by NIR SHALEV
Playwright Tennessee Williams had a way with words. Williams’ characters speak in cryptic tongues, often repeating someone’s name as a way of pointing the finger audibly, but they’re not caricatures. His most famous play is still A Streetcar Named Desire and its equally famous film adaptation starring Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando is a classic in its own right. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof may not be as well known but is also classic Williams. This movie version offers Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor in early and unforgettable performances as a southern couple who hate each other.
Brick Pollitt (Newman) was a college football star a decade back and as the film opens we see him drunk in the middle of the night, in the middle of an empty track field. He attempts to jump a few hurdles but fails and breaks his right leg. From that moment and until the end of the film Newman wears three props: the cast on his right leg, the crutch below his right arm, and a glass containing an alcoholic beverage; the unholy trinity that completes his character in a physical manifestation that requires no exposition. He drinks in order to forget the past and he likes drinking, which gives him two reasons to drink at all times. We want to know why he drinks but we have to wait because he’s obnoxious and stubborn and won’t reveal his secret easily.
Brick’s wife, Margaret ‘Maggie the Cat’ Pollitt (Elizabeth Taylor) loves him but doesn’t understand why he hates her. Whenever she brings up his deceased friend Skipper he goes into a loud rage and yells almost at the top of his lungs. He tells her to shut up, that he hates her, and that she’s been warned about mentioning Skipper. Whoever Skipper was was a very close friend of Brick’s and Brick believes that Maggie’s responsible for his death. This behavior tells us that Brick drinks because he harbors a huge secret that involves him greatly, but we still wait patiently for his exposition on the matter.
Brick has a love-hate relationship with his father, family patriarch Harvey ‘Big Daddy’ Pollitt (Burl Ives). He addresses him sarcastically as “sir,” saying “yes sir, Big Daddy” all the time. He always keeps his back turned toward Big Daddy and drinks while he’s in the room with him. Big Daddy makes the offer to drink together but Brick won’t even give him the satisfaction of drinking with his own son. When the family is told the news that Big Daddy is dying of cancer, the entire family reveals everything that had been pent-up inside them for years.
Watching this film I felt that the story was treading on familiar ground. I was constantly reminding myself that it’s from the 1950s, the play was written a few decades before that, and that what we see is a 30 year old man yelling at his father for being a terrible, uncaring, missing influence on his life. It’s not about teenage angst in suburbia like our popular contemporary films, it’s about a grown married man who is handsome and strong but drinks like a wildebeest and yells at everybody around him instead of manning up and looking deep down inside. He hates the fact that many missteps were his own fault and he drinks constantly and even in front of children.
Maggie is a victim and is as beautiful as her husband but she is not a pussycat. She stands her own ground and yells back. Liz Taylor plays Maggie like a woman should be portrayed: strong, affectionate, and naturally beautiful. Both she and Newman were nominated for Oscars, as were the screenplay, the picture, director Richard Brooks, and the cinematography.
Because this movie was adapted from a Tennessee Williams play it is character driven, but does not border on melodrama too heavily. The exposition in it speaks entirely about family struggles, hidden agendas and personal stubbornness, and even more than that about character development. The direction and the performances are also keyed to developing the characters. Brick has his back turned toward his wife and father almost throughout the entire film while Maggie is always looking straight at those she yells at and accuses. Brick doesn’t pace much; he limps here and there occasionally but usually stands still and with his back turned on his loves ones; Maggie however takes full advantage of the spacious sets that accurately depict a huge Mississippi home. Burl Ives was perfectly cast as Big Daddy because he is a large man, with a large booming voice. Whenever he speaks in one long condescending tone it’s ironic, because Big Daddy’s not as loved a man as he is wealthy and he never seems to be able to tell the difference between love and respect.
This is not a simple film to absorb nor is it an easy one. It’s a great film filled with great performances that showcases that even the elitist rich can have serious psychological damage and that confronting their worries and fears is not an easy task, nor a likable one. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof can’t be compared to A Streetcar Named Desire in content because they are polar opposites, but performance-wise this one is just as powerful and if you hadn’t yet seen it, brace yourself for the young and beautiful Paul Newman and Liz Taylor strategically upping one another in a game of who’s louder and more wrong.