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Today I was going to post about The Night of the Hunter, but in light of the sad passing of Elizabeth Taylor, I’ve opted instead to write about one of her most memorable roles (and she had quite a few) as Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. This performance garnered her one of the 5 Oscar nominations she would receive through out her career. While she didn’t win the Academy Award the following year she left behind one of the most indelible characters in cinematic history.
This is such a great movie on so many levels. Adapted from the screenplay by Tennessee Williams and sanitized for the big screen, this excellent film boasts wonderful acting and dialogue …in fact Elizabeth Taylor delivers some of the best lines.
Beautiful Maggie is the passionate, love starved wife of Brick Pollitt (Paul Newman), a former high school all star now full time alcoholic.
The sultry, genteel old south is the setting for the intertwined plots in this familial drama. The genteelness is a facade like so much of what the characters engage in.
Brick and Maggie have driven from New Orleans to the Pollitt family home which is a plantation estate, where Gooper (Jack Carson), Brick’s older brother and his wife Sister Woman (Madeleine Sherwood) have planned a birthday party for their wealthy father, whom everyone calls Big Daddy (Burl Ives). There’s also Gooper and Sister Woman’s insufferable brood of brats, whom Maggie hilariously refers to as “No neck monsters.” They truly are obnoxious.
Big Daddy and Big Mama (Judith Anderson) are returning from some medical tests he had to undergo at a clinic. Everyone is under the impression that this is likely going to be Big Daddy’s last birthday party until Big Daddy and Big Mama announce that the test results came back negative. We later learn the doctor lied to them. Gooper and Sister Woman are hoping and scheming to then have total control of the estate by making sure Big Daddy is aware of Brick’s drinking and marriage problems. Since their bedroom is next to theirs Sister Woman has already made it her job to inform Big Mama that Brick sleeps on the sofa while Maggie sleeps in the bed alone. Sister Woman also hopes to curry favor by reminding her in-laws that in 3 years of marriage, Maggie still hasn’t had a child while she has produced 5 little Pollitts with a sixth one on the way.
So why haven’t Brick and Maggie had a child yet? Probably because Brick can’t stand his wife and refuses to touch her. But why? The answer is Skipper, Brick’s best friend in high school and afterwards.
But we eventually learn that the feelings between Brick and Skipper were deeper and more complex than a mere platonic friendship. There’s an obvious homoerotic subtext but what isn’t so clear is if Brick reciprocated Skipper’s feelings. My own impression is that yes. Brick may or may not be a repressed homosexual but he is clearly at least bisexual. He’s disgusted not only with the “role” Maggie played in Skipper’s suicide and his own emotional cowardice towards a friend in his greatest moment of need but also with his own unacknowledged sexuality. Brick is incapable of admitting to himself his own true feelings towards Skipper. Maggie sees it and so does Big Daddy. When Big Daddy finally forces that long overdue conversation with Brick many facts emerge such as what really happened that night between Maggie and Skipper.
Burl Ives is outstanding as the rough and gruff Big Daddy with a soft spot for his youngest son. His insight into his son’s true nature and how he handles Brick with an admirable mixture of no nonsense scolding and unexpected compassion and understanding is touching.
In the middle of this heated argument between father and son, Brick unintentionally brings to light another revelation; Big Daddy was lied to about his clinic test results. There isn’t going to be anymore Happy Returns. His illness is terminal. This is a real bucket of ice cold water for Big Daddy who honestly believed (or wanted to believe) he had a clean bill of health.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is such a rich movie which delves into the dynamics of human relationships in a way we don’t often see in today’s cinema. Brick’s anger and disgust with himself is misdirected at Maggie and life. Big Daddy and Big Mama’s marriage in which he stopped loving her years ago while she still adores him. The avarice and insecurity of Gooper and Sister Woman, and the biblical similarity in the parable of the Prodigal Son as mimicked in Big Daddy’s relationship with Gooper and Brick.
Big Daddy leaves Brick with a great line to ponder, “I’ve got the guts to die. What I wanna know is have you got the guts to live?”
To order Cat on a Hot Tin Roof on DVD from either Amazon USA, Amazon UK or Amazon Canada click on one of the corresponding links below.