The family of wealthy Mississippian, Harvey “Big Daddy” Pollitt (Burl Ives, The Big Country), gathers together to celebrate the old patriarch’s 65th birthday. They’re strange bunch. Ex-football star, Brick (Paul Newman, Cool Hand Luke), Big Daddy’s youngest son, has become a full-blown alcoholic. Brick’s wife, Maggie “The Cat” (Elizabeth Taylor, Cleopatra), attempts to keep her troubled husband away from the bottle, while her greedy brother-in-law, Gooper (Jack Carson, Mildred Pierce), and his wife, Mae (Madeleine Sherwood, Sweet Bird of Youth), conspire to get their hands on the family’s vast fortune. Big Mama (Judith Anderson, Rebecca) is caught in the middle of the infighting.
Reaction & Thoughts:
“Didn’t you notice a powerful and obnoxious odor of mendacity in this room?” — Burl Ives as Big Daddy.
All transitions from the stage to the celluloid are a real challenge. Such adaptations’ effectiveness relies on transforming a piece from a medium based on dialogue and acting to a medium that is primarily visual. This adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s award-winning play Cat on the Hot Tin Roof is no exception. Luckily, director-writer Richard Brooks (Elmer Gantry and Looking for Mr. Goodbar) finds the perfect middle point — he manages to create a film that is visually satisfying yet still remains full of great expository dialogue and powerful performances.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a film with a web of mini-plots that form a compact whole that commands our attention as it unveils a shattering and unforgettable climax.
The story unfolds in almost real-time — a long night of bitter revelations and recriminations — in a single set, yet it is a very exciting movie to watch. You get so involved into the story that you tend to forget that the entire movie takes place in just a few rooms. Although Brooks was forced to delete some key elements from the play in order to comply with the censors (like the latent homosexuality of the main character), he actually ends up improving the story. By removing some of the more controversial ideas, he puts more focus on the main theme of the story: the impact and consequences of “mendacity.” As these dissipated characters look for answers, only more questions can be found. Their struggle suddenly takes universal resonance, and the fragility of the human condition is completely exposed.
The project was designed as a vehicle for James Dean and Grace Kelly, but Dean’s sudden death, and Kelly’s retirement, forced MGM to recast the film. It’s hard to imagine the movie without Newman and Taylor; they are magnificent.
Taylor, who was an emotional basket because of the death of husband Mike Todd (Around the World in 80 Days), is a revelation. She is stunningly photographed in color (by William H. Daniels, Ninotchka). And she is so … carnal? She radiates sex in such an effortless manner. You immediately believe that there must be be something really wrong with Newman for him not wanting to sleep with Taylor.
Newman became a bona fide star on the strength of this movie. He had replaced James Dean on both Somebody Up There Likes Me and The Left Handed Gun, so you could said that Dean’s tragedy was Neman’s good fortune. Weird, but true.
Folk singer Ives is memorable as Big Daddy (he originated the role on Broadway). You won’t find one false note in the entire cast. Newman, Taylor and Ives have great chemistry and instinctively play out their strengths and weaknesses against each other. Carson, Sherwood and Anderson offer strong support. The cast also includes Larry Gates (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) as Dr. Baugh and Vaughn Taylor (Psycho) as Deacon Davis. The lovely, and uncredited (!) music score is by Charles Wolcott.
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was a big critical and commercial success when it first premiered in theaters on September of 1958. The film was nominated for eight Oscars, including Best Picture. Today, the film looks a bit stagy and viewers used to action-oriented movies will find the movie talky. However, I think it is one of Hollywood’s outstanding films. Color, 108 minutes, Not Rated.