Sex, lies, and greed are explored through explosive performances in this classic adaptation of Tennessee Williams
Films on this blog are selected for many different reasons, always with the intention of expanding one’s experience and appreciation of classic cinema. While the classic, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” may be a slightly flawed masterpiece, it is nevertheless a masterpiece. One aspect of this film that puts it in a league of its own is its assemblage of stupendous performances. This electrifying acting feast is required viewing for anyone who enjoys heart-stopping characterizations. They are all presented in a provocative, first-class film that was nominated for six major Academy Awards (including Best Picture), and was one of the top money-making films of 1958. “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” is so riveting, it's a film I never tire of watching.
It’s no wonder there’s such depth to the performances, as the characters are filled with a wealth of complexities from which to draw. There are no stereotypes in this film - these are all flesh and blood, multi-nuanced characters created by of one of history’s greatest and most important playwrights, Tennessee Williams. The film is based on his famous and controversial 1955 Pulitzer Prize-winning play by the same name. A brave writer, Williams exposes the human experience through intense emotional realism, often showcasing human frailties and the effects of the unsaid and unspoken -and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” is no exception. Like many of his plays, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” includes sex and other then “taboo” subjects, forcing adjustments to be made for a screen adaptation, as per the Motion Picture Production Code rules (which I explain in the "Red Dust" post). There were only a few changes made to “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof", but they were major enough to shift part of the play’s theme and dilute some of its power (I’ll briefly mention the changes made for the film version in the TO READ AFTER VIEWING section below). That being said, the film stands on its own as a potent and explosive glimpse at humanity.
While “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” is somehow an ensemble piece, its main focus is on former athlete “Brick” (who is incapable of intimacy), and his starved for affection wife, “Maggie”. The childless couple are at “Brick’s” parents’ 28,000 acre Mississippi plantation on the eve of his father’s (“Big Daddy”) 65th birthday. With good reason, “Maggie” is worried that “Brick’s” brother “Gooper” and his wife “Mae” are planning on cutting “Brick” out of “Big Daddy’s” will (he’s worth $10 million). “Big Daddy” and his wife “Big Momma” have returned to the estate after a hospital visit due to his abdominal pain. His doctor told them he has a spastic colon, while the truth is, he is dying from cancer. The doctor’s lie is simply one of many, as this drama is largely about people terrorized by truth, and finding ways to continually avoid it. The exception is “Maggie”, who seeks the truth, particularly from her emotionally and physically injured husband, and the reasons behind his trauma slowly unravel over the course of the film. The film is an ambiguously altered version of the play, which is why I first called this film slightly flawed. But never fear - there’s plenty to this film, and it remains a completely compelling, exquisite drama regardless. “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” is also very much about sex. Dialogue about married couples not having sex, a wife wanting sex, children before marriage, and lines like “Brick” telling “Maggie” to “take a lover”, all pushed the envelope at the time, and because of the film's success, helped weaken the Motion Picture Production Code. These adult themes were new to 1950’s film goers and led the way to presenting more mature subjects in the films of the 1960s and beyond.
“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’s” screen adaptation was co-written by Richard Brooks and James Poe (both received Oscar nominations). Writer/director Brooks also directed the film. He brilliantly manages to create a feeling of alienation by repeatedly showing characters speaking to one another while looking away or while in different rooms. He also managed to extract golden performances, giving each of the main cast at least one shining moment to expose their incredible talents. In addition to his writing nomination for “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”, he was also nominated for Best Director (two of eight career nominations - three for directing and five for writing). He won one Oscar for writing the screenplay for the 1960 classic, “Elmer Gantry”. An exceptionally talented writer, some of the screenplays he wrote or adapted include "Key Largo", "The Killers", and "Brute Force”. He wrote screenplays (including adapted) for all but three of the twenty four films he directed, which include classics such as "In Cold Blood", "The Professionals", “Elmer Gantry”, ”Lord Jim”, "The Brothers Karamazov”, and another Tennessee Williams’ screen adaptation also starring Paul Newman, "Sweet Bird of Youth”. Brooks was married and divorced three times, including marriages to actresses Jean Brooks and Jean Simmons. Richard Brooks died in 1992 at the age of 79.
