Adaptations are nothing new. However, the effectiveness of some could very well depend on when it was made. Time is going to heavily influence how the final film looks and what messages are put across in the story. There very well could be very little that makes the film resonate and only become that of a learning opportunity.
The Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”, based on the play of the same name by Tennessee Williams, is nothing short of amazing entertainment! Yes, it’s dated in places (ahem confederate flag, treatment/view of women in the role of wife) but that doesn’t stop it from being an enthralling and captivating drama all the way around. There’s so much to get and enjoy, that it can be both a learning opportunity and an enjoyable film. I’ve seen it numerous times, each on Turner Classic Movies (TCM) and am constantly amazed at the intelligence that can be found throughout the film. If anything, this film is worth at least one viewing because of the commentary that exists and not only serves as your way in to each character, but to society as a whole.
Family Is Forever
Family may be forever, but that doesn’t mean you’re always going to like your family. In this case, you’re bound to just about downright hate them. That’s where all the drama comes into play, as there are so many family issues left unresolved, that it’s a wonder it took this special family gathering for them all to boil over. They’ve clearly been bubbling under the surface for some time, but now that they’re all together and capable of seeing each other, it’s just too much to handle.
Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor are but the starting point of this big family drama. They play Brick and Maggie, two people who don’t very much care for each other. They seem to be in this marriage out of convenience, but why? In this duo, Taylor’s the sympathetic one. She’s clearly trying to be the best wife possible and be loved by Newman, but he’s putting up as many walls as possible. This in turn leads to Taylor having her own share of issues that stem from the family thinking she’s largely to blame. She can’t satisfy her husband, and among other things, it’s her doing. It’s really not all that fair, but it’s par for the course of the time. Newman, at first, just seems like a drunk, who, because of this, is nothing more than an asshole. While he’s fascinating uttering the words given to him, and looking like he’d really rather be anywhere else, which he did for a while, there was still enough of a way to find him sympathetic. He was torturing himself, which only infected every other relationship he had with his family. Hence his family drama that finds him as being viewed as nothing more than a drunk. And even with all this going on, it’s never dull. Looking away is impossible, which says a lot about the writing itself and the performances by Newman and Taylor. Somehow, I find both of these performances to be two of my favorites of what I’ve seen of their respective work thus far.
Burl Ives and Judith Anderson play Big Daddy and Big Momma Pollitt, and while Ives plays his part exceedingly well at the start, Anderson doesn’t do much more than seem to stand in the back. She occasionally says things, but it’s not until the film enters hour two does she come alive. Anderson really manages to find a voice of her own, and while it’s unfortunate that she has to be devastated by news of Ives’s illness, it’s great to see her put her horrible daughter-in-law in her place. Comedy isn’t something that is part of this film all that much, but some of the best moments do come characters need to be smacked around a bit. Ives, on the other hand, is prickly. He’s all sharp edges, and in some ways, it’s understandable why he’s got difficult relationships with his kids. He’s not cuddly. But in his gruffness and the search for why he has so many problems with his family, there’s a lot to love about him. You have to search, but it’s there.
Jack Carson and Madeleine Sherwood’s Gooper and Mae are just horrible people. They’re terrible parents, as you’ll see below, and more concerned about their future than anything else. They’re also very much against the mere existence of Newman and Taylor’s characters. While at first it just seems they’re annoying gnats, they eventually start to show who they are the film continues and more and more truths become evident. All decorum is thrown out the window. When you look at these two, they’re the relatives you most hate to associate with because they only care for themselves. Ives’s character is really sick, and instead of showing sadness and sympathy for the inevitable outcome, they just want to ensure the family’s estate is properly taken care of, preferably by them and only them. It’s vile and disgusting and I can’t feel anything but hate towards them. While there may seem like hope for the family by film’s end, even with all of these issues with Gooper and Mae, all I can view them as is ungrateful and not worthy of any positive thoughts.
