Cat On a Hot Tin Roof August 25, 2016

Maggie the Cat (Elizabeth Taylor) is going to explode. It’s summertime in the Deep South, and her father-in-law, the big-mouthed Big Daddy Pollitt (Burl Ives), is back in town in time to celebrate his birthday following a health scare. She loves Big Daddy and his wife, Big Mama (Judith Anderson), but hates everyone else staying at their sprawling southern property for the festivities.  She hates Gooper (Jack Carson), her self-serving, money-minded brother-in-law.  She hates his wife, Mae (Madeleine Sherwood), a big-headed, ball-busting busybody. She hates their goddamn kids, who are

Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor in 1958's "Cat On a Hot Tin Roof."

Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

noisy, no-neck monsters.  And she especially hates her husband, Brick (Paul Newman), a has-been football star who’s taken to the bottle to wash his problems away and who has decided that their sex life is over.

 

She deserves better than this.  She’s

 alive.  “You’re a drinker and I’m childless,” Maggie sighs to Brick during the climax of one of their countless arguments.  She’s at a crossroads in her life.  Part of her figures that she’s at her youthful prime and would be happier playing house with a man who fulfills her emotionally and sexually. But another figures that Brick is fixable, handsome, and can only work his way out of his funk with her leading the way.  For now, though, she remains miserable. Sometimes she feels like a cat on a hot tin roof, in agony but incapable of finding a cool place to land.

 

Adapted from the Tennessee Williams’s play of the same name and written and directed by Richard Brooks, Cat On a Hot Tin Roof remains vexing despite the watering-down of its source, a watering-down so noticeable that Williams himself ran down ticket lines of 1958 just to melodramatically warn consumers that the adaptation would set the industry back fifty years. 

 

But contrary to Williams’s vehement stance, this isn’t the kind of film that needs to stick with being ahead of its time to stay inflammatory (though it would be nice if its taboo themes were kept intact). This is the kind of film, better labeled as an acting film, if we’re being particular, able to incur hair-raises solely from the puissance of its monologues and its exchanges and its actors. It’s an organic, necessities-only exercise.

 

Some persist that the film version's skirting-over of Williams’s more fomenting detours, paired alongside its stagey production, deter its potency.  But because its central cast is so blustering and because it always seems to be on the verge of detonating, I’d be pressed to decide that it doesn’t overcome its stage roots — it’s far too tempestuous of a force to be reckoned with.

 

It erupts with high-powered drama, controlled, moving, and Southern-fried.  I lapped up every minute of it.  Movies in which characters are confined to a single setting, unable to avoid the conflicts coming at them at the speed of light, and in which dialogue is an art in and of itself, are movies I cannot withstand so long as they’re done right. Expectedly, Cat On a Hot Tin Roof is done right, though I can’t imagine it going wrong when a cast this magnificent is leading the way and when all involved histrionics are rooted in familial discord.  Brooks keeps tensions high without interfering with the superiority of his performers.

 

The film isn’t just perturbed with the marital woes of Maggie and Brick — also decisive is Big Daddy and company’s dealing with the later-revealed fact that he’s terminally ill — but it’s Cat On a Hot Tin Roof’s most unforgettable feature and certainly its most exigent. Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor are so abominably beautiful that their sexual frustration practically explodes off the screen. These desirable people should be fornicating — they’re the poster children of the passionate embrace and the idealized, silk sheet enhanced romp — and so their bursting at the seams sexual tension doesn’t just shout at us: it also screams, like it’s got nothing left to live for besides one last roll in the hay.

 

In 1958, no actors were as electrifying as Newman and Taylor.  Though Newman was still in the process of rising in the ranks of the industry, while Taylor, by comparison, was the most famous woman in the world (and the most famous widow in the world after her husband, producer Mike Todd, was tragically killed in a plane crash), both were equally driven to prove themselves as severely pretty faces that could also act.  As Maggie and Brick, a pair of knockouts struggling with differing carnal dilemmas, Taylor and Newman are galvanizing.  

 

Taylor, raven-haired, tiny voiced but capably loud, is every man’s fantasy: she’s a firearm of sex, locked and loaded with temptation and drive.  Newman is an embodiment of classic masculinity subtly being destroyed by alcoholism, severe depression, and hidden homosexuality (which is glossed over in the film).  Taylor’s Maggie can’t understand why her husband won’t make love to her; Newman’s Brick knows exactly why he’s incapable of making love to his wife, and it’s killing him.

 

Add this erotic discontent to an already strained family gathering and you’ve got yourself a hell of a film, dynamically haughty and as tight as a Hitchcock thriller.  Sure I like it less when attitudes even out and emotions stop running so high — I’m more turned on when it’s about to rupture than when it’s cooling itself off — but there’s no point in challenging the brilliance of Cat On a Hot Tin Roof. Sparse are films as zestfully written and as expertly acted as this one, and when the material is so flavorful and when the acting is so robust, I’ll take what I can get.  More, please.  A-