Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Oscar Film Journal: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)

Welcome back to the Oscar Film Journal, here at, where I review an old Best Picture nominee in preparation for this year's delayed ceremony!

Today's entry is another Tennessee Williams adaptation, the classic 1958 family drama Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, starring Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman and Burl Ives.  Directed by Richard Brooks from a screenplay by Brooks and James Poe, the film version of COAHTR was met with disappointment from its stage creator, after revisions made necessary by the oppressive Hays Code whitewashed some of Williams' themes.  In the play version the Paul Newman character Brick had a close friendship with a male friend named Skipper that veered into romantic attachment, and Skipper committed suicide after Brick rebuffed his sexual advances.  In the film this was reduced to a vague, euphemistic exchange where Skipper was simply depressed and reached out to Brick for help, but Brick turned his back on him.  

Regardless of ill-conceived 1950s forms of censorship though, COAHTR is an emotionally intense, superbly acted drama depicting a family implosion.  The setting is a large southern plantation house owned by Harvey "Big Daddy" Pollitt (a gruff, foul-mouthed, self-important Burl Ives in a major departure from Sam the Snowman, the only role I'd previously seen of his).  Big Daddy is home from the hospital after being tested for cancer, apparently having been given a clean bill of health (later revealed to be a lie).  But during his absence his son Gooper and daughter-in-law Mae have been planning to cut out of the eventual inheritance his other son Brick, a former football star turned drunk, whose estranged wife Maggie sees through Gooper and Mae's machinations.  Throughout the film we learn of the strained relationships between all the characters.  Brick believes Maggie cheated on him with his best friend Skipper, but has agreed to stay in a loveless marriage with her out of convenience.  Maggie is more attracted to Brick than ever but he refuses to show her any affection.  Gooper and Mae resent Brick for being Big Daddy's favorite son.  Big Daddy hasn't been in love with his wife Ida in decades.  All of this comes boiling to the surface over the course of an evening, with potent results.
Liz Taylor's fiery performance is the standout for me, showing Maggie to be a strong-willed, sexually liberated woman desperate to help her husband find himself again.  She's the only member of the family Big Daddy genuinely seems to like, probably because she doesn't carry the same sense of entitlement as Gooper and Mae.  Paul Newman as Brick gives an understated, resentful performance, wracked with guilt over his best friend's suicide and seething with revulsion for the wife he thinks helped cause it.  An emotionally decimated shadow of a man, his only interest is self-medicating with alcohol.  Burl Ives plays Big Daddy as an all-consuming megalomaniac who raised his two sons on material things instead of love, and only when confronted by his own mortality does he begin to realize his shortcomings as a father and husband.

All the themes present are tremendously relatable, even in their slightly sanitized Hays Code form.  The characters are so flawed and human our allegiances shift throughout the film as more warts are revealed.  I couldn't help noticing parallels between this film and the 1994 dark comedy The Ref, with Denis Leary, Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis.  In both films the central married couple are estranged, the wife an unconventional free spirit and the husband a closed off, defeated man with a wealthy, overbearing parent and a craven older brother with a manipulative wife.  Both films take place over the course of one evening where the entire family has it out, airing all their grievances and eventually coming to an uneasy resolution.  I actually find it shocking that the team who made The Ref didn't cite COAHTR as an influence; the through-line seems pretty obvious to me.

All that aside though, Cat is a very powerful drama, boasting big, colorful performances and dramatic heft.  The Hays tweaks are handled clumsily but since I was somewhat familiar with the story's subtext they didn't get in the way for me.  The Oscar-nominated cinematography was pretty striking and inventive for 1958, when color films tended to be brightly lit and less atmospheric than their black & white counterparts.  Cat was nominated for six Oscars but sadly failed to win any, perhaps due to the sexual themes at play in a stuffy, repressive era.  In many ways the 1950s just weren't ready for Tennessee Williams....

I give the film **** out of ****.

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