Children Should Neither Be Seen Nor Heard
Children in films are almost a requirement. You’ll be hard pressed to not see at least one child in most films. However, which I didn’t think possible, most children serve their narrative purpose, even if they aren’t the focal point in any way, shape or form, but manage to do so without you wanting to crawl through the screen and strangle them. Not so with the children in this film. They’re the worst children I’ve ever seen on film, and after the little boy in “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore”, I didn’t think anyone could be worse than him. The rudeness and persistent presence of these children sometimes serves a nice comedic running gag, but largely, I just want one of the characters to put them in their place. Sadly, probably because the children’s parents are stupid, with stupid names such as Gooper, that’s not really a possibility. They’re blind to their children’s constant bad behavior and it really says more about their parenting abilities than anything else.
At some point, even Taylor’s Maggie comments on how it might be a sign of bad breeding. After another obnoxious and rude interruption, Taylor even shouts, “Out! Out! Out you little monster!” Sadly for Taylor’s character, her extreme dislike of Gooper and Mae’s children, which I myself share, is repeatedly used against her as some sort of sign that she doesn’t like children and that itself is why she hasn’t yet reproduced. It’s so bad that even one of the bratty children says something to this effect directly to Taylor, which you know the child picked up from listening to her mother no doubt. That’s the other problem, if you haven’t figured that out by now. Gooper and Mae are horrible people raising horrible children. Fortunately, for all, and again in a somewhat comedic manner, it’s plainly understood that Gooper and Mae and their children are not all that liked. Ives’s Big Daddy says at some point, “I can’t stand Gooper and Mae and those five screaming monkeys.” It was a great moment to witness! The truth is coming out! If it weren’t for these amazing moments, I don’t know how I’d feel about this film. Perhaps the obnoxious nature of these children and the parents would’ve overshadowed everything else and made it impossible to enjoy as much as I ultimately did.
More Than Words
While putting obnoxious and bratty children in their place, as well as witnessing intense family drama is fun and entertaining, there’s more to be gotten from this film than that. There are underlying issues being explored. The examples make most evident, but some require a bit more thought and focus on what’s going on overall. I learned that the hard way. At times it seemed like I was lost. A few times, I even found myself needing to rewind to make sure I got what was being said. I’d stupidly allowed myself to be distracted for a moment, but that’s all it took. Clearly Williams was demanding that his audience do some work when watching his play and in this film, that still remains true. Nothing was ever dumbed down, and that probably has more to do with Williams’ original play than anything.
It’s evident that what was being explored involved issues of truthfulness and the many lies that are told by the family, homosexuality, which is really truly veiled in this film, but because of time can be noticed enough, and societal norms, among others. If any of these surprised me most, it was how thoroughly complex the dance was to mention homosexuality but not mention it outright. Back then, this wasn’t something you could do in films, and in this one, it was at least semi-mentioned. It’s heavily alluded to, in that Newman had a very strong friendship with a man named Skipper, and when he died it pretty much destroyed him. This particular theme was one of the ones that, even now, with this being my third or fourth viewing, I had to stop and think for a moment. I had to trace what was being done and connect a few dots. The one that really amazed me, as it angered me the most, was all of the lying. The family only seemed to know how to lie, either for their own selfish reasons or because they don’t think the others can handle the truth. It’s just so disgusting, and to constantly be reminded of this, it’s irksome. As you’ve no doubt, possibly, figured out, Gooper and Mae are the guiltiest of this. At every other moment they’re lying through their teeth. Sure, some lying in families and for families may seem necessary, but the lengths these two characters alone, go to is unbelievable. At some point in the film, because Ives’s Big Daddy is no idiot, he even asks Newman, “Didn’t you notice a powerful and obnoxious odor of mendacity in the room?” If you didn’t already have plenty of reasons to love this character, this is definitely going to take care of that in one single moment! You may come for the experience of seeing this film, but you’ll stay for the family drama and the many themes that managed to get explored in such a short amount of time.
Originally released: Sept. 20, 1958
Director: Richard Brooks
Writers: Richard Brooks and James Poe
Starring: Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman, Burl Ives, Jack Carson, Judith
Anderson, Madeleine Sherwood, Larry Gates and Vaughn Taylor