddy and Big Mama to ensure that Gooper rather than Brick inherits the family plantation.

Amidst a backdrop of luxury and smiling, nameless black servants, family drama unfolds between husband and wife, father and son, and in-law and in-law. Secrets are revealed, mendacity outed, and the Holden Caulfield-like woe of being given every opportunity in the world whilst being surrounded by phonies is indulged at excruciating length.

While the film makes good use of the freedom of its medium, its stage origins are still obvious. There are countless expository monologues (usually delivered with great skill by the actors, but nonetheless a little too deliberately coy in places), and there are a few almost obtrusively perfect shots that I’d be surprised to find out weren’t lifted from the original stage directions. Having since read up on the play, I strongly suspect I would enjoy the stage version more. There is about 90% less gay in the movie due to studio censorship, which pins a certain set of motivations down to a speck of subtext, and a pat resolution was tacked on that could have been better served by a bit of moral ambiguity or, alternatively, Newman’s character getting punched in the spleen.

Elizabeth Taylor is excellent as Maggie, bringing a subtlety to her role that’s missing from the other characters. She’s referred to more than once as Maggie the Cat, and outside of the sexual/sexist implications of that, it’s fitting, as she’s at once engaging to watch and impossible to decipher. Burl Ives was also a pleasant surprise, outshining Newman by possessing the weight and bombast to carry the drama he’s tasked with.

Am I sorry I watched it? Not at all, especially for Elizabeth Taylor’s performance. Would I watch it again? Probably not. I was hooked by the mystery of Brick’s hatred for Maggie, but the resolution was a disappointment.

This movie is recommended for those who don’t have their own family drama to occupy themselves with, and for those who currently enjoy reality shows about our emotionally unfulfilled 1% overlords.


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