Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)

Dir. Richard Brooks. Starring Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor, Burl Ives

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a competent waste of time and energy, occasionally pretty and from time to time infuriating for the right reasons. My inclination is to say that it’s not much of a movie, but I’m willing to admit I’m wrong because there are some elements of the film which I am just inclined to dislike, and in the interest of fairness I’m glad to point some of those out.

  1. There may not be a Hollywood icon I understand the appeal of less than Paul Newman. I’ve tried! I have tried really hard. I have seen The Sting, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Verdict, The Hustler, Cool Hand Luke, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. (I haven’t seen Hud. Reading Pauline Kael on Hud makes me wonder if that could be the movie that turns me around on Newman, and I guess that’s just a lot of pressure to put on that flick.) In every one of those movies excepting The Sting, someone else interests me significantly more, and that someone is usually the person Newman is playing against. Not to go through the whole roll call here, but George Kennedy is way more interesting than Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke. Jackie Gleason is curiously spellbinding in The Hustler. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof has Burl Ives in a good part. Either Paul Newman is a star who expresses that skill by becoming the greatest elevator of chubby guys in supporting roles in the history of American cinema, or the laconic on-screen presence is just dull. Certainly he has the greatest eyes in said history, but you don’t buy a Lexus because it has LED headlights. In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Paul Newman is much less cool than he is in the average Paul Newman movie. Even though there is an awful lot of time spent in the Newman canon on washouts and ne’er-do-wells, Brick is a particularly promising member of the club. Newman acts him as coolly and distantly as ever, and in an early scene where I think there’s meant to be some mystique built between Brick and Maggie (Taylor), Taylor blows him off the screen. In later scenes, Newman spends a lot of time in an apartment, the rain, and a crowded cellar with Burl Ives. Ives is reflective, varied. Newman breaks things, yells, and can’t quite choke out lines about familial love convincingly.
  2. Movies that say the name of the movie in the first twenty minutes or so (unless it’s like, someone’s name…I’m not here to bash Marty) are like first dates who are really snippy and condescending to the waiter: maybe it turns around from there, but I’m not going to lose money betting against it. The all-time winner here is Crash, of course, which says the name of the movie in a pseudo-thoughtful way within two minutes, but Maggie actively compares herself to a cat on a hot tin roof within ten minutes of appearing on screen. The movie does not have the strength to pull itself out of that hole.
  3. Far be it from me to defame a great dramatist (especially as I’ve just overthrown the tables of the Paul Newman fans and I’m not sure how much more iconoclasm this post will hold), but Tennessee Williams on screen is rarely electrifying. There is the one exception in A Streetcar Named Desire, but that’s a movie with peak Brando, a perfectly cast post-peak Vivien Leigh, and especially strong supporting work. There are high points in other movies, such as The Rose Tattoo, but there’s a reason that Williams adaptations tend to lack the energy of, say, Daphne du Maurier adaptations, or the thrill of Boileau-Narcejac movies. Williams’ work is so delicate that I doubt a little bit that it can be done on screen well. It requires the sad energy that a theatrical performance can be infused with, but a movie, especially one six decades old, has a difficult time inspiring on its own through no fault of its own. I also wonder very much how Williams on screen might have been different if the actors populating those adaptations in the ’50s hadn’t all come out of the Actors Studio, which is filled with people who are often trying way too hard for parts that probably benefit from restraint. This is how it all comes full circle to Paul Newman, incidentally.

Here’s the counterpoint, which I will relate to you in the form of a parable:

Once upon a time I was a high schooler, and in my senior year I started to dabble around the edges of the theater program. The last event of the year was the one-act festival, which was almost entirely student-run. One of the one-acts from that year was Jonathan Rand’s The Least Offensive Play in the Whole Darn World, in which a group advertising the Play Purifier shows how any objectionable element from a play can be made far more palatable. Rent comes up, of course, and when they show what the Play Purifier can do to Rent, we see a pair of guys on stage saying and doing nothing. The stage directions, as I recall, call for one of them to cough. That’s basically what the ’58 Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is. and that curdles the movie so much more than Newman, Williams, or how often they say the title.

