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Synopsis: Alcoholic ex-football player Brick Pollitt (Paul Newman) and his sexually-frustrated wife Maggie (Elizabeth Taylor) are in Mississippi to celebrate the 65th birthday of Brick’s father Big Daddy (Burl Ives), who’s dying of cancer. With Brick’s brother Gooper (Jack Carson) and mean-spirited sister-in-law Mae (Madeleine Sherwood) sucking up to Big Daddy and Big Momma (Judith Anderson) in order to inherit the wealthy cotton tycoon’s land, Maggie is desperate for Brick to do something to convince his father he’s worthy of taking over the family estate. However, Brick has more on his mind than his father’s will — mainly the recent suicide of his best friend, Skipper.
Directed by Richard Brooks for MGM in 1958, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was adapted from the 1955 Tennessee Williams play of the same name. Despite the film’s enormous commercial success and six Academy Award nominations, both Williams and its star Paul Newman expressed dissatisfaction with the play’s translation to the big screen. In fact, Williams actively encouraged people waiting in line for the film not to see the movie, because he was so personally offended at the film’s bowdlerized bastardization of his work.
Broadway has always given more leeway to “controversial” works and writers than Hollywood has, which is exactly the case with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Williams intended Cat to be his personal treatise on the destructive effects of internalized homophobia on the human psyche; but with such a taboo subject at the heart of the story, the Hays Office would only allow homosexuality to be subtextually hinted at in the screen version. Therefore, with its core principles remaining unspoken, the film does not have the same impact as the play, and the message is watered down. Brick is only allowed to hint at what the play frankly proclaims and discusses, mainly the possibility of a homosexual romance between Brick and his dead friend Skipper.
It’s not that the Hollywood version whitewashes Brick into a straight character (or “straightwashes,” is that a thing?), because even in the play his sexuality and feelings toward Skipper are left somewhat ambiguous. Rather, omitting the outright admission of the possibility of homosexuality leads to a loss of depth and nuance in Brick’s character. Brick believes that his relationship with Skipper was “abnormal” because it was so pure, honest and true; they experienced an intimacy and bond that was so close it is unusual even among heterosexual couples. However, Brick denies that the relationship was “dirty,” meaning romantic or sexual – not necessarily because he wasn’t physically attracted to Skipper, but because in Brick’s mind “purity” and “homosexuality” are mutually exclusive, due to his own internalized homophobia. This is a major theme in the play which the movie glosses over.
As the fatal night of Skipper’s suicide is explained in the movie, Maggie had intended to sleep with Skipper to make Brick turn against his friend, but she was too afraid Brick would end up blaming her instead and so she ran away. Then Skipper phoned Brick to confess that he was scared of Brick losing faith in him due to his poor performance on the football field that day. In the play, after failing in his attempts to make love to Maggie due to his absence of desire for her, Skipper phones Brick to tell him that he is in love with him; whether or not Brick loves Skipper back he cannot say, and so instead he hangs up and Skipper commits suicide, for which Brick blames himself. Whether Skipper killed himself due to his own inability to face his love for Brick or because of Brick’s presumed rejection is also left ambiguous, and it’s partially this ambiguity that haunts Brick and leads him to drink. Brick is further disturbed because he still cannot say whether his relationship with Skipper was an extraordinary friendship or a homosexual romance, because in his preconceived notions of what homosexuality entails, he cannot fathom that true, deep love could have more to do with it than base carnal desire. Because it was verboten to allude to the fact that Brick maybe might just possibly have had romantic or sexual feelings toward Skipper, his internal struggle and cognitive dissonance with the mingling of “purity” and “homosexuality” are lost in the film. It’s a disservice to the character, and I can see why it was insulting to the playwright.
However, the film not only disrespects Williams’ work by the crime of omission, but also by the crime of addition. The third act of the movie includes a reconciliation between Brick and Big Daddy in which Brick suggests that he looked up to Skipper as a father figure. “If you wanted someone to lean on, why Skipper?” Big Daddy asks. “Why not me? I’m your father.” “You don’t know what love means,” Brick retorts. “To you it’s another four-letter word.” Later, after Big Daddy tries to tell Brick that the entire property will be left to him, Brick says, “Can’t you understand? I never wanted your place or money. I don’t want to own anything! All I wanted was a father, not a boss! I wanted you to love me.” At the last minute, the film goes the Rebel Without A Cause route and attempts to explain away Brick’s affection for Skipper as simply an unloved child seeking a strong father figure. Needless to say, this entire sequence was absent from the stage version and is profoundly at odds with Williams’ intended core message about homophobia. Furthermore, to imply that Brick sought out Skipper because of the childhood trauma of not getting enough love from his father pathologizes homosexual desire and makes it a “symptom” of mental anguish.
I’m highlighting these lowlights simply to get us thinking critically about depictions of homosexuality in classic film; but when it comes down to it I still love the movie version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Even if it’s unfaithful to its source material, it’s a gorgeous movie to look at and features brilliant performances by all its principal cast. If one doesn’t compare it to the play (which I like better, simply because the original subject matter is more interesting to me) it stands up quite well on its own, although at times it can feel slightly uneven and a bit wordy. Certainly not the best screen adaptation of a Tennessee Williams work, but I am a firm believer that you should take any chance you can get to look at Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman for 107 minutes. The sexual chemistry and tension between the two has not been matched on screen before or since, due mainly to Taylor’s sultry performance. The queer theorist part of me finds the movie lacking, yet the film fan part of me finds it irresistible. This is a film blog, after all, so this time, my cinephile half wins out.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) – 4/5 stars