Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)

Less than two months ago, a couple whom I am distantly connected to by marriage were in town. The lady’s American; her husband is Indian, and they live in New York. We were chatting about this and that, and the lady told us an interesting story: of how, some years back, they had been invited for a party, the birthday (I think) of someone very wealthy and famous. They were just entering—my ‘relative’ in a lovely purple-blue silk ‘temple sari’—when they ran into Elizabeth Taylor. Ms Taylor had one look at that temple sari and wanted to buy it.
“She was willing to offer whatever sum I wanted,” my ‘relative’ recalled. “I couldn’t let her have it, of course. That was the sari I’d worn for my wedding reception; it had sentimental value… but it matched her eyes so completely.”

RIP, Ms Taylor. The lady with the violet eyes. The lady with the seven husbands. The lady who could set the screen on fire—both with her breath-taking beauty and her superb acting. Even though she’s no more with us (she passed away on March 23, 2011, at the age of 79), she will live on in her films, hopefully for many generations to come.

And, so: a film tribute to Ms Taylor, one of her finest performances. 

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was based on Tennessee Williams’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name. The film got 6 Oscar nominations, for Best Actress (Elizabeth Taylor), Best Actor (Paul Newman), Best Picture, Best Director (Richard Brooks), Best Colour Cinematography (William H Daniels) and Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium (Richard Brooks and James Poe). None of the nominations won, resulting in speculation that the original play’s indications of homosexuality had not completely been suppressed in the screenplay, so the film hadn’t been considered politically correct.

But. It is still a brilliant film, and one of Elizabeth Taylor’s best. She is superb as Maggie Pollitt, the beautiful, poised daughter-in-law of a Southern tycoon; but also a woman rejected by her own husband, and trying desperately to entice him back to her. A highly emotional role, and perfectly portrayed.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is about a family. (I was going to write ‘is the story of a family’, but changed my mind, because it’s less of a story, and more the emotions, the feelings and the many personal demons the members of this family battle).
The scene is set in New Orleans, where the household of cotton baron ‘Big Daddy’ Pollitt (Burl Ives) is getting ready to celebrate his 65th birthday.

Some disquieting signs of illness have been bothering Big Daddy, so he’s gone off with his wife Ida ‘Big Momma’ (Judith Anderson) to get a check-up done. The doctor has warned that this may be serious.
In Big Daddy’s absence, the two Pollitt sons arrive at the grand villa, along with their respective families. There’s the older son, Gooper (Jack Carson), a lawyer in Memphis:

And his wife Mae (Madeleine Sherwood), pushy and nasal-voiced and amazingly fertile. With them is their gaggle of five obnoxious brats, and one more on the way.

In contrast, the younger son Brick (Paul Newman) has only his wife, the beautiful Maggie (Elizabeth Taylor) with him. Brick hasn’t visited his parents in several years; this is a homecoming of sorts, but hardly joyful, it seems.

Scenes go by, giving us an idea of the many worries and problems that beset this family. If you equated wealth with happiness, the Pollitt family is ample reason to understand why wealth, far from bringing happiness, can actually mean quite the opposite. Other than Gooper and Mae’s bratty children, nobody here is happy.
Gooper and Mae, for instance, are driving themselves batty with the thought that Big Daddy (who might be close to death) will leave the bulk of his fantastic wealth to his favourite son, Brick.

Gooper is more henpecked than anything else; his ‘avarice and greed’ (as Maggie calls it) are authored and propagated mainly by Mae.
Not that Gooper is a contented man. Deep down, below the easy-going and almost lackadaisical exterior, is a man hurt and frustrated by his father’s obvious disinterest in him. In one poignant scene, Gooper asks Big Momma why, despite the fact that he obeyed everything Big Daddy told him to do—become a lawyer, go to Memphis, get married, have children—Big Daddy loves Brick more than Gooper?

Brick himself doesn’t seem to be as close to his parents as a much-loved son would be expected to. The film begins with Brick, at 3 AM in the deserted grounds of the East Mississippi High School, setting up hurdles for himself on the track, drinking from a bottle, and looking up at the empty stands, listening in his mind’s eye (ear?) to cheering, and then going racing over the hurdles. And falling down, wrenching his ankle…

…and ending up with his leg in a cast. Why the drinking? Why the need to hear cheers where none can be heard? Why the need to prove that he can still jump hurdles, go sailing cleanly over them as if none exist?
Perhaps Brick, even with his exalted status as favourite son of Big Daddy, is far unhappier than Gooper ever could be.

