Top Fifty Films of the 50s — Number Forty-Eight


#48 — Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Richard Brooks, 1958)
I believe the current consensus is that Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is supposed to be viewed as, at best, a compromised adaptation of the Tennessee Williams play of the same name. Within its constrained content, tempered emotion, and finessed conclusion resides all the cowardice of Hollywood in the middle of the century, when the Production Code still held sway. Williams himself loathed it, feeling the film version so downplayed the themes of homosexual desire, particularly the way that societal rejection of such love could destroy people, that the work was actually counter-productive. The seeming sanitation of his artistic intent was understandably upsetting to him, but it’s worth considering the clarity of the message in the film on its own terms rather than against the stage play. In my reckoning, there’s not a whole lot of mystery as to why former track star Brick Pollitt (Paul Newman) is so broken up about the suicide of his friend Skipper. Furthermore, any restraint in the specificity about the concerns of Brick’s family is actually in keeping with the stigma that would surround the suspicions about the relationship between the two men. Whether in veiled taunts from his wife Maggie (Elizabeth Taylor) or the tense shame of others, the reluctance in communication actually works. That’s not to argue that it works better, but it does work.

Certainly some of that is attributable to the performances that suggest layers beneath layers. This is exactly the sort of role that played to Newman’s greatest strengths at the time. He played damaged, vulnerable golden boys like no one before or sense, and his wounded, confused masculinity has a feverish intensity. And Taylor blasts the screen with the impatiently aggravated authority that would blossom into a toxic rose almost a decade later in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Their accomplishment is joined by that of Burl Ives as Big Daddy, the imperious, mortally panicked patriarch of the southern family. It’s exactly the sort of big showy role that’s made for bold grandstanding. Ives certainly indulges in some of that, though with a strong indication of the aching psychological underpinnings of the man. The decay of the southern lifestyle is laced through performance.

Director Richard Brooks had a clear affinity for the works of Williams (four years later he recruited Newman for the lead in an adaptation of Sweet Bird of Youth). Despite the alterations that perturbed the playwright, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is notable for its clear reverence for the original work. In bringing it to the screen, Brooks saw no real need to open up the work. It unfolds like a transferred play. If anything, Brooks almost calls attention to the structural soundness of the dramaturgy, as if his goal is to present the writerly skill of Williams to the audience. Brooks is less interesting in making the mechanics of the story invisible than he is in celebrated the heightened emotions, the very floridness of it all. To that end, he’s remarkably skillful in the assembly of the film, sharpening the emotional intensity in a way that challenges the notion that the work has buffed down the pricklier elements of the story. If Brooks felt he had to jettison some specifics, he found other deeply satisfying ways to get at the pure, precarious truths of the work.

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