The play is about as explicit as mainstream Broadway could be in the mid-’50s in expressing the homosexual undertones of Brick’s relationship with the late Skipper, his best friend and a fellow football player. In the play, Maggie’s suspicions of her husband’s emotional involvement with Skipper set off a chain reaction which ends with Skipper’s suicide, and which includes Brick’s rejection of Skipper’s final advance. (This would be a different movie if Ben Gazzara had come back to play Brick! Just saying.) In the movie, Maggie is jealous that Brick pays more attention to Skipper than to her, and tries to seduce Skipper in a backhanded way to devalue him in her husband’s eyes; in the play, it is Skipper who tries to prove something to Maggie, and he initiates a sexual act he doesn’t have the will to follow through on. Obviously the play’s vision is far more powerful—although Williams, a gay man himself, shows that unfortunate Western literary instinct to ensure that homosexuals die not just in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof but Streetcar too—and the film’s take is convoluted, impenetrable, and boring. Brick is a wreck because he was in love with a man. He was a great football player, an icon of red meat Southern masculinity, and now he is limping around on a crutch, drinking himself into the ground, and all because he is pining for the Jonathan to his David. Williams flips the script; it’s not Amanda Wingfield or Blanche DuBois who is past her prime and inserting herself into the past with disastrous results, but Brick Pollitt. A man can obliterate himself as fully as a woman, and that simple reversal from previous entries is as engrossing as anything else about the movie. Alas that the movie is handicapped, or maybe handcuffed is the more apt description. It is not allowed to make a real homosexual (or bisexual) out of Brick, and because it cannot do that it loses its raison d’être. No studio adaptation of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof has been attempted in the sixty years since this movie was released, as far as I know, and I am dying to see this as a period piece with the original subtext placed in it again. I’m also dying to see this with an all-black cast and production team, because this movie raises the stakes immensely if Big Daddy is a basically self-made millionaire and black in the ’50s, just for starters. You wouldn’t see this movie with Michael B. Jordan, Daniel Kaluuya, or Anthony Mackie opposite Janelle Monae, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, or Sasha Lane? With like, Denzel as Big Daddy? Someone set up a Kickstarter.

As much as I like Burl Ives, who settles very comfortably in a zone where he’s never mean but always difficult, and as adept as Jack Carson is as Brick’s weakly ambitious brother Gooper, the best performances in the film belong to Elizabeth Taylor and Madeleine Sherwood. We run into them at roughly the same time. Our first interaction with Maggie is near the beginning, when she sees one of her nieces digging her hands all the way into the ice cream. She’s justly horrified—I was seriously weirded out by that kid, because that just seems totally counterintuitive—and she yells at the girl to stop; the girl throws the ice cream off her hands onto Maggie’s shins. Maggie responds by picking up some ice cream herself and rubbing it around in the girl’s face. Our first look at Mae, fittingly, sees her pregnant as they come and marching about blowing time on a whistle. The results of that early scene are proclaimed loud and clear. Maggie is not terribly good with children, which is going to be a running gag for everyone, and it’s going to give her a heckuva reason to take her clothes off. (I may honestly underestimate how audiences from the ’50s would have interpreted Brick’s sexual interests, given his total rejection of Elizabeth Taylor.) Mae is, quite clearly, a pain in the heinie. If Mae were my daughter-in-law, I think I too might have a “spastic colon.” When Big Daddy gets off the plane, she’s arrange to have her little people playing “Dixie” for him, which is doing too much but which I also kind of understood. What’s totally brilliant about Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is that Mae never quits. She has costumes, props, and songs set up to try to win Big Daddy over through the majority of the film. Isn’t there an intermission to this show? he complains, and it gets a laugh which is more like relief than levity. Mae is an absolutely unbearable human being not because of what she wants—she wants Gooper to be the primary benefactor of Big Daddy’s nearing will, which would make her filthy rich—but because she does not have the grace to want it quietly or in private. Jack Carson’s most repeated line is “Shut up!” which, of course, is directed at the wife who is a month or two from popping out baby number six for him in an effort to prove her fidelity to the Pollitt dynasty. Madeleine Sherwood, who looks Miss Piggy in that scene from The Muppets Take Manhattan where she uses Gregory Hines’ roller skates chases down the guy who stole her purse, is there to trigger us, and she does so as well as can be done.

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