The truth emerges, slowly. Brick is battling—and losing out to—his own past. Once he was a football star; then an injury put paid to his career, and a subsequent career as a commentator does not appear to have compensated. Brick has given even that up. Now he’s making a full-time job of drinking, day in and day out, and ignoring Maggie.

Maggie. Maggie the Cat. The woman who was so ‘disgustingly poor’ before she married Brick, that she will do anything to ensure that Big Daddy leaves his money to Brick, not to Gooper.
Not that Maggie is all mercenary: no. She is genuinely fond of Big Daddy, and is deeply, desperately in love with Brick. Which is why Brick’s indifference to her—he hasn’t slept with her for a long time now, a fact that is apparent to everybody around, even the detestable Mae—is even more hurtful.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, Mae has been gloating over the fact that Maggie doesn’t have any children. She’s even gone ahead and told her children that, and one of the girls taunts Maggie with it:  “You’re just jealous ‘cause you can’t have babies!”


Of course she can’t (even though a gynaecologist has said there’s nothing wrong with her); Brick won’t sleep with her. But why? What is the deep, dark secret that lurks here, making Brick hate Maggie? What is it that makes Maggie burst out crying, wishing that all that drink had make Brick fat and ugly, so that she wouldn’t want him so desperately, yet not be allowed to even touch him? What does Brick’s dead friend Skipper have to do with all of this?

Big Daddy and Big Momma return, happy to have been told he’s fine. But, after the party that evening, the family doctor reveals the truth to Gooper and Brick: Big Daddy has cancer. It’s hopeless; he won’t live to see his next birthday.
How will that knowledge, slowly spreading through the Pollitt family, affect them? Will it change their lives, their relationships? Will it make them happier, more contented with what they have? Or will the looming death make them sink even further?

“You know what I feel like?” Maggie howls at Brick in one memorable scene. “I feel all the time like a cat on a hot tin roof!” And when Brick tells her to jump off, her response is, “Jump where? Into what?!”

But who really is the cat on the hot tin roof? Is it just Maggie, frustrated because the man she wants and loves has distanced himself from her? Or is it also everybody around her? Brick, so unhappy he’s cut himself off from everybody who loves him, and now has only drink for a friend? Gooper, groping for a reason for Big Daddy’s indifference? Or Big Daddy himself, so proud of himself and his achievements, that his greatest happiness lies in loving things, not people? Or Big Momma, trying to desperately to win the affection of a husband who doesn’t need her?

What I liked about this film:

Everything, but very specifically, the characterisation: the beauty of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof lies in the fact that it has only six major characters. It’s an uncluttered script, neat and sparse, which allows us to see the fine details in each individual character, the shades of grey, the nuances. (While on that topic: there’s this lovely scene where a weeping Maggie flings herself into Brick’s arms, crying for him. You can see his arms lift as he instinctively reaches to comfort her—and then stops himself. Makes you wonder how much Brick actually ‘hates’ Maggie, as he keeps insisting he does).

The acting. Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor at their best.

What I didn’t like:

Mae. Yes, the character is not a nice woman, but that isn’t my gripe. What I didn’t particularly care for is the fact that this is the only character that isn’t the wonderful shades of grey the others are. Mae has no redeeming qualities that I can see. Maybe there should’ve been something there to like.

But, oh: this film deserved an Oscar. Deserved more than one Oscar.

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28 thoughts on “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)

  1. I swear it did deserve the Oscar. What an outstanding film it was. Liz was marvellous as the passionate and frustrated woman. Newman as the brooding man. And the story was so unconventional.
    You know I so wanted to do a post on this after the demise of Taylor. But seeing you’ve done such a brilliant writeup I think i’ll give it a miss. Thank you so much for the wonderful read :)

    • You’re right, the story was so unconventional – and so gripping. It’s rare to come across a film that has almost no action and actually very little that happens in the course of the film – but is built so brilliantly by its dialogue and by the pasts of the characters. Truly outstanding!

      Oh, please don’t let my post put you off doing a Liz Taylor tribute. If not this film, another? Please!

      • I remember seeing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Nothing happens there either if I recall correctly. Nice review DO–I’m not a big fan of old Hollywood so probably will not see this movie unless someone makes me.

        • Oh, that’s the worst way of seeing a movie – if someone makes you! :-D I automatically decide not to like the movie if that happens to me… sometimes I have to eat humble pie, but never mind.

