What do you get if you take the hottest actor and hottest actress in late 1950s Hollywood with the most atmospheric and angst ridden of Tennessee William’s plays, and shake it all up to make a movie? You get Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
Based on Tennessee William’s play of the same name, the movie sees Paul Newman in the role of faded football player, Brick, and Elizabeth Taylor as Brick’s wife, Maggie the Cat. Firstly, wow. I can just imagine the MGM’s awe at managing to get these two together to make this film, Taylor being one of the established pillars of American cinema and Newman the new kid on the film lot. The whole package created a box-office smash.
Taylor, who by the time the film was released in 1958 at the age of 26, had been making movies since childhood, had an Academy Award nomination for Raintree County, been married three times and tragically widowed after the death of Mike Todd in a plane crash, something that happened during the course of the filming of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof which naturally kept her away from the production for a time. Newman had undertaken military service, attended college and studied drama at Yale and the Actors Studio, and had spent time in Broadway theatre alongside early film performances.
Both Taylor and Newman had come to movies through very different routes, but the pairing is absolutely electric. The camera adores both of them. Taylor can represent Maggie the Cat’s controlled disdain with just the tilt of her head, Newman delivering a quiet, seething rage of Brick’s self-loathing that explodes with the right trigger. Add in Burl Ives into cast, reprising his stage role the as vitriolic patriarch Big Daddy, and you get a trio of actors delivering every ounce of terse emotion in the story.
The story revolves around Brick and Maggie’s loveless marriage, Brick’s alcoholism and Big Daddy’s dominance of his largely scatty family. Everyone arrives at the family plantation for Big Daddy’s birthday and to celebrate his clean bill of health after a series of hospital investigations. Brick’s hapless older brother and supposed heir of the family fortune, Gooper, ever-pregnant wife and brood of children are also there for the party, adding a niggling annoyance to both the characters in the film and the viewer.
The sequence celebrating Big Daddy’s birthday descends into chaos, where all the secrets and lies are essentially unpeeled and revealed, which is interesting on so many levels. It is mainly set in a large beige bedroom, the contrast being provided by Taylor in a stunning white dress and Newman in dark grey pajamas, highlighting that these characters are warring opposites even to the extent of the dark and light of their costumes. All the other characters mingle uncomfortably and fussily in between Brick and Maggie, until Big Daddy bowls in, railing against his grandchildren, a wife he hates and being seemingly victorious over serious illness. It is such a great backdrop to the quick disintegration into layers of arguing and heated discussion to get to truth, the clamour of the children and the rumbling of the incoming thunderstorm creating an extra level of noise to add to the tension.
With such amazing performances, it is no wonder that both Taylor and Newman were nominated for Academy Awards, with nominations also being granted to Richard Brooks for Best Director and for Best Picture. The film won no Awards that year, with Best Picture going to the somewhat bland Gigi. This says more about conservative America distancing itself material of a controversial nature than it does about the quality of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
Tennessee Williams was actually unhappy with the screenplay and it’s dilution of homosexual themes in his original play, Brick’s feelings for his teammate Skipper only being hinted at during the film. Even the implicit representation of Brick’s sexuality may well have been too much for the Academy at that time, the movie being overlooked at the ceremony despite multiple nominations. Nevertheless, the review in Variety as the film was released, said that despite it being a watered-down version of the play, it was indeed “an intense, important motion picture”. I’ll go for that.