When Richard Brooks’ film adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ Cat On a Hot Tin Roof premiered in 1958, it was actually considered daringly enigmatic. That’s because it is so completely Williams: the nuanced relationships, the decidedly Southern feel, the patient appreciation for quiet. Though it’s unconventional, even by Williams’ own standards, the movie is beautiful in its own right, both theatrical and cerebral.
The film centers on the Pollitts, a wealthy Southern family in a precarious balance: Big Daddy (Burl Ives) is dying and has only his money to leave as his life’s legacy, while his son Gooper (Jack Carson) and his ridiculous family are morbidly clamoring for that inheritance. Brick (Paul Newman), the only son whose opinion Big Daddy really cares about, is hiding in his alcoholism. Brick’s wife Maggie (Elizabeth Taylor) did something to her husband that he can’t forgive, and now she is desperate to bring him out of his emotional recluse and to win his affection again.
Brooks’ interpretation of Williams’ character-based drama is masterful. He plays on a naïve misunderstanding of reality that is the source of so many characters’ problems. They expect too much of each other, or they don’t understand each other at all. We can feel the pressure of their frustration: the oppressive heat is palpable, and the obnoxiousness of the greedy in-laws is genuinely annoying.
Brick and Maggie are trapped at the core of all this tension. Brooks places this special emphasis on them, with long close-ups on their faces and quiet moments between them. But, then again, of course they’re going to be emphasized—Newman and Taylor are just so beautiful. These characters are also singularly perceptive, so that they seem to be the only real people in the family: the interruptions of Brick’s brother’s family are cartoonish, and Big Daddy is oblivious to the seriousness of his situation. Taylor’s performance as Maggie captures the character’s desperation in the cage of her marriage, and also her incredible power. With her incessant talking that is typical of Williams’ characters, Maggie is obviously extremely perceptive and witty, but she is also foolishly demanding. Opposite, Newman’s Brick is distant and excruciatingly beautiful.
Williams himself was disappointed with the adaptation. Apparently, the movie glossed over the play’s suggestion of a homosexual relationship between Brick and his friend Skipper, who had passed away. The tense confrontation at the end of the movie, where Big Daddy and Brick find closure in their relationship while literally surrounded by mementos from their past, was entirely a product of Brooks’ interpretation, and Williams didn’t agree with this choice either. That scene, however, is pivotal, and Burl Ives’ performance as Big Daddy’s last struggle for life is heartbreaking.
While it departed from Williams’ specific vision and inserted drama where a stage production might not have, Brooks’ interpretation definitely preserved the depth of the characters, and even made their experience more vivid. On the stage, our view of these characters can be tragically honest, with all the foolishness and false hopes that are so recognizably Williams. On the screen, our view of them can be equally powerful, but the characters are more tragically glorious than pathetic. We may see them closer up and in vivid colors, but their flaws are more glamorous.
Richard Brooks’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof recently ran as part of Film Forum’s Tennessee Williams series.