  2. I knew you’d come through with some good writeup to observe the passing of Liz Taylor. :) I observed her passing with a viewing of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. I’d recalled from long ago that she and Richard Burton did some marvelous performances in that one, and they did. But the characters in that were so utterly unsympathetic, at least from my perspective, that I ended up appreciating it entirely as black humor (which could be the appropriate response – i )

  3. Oops, hit the wrong key… Anyway, I was saying, this old play-turned-into-movie might be interesting to view again sometime too. (Once again, it’s been a long time since I saw it…)

    • For someone who likes Liz Taylor so much, I would certainly do a tribute to her – and oddly enough, I actually don’t own too many films of hers. This one, The Last Time I Saw Paris (which I haven’t seen yet), Beau Brummel, Elephant Walk and Little Women. It was pretty obvious to me right from the start that unless I wanted to simply focus on her gorgeousness (in which case I’d probably have chosen Elephant Walk), it would have to be Cat on a Hot Tin Roof… a remarkable performance.

      I haven’t yet gotten around to watching Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – somehow the only Burton-Taylor film I remember seeing – The Taming of the Shrew – didn’t impress me as much as I’d expected it to. But your take on …Virginia Woolf intrigues me. Black humour appeals to me! ;-)

  4. Not being a hollywood fan I can only say that I saw her in Taming of the Shrew, which as you say wasn’t very impressive.
    I saw this film because of it being Shakespeare’s, and I buy any DVD if it’s an adaptation of Shakespeare, Jnae Austen etc etc

    It’s a very well written review and gives one the picture of things.

  5. I have been meaning to see Liz Taylor’s classic films like “Who’s afraid of Virginia Wolf” & “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” etc.; and now I shall try again.
    “Cleopatra” is the only Liz Taylor film I have seen, so need to expand my horizons.
    Loved that anecdote, and Nice review.

    • Thank you, Samir. I have also seen Cleopatra, but so long back (I was a kid, not even a teenager) that I only remember one frame: where Cleopatra commits suicide by putting her hand in the basket that contains the asp. Come to think of it, I’m not even very sure if that version was the Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton one; there are a lot of versions floating about.

  6. Ha! finally a hollywood film you’re reviewing that I’ve actually seen and that I also love, I find it so relevant and very relatable even for this age, its the first time I learnt the word Mendacious/Mendacity, it was used an awful lot in this film. R.I.P Elizabeth Taylor, I think this is the only film of her I’ve seen, i keep attempting Cleopatra but my friend always tells me its way too boring but I might just give it a go for the sets and the costumes if anything

    • :-) Good, I’m so glad you like this film as much as I do! You’re very right, it’s easy to relate to, even over 50 years after it was made. I guess the fact that it’s all about human emotion – which, come to think of it, doesn’t change from one century to another (unlike themes like war or Western or even humour) – makes it so immortal.

      I’d come across mendacity/mendacious elsewhere too, but never made the effort to find out what it meant until I saw Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I have this film to thank for expanding my vocabulary!

  7. It probably won’t surprise you to learn that Elephant Walk is one of my favorite Liz Taylor films :D

    I saw this one long, long ago and only remember that it was depressing, and excellent. Lovely review!

  8. A very good question: Who is the cat on the hot tin roof?
    By the end of the film, one feels as if one self is on the hot tin roof. Though I find the watered down and tame ending a bit frustrating. Quite unworthy of Tennessee Williams!

    • “By the end of the film, one feels as if one self is on the hot tin roof.”

      :-D :-D

      Good one, harvey! I haven’t read the original play, but yes, I doubted that Tennessee Williams would have written something so tame and mainstream Hollywood-style. It did seem like something that had been doctored specially to cater to the ‘usual’ audiences.

  9. “Cat on a Hit Tin Roof” always makes me think of that other Newman southern scorcher – The Long Hot Summer. I love both films and am so glad you decide to write a review for “Cat…”

    What I appreciate the most about impossibly beautiful actors like Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor is how messily *human* their performances were. They didn’t keep the audience at a distance but rather invited you to come and “touch” them.

    • I haven’t yet got around to watching The Long Hot Summer, though Cat on a Hot Tin Roof reminded me somewhat of A Streetcar Named Desire… or was I unconsciously comparing two Tennessee Williams plays?

      You’re so right about Taylor and Newman’s ‘messily human’ (what a delightful adjective!) performances. Yes, that somewhat intimidating gorgeousness doesn’t get put on some unapproachable pedestal – it’s as if they aren’t even that aware of it.

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