Film

The Contradictory Power of ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’

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The 1958 film Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is not a good adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s play of the same name. But as a portrayal of the depths of loneliness we create for ourselves, and an example of the power of star performance, it’s a great film.

Taking place in Mississippi, the story details the estranged relationship between Brick (Paul Newman), a faded golden boy, and his lonely wife, Maggie “the Cat” (Elizabeth Taylor), as they return to his family’s estate to celebrate the ailing Big Daddy (Burl Ives) on his birthday. Throughout, characters demand “mendacity” of each other, yet they hide their truths, even from themselves. The film, too, keeps us in the dark about the actual nature of several relationships. We’re meant to glean the reality of the situation from fleeting hints and weighty glances. This can prove frustrating, especially when it comes to Brick’s best friend and football teammate Skipper, who committed suicide. We never see Skipper, but his presence haunts Brick’s marriage; in Williams’ play, the romantic and sexual bond these men shared was evident, but the film discards that except for scant subtext.

Williams is said to have disliked the adaptation due to its inability to fully grapple with the themes of homophobia and sexism. The Hays Code, the moral guidelines applied throughout the film industry until the 1960s, put a stranglehold on the story. That makes Brick’s animosity toward Maggie feel cruel and unprovoked. But the way the film speaks around these issues actually makes the characters’ inability to own up to their own truths resonate on a deeper level. It creates a gnawing tension that turns this Cat into a hothouse Southern fable in which the truth is always out of reach no matter how much we yearn for it.

So this is a powerful albeit frustrating work whose greatest strength lies in its cinematography and acting. It was originally set to be filmed in black-and-white, until director Richard Brooks insisted on shooting in color to highlight the famous jewel-toned eyes of Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor. Cinematographer William H. Daniels takes full advantage of the beauty of these leads, lighting them better than they had been before. Each frame is brimming with dusty golds, rich browns, faded blues. At times the film looks like a faded photograph out of a family’s scrapbook, adding to the melancholy.

By 1958, Newman had found some success. But director Richard Brooks understood his contradictions and capabilities as an actor, how such a beautiful face can hold beneath it cold fury and violent machismo. This contradiction between modelesque good looks and simmering cruelty fully flourishes in later films like 1963’s Hud. As Brick, Newman evokes woundedness through physicality, lurching and sulking on crutches. Brick drinks to numb the pain, but that only inflates it, blinding him to everything else, particularly the profound loneliness of Maggie, who begs for his embrace.

Ultimately, it’s Elizabeth Taylor’s performance as Maggie that stands as the film’s crowning glory. By the time Taylor took on the role, she had already transitioned from child actor to Hollywood sex symbol. But in films like 1951’s A Place in the Sun, her characters acted as the emblem for men’s hopes and dreams while hers didn’t exhibit many dreams of their own. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof subverts that dynamic by making her desires the driving force of the film.

At one point actor and ex-husband twice over Richard Burton described Taylor as “the greatest film actress in the world.” Taylor was never prone to transformative performances like Bette Davis or pronounced tics like Katharine Hepburn, but she knew the camera better than most other actors. She moves with equal parts grace and aggression, unraveling in just one glance Maggie’s inner turmoil with more force than a monologue. It’s not great Williams, but it’s still powerful.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Directed by Richard Brooks

Playing November 20, Film Forum