Elizabeth Taylor dazzles as “Maggie ‘the Cat’ Pollitt”, the determined wife of “Brick”. While literally everyone excels in this film, Taylor astounds. A truthfully nuanced and utterly emotional performance, she presents “Maggie” as a complicated woman with sex appeal, humor, anger, intelligence, cunning, longing, and pain. She is so flawless from beginning to end that I can point to any scene as a sample of masterful acting. A favorite that shows her artistry in all its glory starts from the time “Brick” threatens to kill her with his crutch, through the entrance and exit of “Gooper’s” little “no neck monster” daughter. Even Taylor's moments just after the girl leaves are astonishing, with piercing honesty and raw emotion throughout the entire sequence. Acting doesn’t get any better than that. Taylor is at the height of her beauty, which intensifies the conflict that “Brick” won’t sleep with “Maggie”. While it seems “Maggie” is constantly dressing and undressing (showing her legs and figure), “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” proved once and for all Taylor was more than a just pretty face and was indeed an actress to be reckoned with. Let us not forget that the then 26 year old Taylor had never studied acting but learned everything from working in films since the age of ten. This film and her next (another Williams’ adaptation, “Suddenly Last Summer”) were her first stabs at playing no-nonsense literary characters, and are among her finest career performances. “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” came at a time when Taylor was on the precipice of becoming a major actress, and it put her over the edge. For it, she earned her second Best Actress Academy Award nomination (her first being the year before for "Raintree County”), and she would be nominated the following two years, earning one of her two competitive Oscars for "Butterfield 8” in 1960 (and her second for the 1966 film "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"). Taylor would become one of the most popular and talked about stars of the 1960s. Her performance in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” is admirable for another reason. Just after filming began, her husband Mike Todd was killed in an airplane crash. She was supposed to accompany him on the flight, but due to the intense shooting on the film the following day, she reneged. From all accounts I’ve ever heard, Todd (who was her third husband) was the love of her life. Immediately after his death she took a few days off and then decided to go back and finish the film. Her fantastic performance is a tribute to her professionalism and talent. I wrote more about Elizabeth Taylor’s life and career in the “A Place in the Sun" post. Please check it out to find out more.
Paul Newman is enthralling as the emotionally wounded “Brick Pollitt”. Incapable of feeling, yet filled with anger and guilt, “Brick” has shut down and taken to drink to numb his pain. “Brick” is a tough role, as he is completely repressed through much of the film, and Newman adeptly makes us aware that inside there is turmoil and grief. He is completely believable as a former star athlete and favorite son of “Big Daddy”, while bringing enough of the unsaid in his chemistry with “Maggie” to make it evident the two have a rocky history. His performance is in great contrast to just about everyone else in the film. Against his larger than life parents, his scheming brother and sister-in-law, and his volatile wife who wants nothing more than to have sex, Newman keeps “Brick” brooding, pensive, and isolated, often looking away with a drink in hand. As “Maggie” and “Big Daddy” push “Brick” to face the truth about his past, Newman is unexpectedly bold and moving. Among the standouts in his electric performance is the scene in which “Brick” first tells “Big Daddy” about his late friend “Skipper”. The scene is virtually a monologue shot in close-up, with Newman’s remarkable blue eyes showing layers of authentic emotion. Though not a showy role, Newman gives a miraculous performance. “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” was pivotal for Paul Newman, for at this point in his career he was respected but thought of as a second-rate Marlon Brando. Much like Taylor, he had to fight against his good looks to get more interesting roles. With this Tennessee Williams’ vehicle, he was able to unequivocally prove himself a first-rate actor of great depth and ability, and like Taylor, one to be taken seriously. Earning great reviews while appearing opposite the already established Taylor in such a prestigious and high-profile film proved a landmark in his career, securing his rise to stardom. It also gave him his first of nine Academy Award nominations, and sparked the beginning of his screen persona as a moody, brooding, complex rebel. You can learn much more about Paul Newman’s life and career in my “Hud” post.
