Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is his second Pulitzer Prize winner and his second Hollywood blockbuster. This time around, Richard Brooks does the adaptation and directing honors, enlarging the confined drama to fill Big Daddy Pollitt's Alabama mansion and inventing new scenes as needed. Even though a few details are somewhat blurred the play is still a forceful drama with powerhouse moments for all the main characters. Audiences flocked to see the steamy bedroom scenes between Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor, who made 1958's movie screens sizzle.
The marriage of Brick and Maggie Pollitt (Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor) is at the wrecking point over a suspicious, fatal past incident between Maggie and Brick's best friend Skipper. Along with Brick's older brother Gooper (Jack Carson) and his wife Mae (Madeleine Sherwood), they greet Big Daddy (Burl Ives) on his return from a medical clinic. Should Big Daddy be terminally ill, Gooper and Mae are intent on securing a controlling interest in his properties. Mae organizes their five kids (called the "no-neck monsters" by Maggie) into a horrible welcoming committee. At the airport Dr. Baugh (Larry Gates) reports that Big Daddy is in great shape, which has Big Momma Ida (Judith Anderson) crying for joy. Big Daddy's affection for Maggie puts Gooper and Mae on the defensive: The loud-mouthed Mae repeatedly infers that Brick is an alcoholic and that Maggie is barren because she's a lousy wife. Big Daddy happily contemplates a retirement of womanizing until he realizes how serious Brick's drinking really is. Brick repeatedly rejects Maggie, no matter how she tries to appeal to him.
All America needed to be mesmerized by Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was a quick look at Elizabeth Taylor wiping cold ice cream from her legs, an image that doubtlessly sent chills up many a male backbone. But there's a lot more here to hold the attention. Instead of gutting Tennessee Williams' bold main themes to satisfy the Production Code Authority, Richard Brooks and James Poe artfully changed what had to be changed, leaving as few scars as possible.
Big Daddy's a sick man, and his heirs crowd around like the vulture relatives in the old silent horror film The Cat and the Canary. It's easy to know who we don't like, as Gooper is stuck with a silly name, a harpy for a wife and horrid pack of kids that might as well be demons with pitchforks.
We're also keenly interested in what's up between Brick and Maggie, as the notion of the incredibly sexy Elizabeth Taylor begging in vain to sleep with Paul Newman strikes us as a sin against nature. Brick is trying to drink himself into a forgetful stupor over their Big Problem. Unfortunately, his drinking reinforces an old, dramatically convenient image of alcoholism. The more Brick guzzles, the more attractive and mentally acute he gets. He never actually gets sloppy, drunk, or passes out.
Brick is Williams' idea of a manly cripple. A drunken accident has him on crutches and he's forever falling down or getting stuck in the mud, all indicators that his affliction is affecting his sex drive. When the truth starts to leak out about Brick's worshipful relationship with his dead buddy Skipper, we suspect that the original play had a major homosexual element. According to commentator Donald Spoto, that aspect is ambiguous and sublimated to the friends' "immature" relationship as grown men fooling themselves with a sports dream. Brick is not in denial over his sexual identity, merely guilty for rejecting a friend because he was 'weak.' To clear up any doubts, Brick caresses Maggie's nightgown in the bathroom, 'proving' he's actually pining for her.
In the original play Maggie's motives and actions in the suicide incident aren't as clean-cut. She and Skipper did sleep together, and we can tell that the movie is dodging when she claims to have "changed her mind" at the last moment. Maggie wants to reclaim her husband the same way she wants her fair share of Big Daddy's money. It's just that she's bold about the first desire and balanced about the second, compared to her clueless, avaricious in-laws.
Big Momma Ida declares that when a marriage is on the rocks, the rocks are in the bed. Williams emphasizes human weakness: Even Big Momma was pregnant when she married Big Daddy. Just the same, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof tries to keep sex in its proper place as just one source of family dysfunction. The real plague upon the Pollitt household is greed and envy on a classical scale.
The strain shows in Brooks' adaptation only when he invents a big reconciliation scene between Brick and Big Daddy in the cellar. Burl Ives is magnetic as he explains his own miserable youth, but Paul Newman barely survives some lame whining about getting "things" from his father instead of love -- it comes off like a bad TV drama about delinquency. Big Daddy hits him with the groaner, "I've got the guts to die, but do you have the guts to live?" From that point on we know things are going to going to be okay, which may not have been Tennessee Williams' original intention. Brooks and Poe would seem to be using the scene to realign the film with acceptable family values.
The direction and acting in this sure-footed drama are uniformly remarkable throughout. Burl Ives and Madeleine Sherwood repeat from the stage and are masterful, although in Sherwood's case it's a thankless role. Her "sister-woman" Mae instantly reminds us of the most awful relative we've ever had to put up with. Elizabeth Taylor makes us forget any ideas we had about shortcomings in her acting ability. Even with the changes and all the MGM gloss, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof remains powerful and satisfying. For his ending, Richard Brooks wisely leaves the audience anticipating a movie star mating between his reunited Brick and Maggie.
Warners' DVD of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a distinct improvement over the MGM disc issued in 1997 or 1998, with an enhanced transfer that benefits from technical and encoding advances. The color really pops in this edition; it's the first time I've seen the orange-red title background look attractive instead of sickly. William Daniels' rosy lighting flatters everyone and practically deifies Elizabeth Taylor as a heavenly vision; all she need do to seduce the cosmos is just 'be there.'
The list of extras is short but strong. A new featurette, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: Playing Cat and Mouse spends most of its time with star talk on the set -- we get the full rundown on Ms. Taylor's mid-shooting tragedy when her husband Mike Todd was killed in an airplane crash. We hear a lot about how this picture was a big boost for Taylor and Paul Newman, but almost nothing about any of the other actors. When Madeleine Sherwood appears on camera, her comments are almost completely restricted to Ms. Taylor.
Author Donald Spoto's commentary analyzes the drama in terms of Williams' larger career and investigates the story's guilty secrets and ironies. Maggie and Big Daddy are the only characters trying to get at the truth, and Brick's rejection of Maggie aligns neatly with Big Daddy's resentment of his wife Ida. Spoto also observes that the father-son angle emphasized by Richard Brooks to replace the play's sexual doubt, is more appropriate to Arthur Miller than Tennessee Williams.
An original trailer is included as well.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof rates:
Supplements: Commentary by biographer Donald Spoto, author of The Kindness of Strangers: The Life of Tennessee Williams; New featurette Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: Playing Cat and Mouse; Trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 26, 2006
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson