Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)

Directed by Richard Brooks

Two things occur to me when I think about this movie, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The first is that the theme is mendacity and yet, ironically, the movie itself is a bit mendacious. Paul Newman’s character Brick has a problem as a result of being gay but, given the late fifties and censorship codes, the movie does its best to evade articulating this aspect of his character.

However, the story only really makes sense when Brick is seen as gay (which is strongly suggested in the Tennessee Williams play, where the movie is rooted). More particularly, it’s homosexuality at a particular time in a particular culture and a particular family in particular circumstances.

Elizabeth Taylor in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

The second thing that strikes me is that while Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman are the stars, this is really Burl Ives movie. (He also receives star billing, though only after Taylor and Newman.) Regardless of that, however, all three give outstanding performances.

In some ways, Taylor is best suited for the material because she manages the melodrama well – just sufficiently over-the-top without being so much so that it becomes caricature.

Based on the play by Tennessee Williams, the movie inevitably has a melodramatic tone. To me, that’s one of the identifying qualities of a Williams’ work but it’s not a negative one. In fact, it’s a positive. It allows for that rather florid dialogue that also characterizes Williams’ works.

Paul Newman in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

The IMDb summary is succinct: “Brick, an alcoholic ex-football player, drinks his days away and resists the affections of his wife, Maggie. His reunion with his father, Big Daddy, who is dying of cancer, jogs a host of memories and revelations for both father and son.”

It’s accurate but it should be pointed out that the above is also influenced by the fact that Big Daddy Pollitt (Burl Ives) is very wealthy — a self-made man — and everyone is wondering who will get control of his wealth once he’s dead. Will it be his son Brick (Paul Newman) or the other son, Gooper (Jack Carson)? Also playing into the story is the fact that Gooper and his shrew of a wife Mae (Madeleine Sherwood) have produced many children (all obnoxious) but Brick and his wife Maggie, the Cat (Taylor) are childless.

The histrionics are plentiful.

Paul Newman and Burl Ives in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

The dialogue is as well. In fact, there is almost no action; it’s all talking. You might expect that to make for a dull movie but instead it makes a very compelling one because it is all about the characters and their relationships.

The directing by Richard Brooks makes it feel like a movie visually but it is really still a play. (Compare this to a movie like The Rainmaker which never seems to lose the feeling and look of a play.)

Although cinema is a visual medium and the general rule is to avoid words as much as possible — just show it — movies like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof are reminders how dialogue, when it is good, can be gold.


1 Response

  1. Dan says:

    It’s worth noting that Brick’s homosexuality is a fable. Skipper was gay, and he made his feelings known toward Brick. Brick has the guilt that he does because he spurned his friend and then didn’t pick up the phone before Skipper’s suicide. He feels responsible for Skipper’s death and he doesn’t know how to deal with the fact that his friend had romantic feelings toward him.

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