Burl Ives is glorious as “Harvey ‘Big Daddy’ Pollitt”, the imposing, gruff, self-made millionaire. He is a bully interested in the truth (his favorite expression is “bull!”), yet he is surrounded by people who suck up to him, hungry for his huge fortune. “Big Daddy” learns somewhat early in the film that he is facing death, and Ives manages to imbue this intimidating figure with humanity and blanketed vulnerability. Ives gets a chance to dive deep in his scene in the basement with “Brick”, where the two come head to head in a blisteringly moving confrontation. We clearly see “Big Daddy’s” physical pain from cancer, along with his pain from having been ignorant to love all his life. Both actors are at their best in the scene, and when “Big Daddy” talks about his own father with supremely intense honesty, one can’t help but painfully sympathize. Ives had the good fortune to play “Big Daddy” in the original Broadway production where he thrilled audiences and became a sensation. While his film portrayal of “Big Daddy” is arguably his most remembered role, Ives won a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award the same year for a different film - “The Big Country” (his only Oscar win or nomination). Best known as a folk singer, Burl Ives began singing when he was four years old. Dropping out of high school, he grabbed his banjo and hitchhiked through North America primarily singing for his supper. In 1938 he began to appear on stage, quickly making it to Broadway as well as singing in New York nightclubs. By 1940 he was singing on the radio, and he made his first film appearance in 1946. “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” was his tenth film, having previously appeared in “East of Eden” starring James Dean, and the screen adaptation of Eugene O’Neil’s “Desire Under the Elms” starring Sophia Loren and Anthony Perkins. He also worked extensively in television, and would amass over fifty film and TV credits in about forty years. In addition to film, TV, radio and Broadway work, he recorded over 60 albums of music along with many singles. Famous for his renditions of folk songs and songs for children, he became known as one of the greatest ballad singers of his day. He was nominated for four Grammy Awards, winning one for the song “Funny Way Of Laughin’”. He was the narrator and voice of “Sam the Snowman” in the classic stop-motion animated 1964 TV holiday special, "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, in which he sang "A Holly Jolly Christmas" and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” - both becoming hits. He was married twice. Burl Ives died in1995 at the age of 85.
Jack Carson is perfect as “Brick’s” weak yet conniving brother, “Cooper ‘Gooper’ Pollitt”. The role of “Gooper” was shortened a bit from the play, but Carson makes the most of his screen time. This slightly dim-witted yet backstabbing corporation lawyer is “Big Daddy’s” eldest son, and in theory, his rightful heir. But partly because Carson makes “Gooper” so smoothly nefarious, no one wants to see him or his repugnant family end up with “Big Daddy’s” fortune. “Gooper” has a blazingly surprising scene pleading with “Big Momma” over the will, in which Carson displays a vulnerability I’ve never seen him match in his already impressive acting career. Jack Carson primarily appeared in comedies, or dramas in which he added some humor. He did appear in some darker dramatic roles, most notably as the sleazy publicist in the classic 1954 Judy Garland musical version of “A Star is Born”. Another of his most memorable performances is his appearance in “Mildred Pierce”, film #18 on this blog, where you can read a bit more about him and his career.
Judith Anderson is ideal as the strong, take charge “Ida ‘Big Mama’ Pollitt”, wife of “Big Daddy”, and mother of “Brick” and “Gooper”. She is a tough woman who submits only to “Big Daddy”. Anderson is a powerhouse of an actress, and completely convincing as a woman being gut punched by life. The scene in which she is holding “Big Daddy’s” birthday cake is nothing short of heart wrenching, as is her scene with the doctor. For those reading this blog and watching the films on it, you somewhat recently saw Judith Anderson in her iconic role as the frightening “Mrs. Danvers” in “Rebecca”. Here Anderson plays a completely different character, bringing just as much life and credibility to this role. In watching her screen performances while knowing she was considered one of the great theater grande dames of her day, I can only imagine how incredible it must have been to see her live on stage. What a phenomenal actress. You can read more about Judith Anderson’s life and career in my “Rebecca” post.
