1958’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is, to put it simply, an incredibly good movie. Starring Paul Newman in one of his great cool-dude roles from the 1950s and ’60s, as well as the beautiful Elizabeth Taylor as Maggie the Cat, the larger-than-life Burl Ives as Big Daddy, and Madeleine Sherwood as the grotesquely aggravating Mae, this film is the adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name by Tennessee Williams.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof takes place on Big Daddy’s birthday— and the day he comes home from the clinic where he believes he has been cleared of any terminal illness. His favorite son Brick is convalescing at home with a broken leg that he got trying to relive his glory days by jumping hurdles in a drunken stupor, and elder son Gooper’s has brought his irritating wife and passel of “no-neck monsters” to wish Big Daddy a happy-birthday and a welcome-home. However, Big Daddy is having none of it. He comes surly and domineering right off the airplane and takes a self-satisfied ride with Brick’s wife Maggie through “some of the finest bottom land this side of the Mississippi,” surveying his personal empire. Newly invigorated by the prospect of continued life, Big Daddy arrives home surrounded by his wealth and his progeny, but those around him know better.
Adding to the tension, Big Daddy’s misunderstanding of his condition is not the only sour note that the Pollitt family will deal with. Secretly aware of his father’s terminal illness, the ineffectual big brother Gooper is a Memphis lawyer who has come home to set his father’s affairs in order— basically, believing his role as dutiful son entitles him, Gooper has come to collect on his inheritance. Meanwhile, younger son Brick – the handsome, brooding (and drunken) former college football great – has lost his best friend Skipper to suicide and is estranged from his pleading wife, Maggie. We get glimpses of the secrets that churn in the space between them: was Skipper more than just a friend to Brick? Were Skipper and Maggie involved? If those additional sub-plots weren’t enough, we have the overly proud Big Mama whirling around, attempting to take charge, and the conniving Mae periodically and quite loudly alluding to surreptitious elements of the family dynamic.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is an easy story to do badly, yet this stellar cast pulls it off exquisitely. I’ve seen live-theater productions that failed miserably, mostly due to bad acting, and I’ve wondered when I saw them if I wasn’t spoiled by this film. The begging and pleading interrogative quality of the dialogue, which betrays the family’s secrets so subtly and so slowly, can frustrate audiences if done poorly, but the 1958 film adaptation drags us through the mud with these desperate people who all wonder the same thing: what will happen when Big Daddy is dead? As that integral question gets asked in its many forms, sons must wonder out loud whether they have their father’s approval, and wives must find out once and for all whether they have been good partners to their men.
The beauty of this film resides in its ability to raise fundamental issues of life and death, by using a prosperous Deep Southern family as its examples. Once he finds out that he is actually facing certain death, Big Daddy wants to know whether his work has meant something, whether the acquisition of money and property and social status were worth the effort, when his own father – “a hobo tramp” – died smiling, penniless and lying in the weeds beside a train track. Brick must grapple with the nature of friendship and marriage, and the perplexing points where they intersect, while learning to cope with the loss of his glory days and the breakdown of his body with age. Gooper has come home to reap the rewards of doing what he was told, of following orders, of living up to expectations, even while his younger brother’s prodigal path has yielded their father’s greater affection; the pathetic elder son wants what he perceives to be his, by right and by effort. And Big Mama, charging around, loudly proclaiming the vibrancy of her family and her home, must face being told by her husband that he can’t stand her, while Maggie struggles with them all, not for the money or for the land, but for the love of her husband, who is being torn apart by his past.
Like other infamous literary works that pull back the curtains on great Deep Southern families – from Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury to Margaret Walker’s Jubilee – the film adaptation of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof shows us what we all kind of knew anyway: as the Book of Ecclesiastes puts it in chapter 5,
10 Where there are great riches, there are also many to devour them. Of what use are they to the owner except as a feast for the eyes alone.
11 Sleep is sweet to the laborer, whether there is little or much to eat; but the abundance of the rich allows them no sleep.
12 This is a grievous evil which I have seen under the sun: riches hoarded by their owners to their own hurt.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof ranks not only among the greatest films ever made, but also among Newman’s string of incredibly good Southern movies from this time period, including The Long, Hot Summer in 1958, Sweet Bird of Youth in 1962, and Cool Hand Luke in 1967. Who could forget the smirking Big Daddy lecturing on “mendacity” or Brick correcting Mae about his triumph in the Cotton Bowl? Nobody.