Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) (mini-review++)


(If you’re curious, my review process. It’s also pasted at the end of this post.
I don’t believe in Rotten Tomatoes. I just believe in me.)

(***all-purpose SPOILER ALERT*** there may be some in this review)

acting 9

directing 9

effects 8

editing 9

writing 10

SW SCORE: 45

4.5 out of 5 🐙

++

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was an adaptation of the play of the same name by the legendary Tennessee Williams. The dialogue, as with most Williams’ works, is remarkable. It is always an impossible shade of amazing. I’m fixing to sprinkle some of these brilliant lines throughout the remainder of this review. They all either made me chortle or hit me in the “soul-ar” plexus.

I haven’t seen enough of Williams’ works to assert this, but he does seem to focus on the south and broken people coming together. As far as storytelling goes, I don’t have a preference for Dixie over the north, so it’s not a criticism. And I suppose most of the interesting characters are interesting because they are broken when we meet them. Otherwise, where would the character development come from?

Ha: “Not looking at a fire doesn’t put it out.”

The movie is about a dysfunctional southern family, with the principal players being Maggie (Elizabeth Taylor) and her husband Brick (Paul Newman). They are staying in the family home along with Gooper (Jack Carson) and Mae (Madeline Sherwood) when the flick starts, and it’s clear that pretty much all four people dislike each other. Brick is furious at Maggie. Mae dislikes Maggie. Gooper has tension with Brick. Gooper seems cold to Maggie. And Brick has nothing but contempt for Mae. Gooper seems to have tension with Brick, but of the whole tribe, he seems to be the most sane, and sadly, or maybe inevitably, the least interesting. This Old House, it’s not.

Maggie to Brick: “I’m not living with you. We occupy the same cage that’s all!”

It’s clear Brick feels Maggie is to blame for their wedded acrimony. What did she do? That’s one of the main mysteries of the film. Close behind it is the gravitational pull of the family patriarch, Big Daddy (Burt Ives), Brick and Gooper’s father. His arrival is imminent, and everyone knows something very serious about him that he does not know (well, not his wife Big Mama – played by Judith Anderson). What we do know is that Big Daddy is the source of great hate and great love, depending on which orbiting relative you ask.

Part of the aforementioned acrimony clearly stems from the fact that Big Daddy seems to covet or at least inappropriately compliment his daughter-in-law’s attractiveness. It’s pretty creepy. But she’s not bothered.

Maggie: “I think it’s mighty fine how that old fellow on death’s doorstep…takes in my shape with what I consider deserved appreciation.”

Taylor’s portrayal of Maggie is of a woman who essentially verbalizes most of her thoughts. It reminded me of her Oscar winning performance in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. And while she’s not the emotional disaster that Blanche DuBois is in A Streetcar Named Desire, but both characters are bold, loquacious women who are in desperate turmoil. Brick, on the other hand, seems to have little interest in conversation or in anything at all. Newman portrays him with a seething anger that is either expressly exploding but always bubbling under his sad expression.

Lest we consider Maggie’s description of her father-in-law’s unseemly esteem, Maggie gives Big Daddy a car ride to the house, and he’s practically hitting on her, and, yes, it’s gross. Her father-in-law wants her, but her husband wants nothing to do with her. And she won’t give up.

Brick: “Don’t make a fool of yourself, Maggie.”

Maggie: “I don’t mind making a fool of myself over you.”

God, Paul Newman’s eyes are an impossible shade of blue.

It turns out Big Daddy has terminal cancer and the Doctor along with his children have conspired to keep this information from him. That’s a little bit of a spoiler but this movie is 62 years old and it sets up a major plot thread for the rest of the movie so cut me some slack. It’s amazing to me that a doctor would not tell a patient the truth. Is that really how things used to be? It reminded me of a southern American version of The Farewell, except everyone in that family loved the dying grandparent.

Brick: “I tried to kill your Aunt Maggie…but I failed.”

It’s easy to see why Brick doesn’t like Big Daddy. It’s not easy to see why anyone likes him. He’s abrasive and foul-mouthed and conceited and delusional. Burt Ives doesn’t play him as a human being. He is more than that; he is menace personified. He is bereft of any joy and in its place, only perpetual threat. He’s a monster and a man at the same time, almost falling over the line into caricature.

I can really relate to Brick despising his father. I don’t despise mine but I have a complete antipathy towards another relative and I can feel the grating sensation Brick feels when his relatives try to convince him to love someone he does not.

The anger Brick has towards Maggie centers on the tragic death of Brick’s best friend. Everyone wants to know why Skipper killed himself, and it seems everyone has a different explanation. It’s a sort of southern Rashomon..

I love how the big mystery is slowly revealed over time. I mean, duh, Williams is a master.

I won’t discuss the big reveals in spoiler level detail, but suffice it to say it contains themes that I did not think the silver screen addressed in the 50s. The sexuality dynamics and psychological swamps could fit right into any contemporary noir or drama. The reveals are also mostly revealed under the cover of a vicious thunderstorm. I’m sure Williams was not the first to use weather to accentuate a key moment in a story, but the cinematography during these scenes was really raw and the water felt like it was the world tearing down on these people.

Big Daddy: “The truth is pain and sweat…paying bills and making love to a woman that you don’t love anymore. The truth is dreams that don’t come true…and nobody prints your name in the paper till you die.” Despite his pronouncements that he is a great success, he also harbors the notion that life is just disappointment.

Big Daddy: “I’ve got a million clicks in my guts. Knives sharpening themselves.” What imagery!

Big Daddy: “Here’s to my…last birthday.” A fine gallows toast.

SPOILER ALERT: I’m about to discuss the final exchange, so tap out if you want to go in fresh.

The final exchange between Brick and Big Daddy perfectly crystallize the melancholy realization that Big Daddy was happy once, but he did not realize it until it was gone. It’s a rare moment of vulnerability by Big Daddy, the hard, imperious patriarch. It’s heartbreaking.

Big Daddy: “We were running to catch a freight and his heart gave out. You know something? That lousy old tramp died laughing”

Brick: “Laughing at what?”

Big Daddy: “Himself, I guess. A hobo tramp…not a nickel in his jeans. No future, no past. Or maybe he was laughing because he was happy.”

Brick: “Happy at having you with him. He took you everywhere, and he kept you with him.”

Big Daddy: “I don’t want to talk about that. Yeah, I loved him. I reckon I never loved anything as much as that…Iousy old tramp.”

The film has a bit more to give after this last question and answer between Big Daddy and Brick. I wish Williams had ended this play after Brick’s response, but who am I to criticize a legend?

Big Daddy: “I’ve got the guts to die…do you have the guts to live?”

Brick: “I don’t know.” 

Brick’s plaintive response is one of the most honest admissions in film history. Who does know?

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(1) Shark Wrighter (SW) Score: Based on a sum of 5 sub-scores (acting, directing, writing/story, effects: cinematography &/or animation &/or effects, editing) with 1 being terrible and 10 being terrific.

(2) Octopuses (0-5 🐙, with 5 being fantastic and 0 being feces)

(3) Octopuses are my unquantifiable feeling…not that SW score is scientific…but this one is even less so

(4) ++ This optional section includes any incredibly *brilliant observations that don’t fit into simple quantitative slices like the scores and octopuses *(they are likely NOT brilliant)

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