Saturday, January 21, 2012

#523. Cat On a Hot Tin Roof (1958)

Directed By: Richard Brooks

Starring: Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman, Burl Ives

Tag line: "Just one pillow on her bed...and just one desire in her heart!"

Trivia:  Playwright Tennessee Williams so disliked this adaptation that he told people in the queue "This movie will set the industry back 50 years. Go home!"

Both Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor rank among my favorite performers of all-time, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is the reason why. Throughout their long and impressive careers, each would deliver dozens of solid performances, but their pairing in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was pure cinematic gold. 

Everyone's gathered to celebrate the 65th birthday of Big Daddy Pollitt (Burl Ives), the patriarch of a wealthy southern family. His dutiful son, Gooper (Jack Carson), and Gooper's wife, Mae (Madeleine Sherwood), are in attendance, as is Big Daddy's wife of 40 years, affectionately known to everyone as Big Momma (Judith Anderson). Yet what makes this particular birthday special is the unexpected arrival of Big Daddy's favorite son, Brick (Newman) and his wife, Maggie (Taylor). But the reunion will not be a happy one. For starters, a recent physical exam has revealed Big Daddy is dying, and doesn't have long to live. To add to the turmoil, Brick, a former star athlete, is now a raging alcoholic who's come to despise his beautiful, yet somewhat overbearing spouse. The trouble between he and Maggie started years earlier, when Brick's closest friend, Skipper, killed himself. Brick believes Skipper's suicide was caused by the guilt he felt following a sexual encounter with Maggie, but Maggie denies ever having cheated on her husband, and, in spite of Brick's harsh treatment of her, is still very much in love with him. During the course of one eventful evening, the suspicions and resentments that have plagued this family for decades will rise to the surface, causing a rift between father and son, husband and wife, which may prove irreparable. 

Burl Ives holds his own against the film's two stars, giving a boisterous performance as the gruff and cynical Big Daddy. Ives' Big Daddy is never afraid to say what's on his mind; he asks Maggie why she and Brick decided to honor them all with a visit. Maggie assures him they came for his birthday, but Big Daddy points out he also had a birthday last year,.and the year before that, neither of which Brick attended. “Maybe”, Big Daddy says, “he thought he was coming to a funeral instead”. Despite his character's illness, Ives brings life and vitality to Big Daddy, and is a commanding presence whenever he's on-screen. 

Ives' excellent work aside, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof belongs to Newman and Taylor. Their scenes together are positively explosive. Taylor's Maggie is an outgoing Southern Belle who isn't above a bit of gold-digging from time to time, pushing Brick to fight his brother for control of Big Daddy's business empire. And yet, she genuinely loves her husband, and is deeply wounded every time he rejects her, a rejection that also extends to the bedroom. Maggie does her best to arouse Brick's passion, but Brick has none to give. He looks at her with total apathy in his eyes, and this nearly drives Maggie to despair. “If I thought you'd never make love to me again”, she says, “I'd find the longest, sharpest knife I could and stick it straight into my heart”. Brick can't even bring himself to respond. 

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof raised a few eyebrows back in the day with its blunt depiction of frustrated sexuality and family strife, but it was the combination of Taylor's raw sensuality and Newman's rugged callousness that made it such a winning film.

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