Sunday, 11 September 2011

Movie Review: Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (1958)

The film adaptation of Tennessee Willliams' play is both compelling and enchanting, with stunningly multi-dimensional characters peeling away layers of civility in excruciatingly delicious slow motion. Cat On A Hot Tin Roof provided Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor and Burl Ives the opportunity to deliver stellar and unforgettable career-defining roles.

The extended Pollitt family is gathering to celebrate the birthday of rich patriarch Big Daddy (Ives), who owns a plantation and hundreds of acres of land. Big Daddy's health is beginning to fail, shining the spotlight on issues of inheritance. His son Brick (Newman) is depressed, drinking heavily, and has just managed to break his ankle in a drunken attempt to run a midnight steeple chase at the local high school track.

Brick's wife Maggie (Taylor), nicknamed Cat, is at least partially the cause of her husband's angst, but Maggie also sees Brick's brother Cooper (Jack Carson) trying to nudge Brick out of the inheritance picture, with Cooper's wife and baby factory Mae (Madeleine Sherwood) giving her husband plenty of encouragement to shove Brick and Maggie aside. In a series of difficult and tense confrontations over the course of a stormy evening, Maggie, Brick and Big Daddy gradually come to terms with difficult past issues that are still dictating their present behaviour.

Elizabeth Taylor is a magnetic presence as Maggie "the Cat", with an unnerving ability to dominate any frame, even on the rare occasions when she is the secondary observer on the edge of the drama. Taylor pulls off a masterful performance combining guilt, ambition and tenacity to fight for her marriage and to ensure that her husband secures his rightful share of Big Daddy's inheritance. More than just a cat on hit tin roof, Maggie is also a cat walking through a minefield of complex familial relations and tragic legacies. Taylor's performance is all the more remarkable as she started filming three weeks after the death of her husband Mike Todd when his plane crashed, killing all on-board. Taylor was supposed to have been on the plane.

Paul Newman spends the first two thirds of the movie brooding and drinking, but comes alive in the final third, breaking through years of crusty barriers to confront the pain inflicted on him by his wife and by his father, and most painfully, the agony that he has inflicted on himself. For an actor whose career was built on cool detachment, Brick's emotional breakthrough represents some of Newman's most animated career screen time.

Big Daddy: What's that smell in this room? Didn't you notice it, Brick? Didn't you notice a powerful and obnoxious odor of mendacity in this room?... There ain't nothin' more powerful than the odor of mendacity... You can smell it. It smells like death.

Burl Ives acted in movies for five decades, but his performance as Big Daddy ranks among his most memorable screen appearances. With subtle twitches of the mouth and eyebrows, Ives, who was reprising his role from the Broadway stage production, conveys various degrees of irritation with his mostly insufferable family, while inexorably moving towards a mammoth confrontation with Brick in which both men will at least recognize their devastating weaknesses without necessarily rectifying them.

Director Richard Brooks co-wrote the screenplay with an eye to achieving modest break-outs from the theatrical trappings of the original material. He succeeds in moving the action from room to room relatively seamlessly, but there is no doubting that Cat On A Hot Tin Roof is an adaptation of a stage-bound play. The characters are the dominant element of the experience; the settings are interesting but very much secondary.

To comply with the censorship codes and public tolerances of the day, the movie adaptation strips out the homosexual sub-texts in the story. The MGM studio was perhaps marginally behind the times in pushing boundaries, but the screen version provides the space for Maggie to emerge as the forerunner of the sexual and feminist revolution of the 1960s. Maggie starts the day unloved by her husband and being eased out of Big Daddy's fortune; she ends the evening as a dazzling example of what an empowered woman is capable of.

Cat On A Hot Tin Roof is a celebration of the cleansing after-effects of soul-baring. If that is what it takes to to get the cats agitated enough to upset the status quo, then hot days and tin roofs in combination have excellent unintended side-effects.

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