Last and not least is Madeleine Sherwood who plays to perfection “Gooper’s” abrasive wife, “Mae Flynn ‘Sister Woman’ Pollitt”. This money-hungry woman keeps sneaking around trying to get the upper hand to win over “Big Daddy” and “Big Momma”. Somehow Sherwood manages to make this harsh and despicable woman fun to watch. When “Gooper” says to “Maggie”, “Why don't you go up there and drink with Brick... He may have to pass up the Sugar Bowl this year or was it the Rose Bowl he made his famous run in?”, and “Mae” answers “It was the punch bowl, Honey, the cut-glass punch bowl”, one can’t help but laugh in an appalled sort of way. “Mae” heightens the drama while Sherwood bring zest to the role. Like Ives, Sherwood appeared in the original Broadway production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”, and reprised her role in the film. A Canadian born character actress, Madeleine Sherwood began her career on stage, first appearing on Broadway in 1950. in 1953 she appeared in the original Broadway production of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible”, followed by “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”, and then Tennessee Williams’ “Sweet Bird of Youth”, reprising her roles in the film versions of both Williams' plays. Like Paul Newman, Sherwood studied at the Actors Studio with Lee Strasberg. She was blacklisted during the McCarthy Era (largely due to appearing in “The Crucible” and working with director Elia Kazan in both Williams’ plays), so she appeared in only a few films. The bulk of her work was on television, and she most famously played the role of the stern yet benevolent “Reverend Mother Superior Lydia Placido” in the classic 1960’s TV show, “The Flying Nun”, starring Sally Field. Sherwood was a very vocal Civil Rights activist who worked with Martin Luther King Jr., and was even sent to prison for participating in the Freedom Walk in Alabama. Along with a dozen Broadway appearances, Sherwood accumulated close to seventy film and TV credits (the majority being on TV). In addition to the two Williams’ adaptations, her handful of film credits include "The Changeling", "Baby Doll", "Parrish", and "An Unremarkable Life”. She was married and divorced once. Madeleine Sherwood died in 2016 at the age of 93.
In addition to its Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” was also nominated for its beautiful color Cinematography by William Daniels (Greta Garbo’s cinematographer of choice). This was Daniels’ third of four Oscar nominations, the others being for the classics “Anna Christie”, “How the West Was Won”, and “The Naked City” for which he took home his only statue.
While being stirring, electrifying, and all-together absorbing, this film depicts how different people deal with mendacity. Its wealth of insights and breathtaking performances make this classic a marvel. Fasten your seatbelts, and enjoy, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”!
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TO READ AFTER VIEWING (contains spoilers):
In adapting the play "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" into a film, the writers wanted to remain as true to Tennessee Williams’ words as possible. They took what was there and tried to reshape it to fit within the Production Code rules. Unfortunately, this meant removing any references to homosexuality, which in the play was the source of “Brick’s” angst. Though there is no blatant homosexuality in the play, it alludes to some sort of sexual confusion or relationship between “Brick” and “Skipper”, which lead to “Skipper’s” suicide and “Brick’s” guilt. This makes much more sense as a reason for “Brick’s” turmoil. Scenes were altered and added to steer away from any homosexuality, such as the opening scene which shows “Brick” breaking his leg. That scene was not in the play, and sets up from the start that his grief and drinking come from longing for his athletic glory days gone by, and less from “Skipper”. There are traces left of homosexual feelings between “Brick” and “Skipper” in the film, but they are so remote they are a blur.
In erasing the homosexual aspects from the story, the troubles between “Brick” and “Big Daddy” were completely magnified. The source for “Brick’s” emotional state and alcoholism was changed to the loss of “Skipper” being a surrogate father who gave “Brick” the love and dependability he didn’t get from “Big Daddy”.
Another change, also because of removing any homosexuality, was the character of “Maggie”. In the play, because of "Brick's" implied homosexual relationship with “Skipper”, in that version she did sleep with “Skipper”. In addition, the play ends with “Maggie” locking the liquor away from “Brick”, and telling him they will make her lie of being pregnant come true - very different from the film’s happy Hollywood ending in which “Brick”, now free of his sorrow, is eager to make a baby with “Maggie”.
When Paul Newman accepted the role of “Brick”, he thought the film would be a direct version of the play. He was very upset when he learned it was to be watered down for the screen. Tennessee Williams was also incredibly upset, and according to the Donald Spoto biography, "The Kindness of Strangers: The Life of Tennessee Williams", "...once, when he (Williams) heard that the film of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" was playing - which he hated - he went downtown and said to the people on line for tickets, 'This movie will set the industry back fifty years! Go home!". I agree the changes have completely compromised the play, however, I do believe the film version of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” is powerful in its own way.