By: KJ Hamilton
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof – dir. Richard Brooks – 1958
It is in times of crisis when someone’s true colors really shine through. It is also during these times when we reach the realization that we are not who we perceive ourselves to be.
Set in 1950’s New Orleans, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is the screen adaptation of the play by Tennessee Williams. It is the predecessor of the contemporary dysfunctional family. Our story begins with the drunken mishaps of a former athlete, whose career was cut short and who longs to hear the roar of the crowds again. That is all Brick Pollitt (Paul Newman) knows and cares about—besides whiskey. Brick is a former professional football player who comes from a wealthy Southern family. He’s married to Maggie (Elizabeth Taylor), who is at first unsuccessful in her attempts to sway her husband’s attention from alcohol and his obsession over the unfortunate death of his best friend and teammate. Brick is convinced that his wife had an affair with his best friend, and hardly acknowledges her presence or even her existence. They are childless; a fact which displeases the patriarch of the family.
Big Daddy (Burl Ives) returns home from having exploratory surgery. It’s his sixty-fifth birthday, and he’s received an excellent report from Dr. Baugh (Larry Gates). He dotes on his son Brick and Maggie, but is aggravated by the many offspring of his eldest son, Gooper (Jack Carson) and his wife Mae (Madeleine Sherwood); who is about to bring forth yet another addition to the Pollitt family. Gooper and Mae do everything and anything they can to put themselves first on Big Daddy’s radar, but it is not because they genuinely love Big Daddy. They want control of the farm and its attached thousands of acres. They want money.
Maggie isn’t much better. She grew up dirt poor and never wants to be such again. She is determined to win Big Daddy’s affections—even if it means that her father-in-law eyes her every time he sees her—and prevent herself and her husband from being kicked out of the family once Big Daddy passes on. Brick soon learns that Dr. Baugh lied about Big Daddy’s prognosis: terminal cancer. It cannot be stopped. Brick goes into a drunken fit, and eventually tells his father the truth. Everything grinds to a halt. Big Daddy retires to a cluttered cellar. Brick returns to his room to have another drink. Dr. Baugh wishes he “…had a pill to make people disappear.” Gooper and Mae waste no time telling Big Momma (Judith Anderson) the real prognosis. He then produces legal documents (he’s a lawyer only because Big Daddy told him to become a lawyer) and insists that he should inherit everything. Maggie steps in to fight for her husband. Meanwhile, the only one who seems to care about Big Daddy enough to actually make a trip down to the cellar is Britt; which isn’t easy since he broke his leg during his drunken adventure at the beginning of the film. They have a long talk and work out the differences between them. Brick insists he doesn’t want his father’s land or money. All he’s ever wanted was love; which isn’t given through material things. As The Beatles sang, “Money can’t buy you love.”
Money can, however, bring out who people really are. Gooper and Mae excel at pretense. They parade their children around like trophies and expect everyone to congratulate and love them for procreating. But, all they’re really after is the inheritance: money and land. Dr. Baugh was perhaps a worse villain, though. He chose to lie about the test results and give Big Daddy a clean bill of health just because he was rich and kept company with influential people. It didn’t matter that Big Daddy was going to suffer great pain. No, the good doctor compromised his ethics and his oath to gain the favor of his wealthy client.
Maggie, in the end, dug in her claws and very nearly came to blows with Mae. Her brother and sister-in-law insisted that Britt couldn’t inherit anything because of the alcohol. Although I’m not convinced that the money was no longer important to her, her husband was the more important fight and Maggie would not allow him to be victimized.
So, in the end, their true colors turned out to be the exact opposite of who they believed themselves to be. Not the sweet, doting couple at all, Mae and Gooper showed their fangs when threatened with the idea that they would end up with nothing. Talk about two-faced. Britt was an alcoholic, yes, but for the wrong reasons. When it was time to face the music, he was the only one who showed any compassion for his father. While everyone was upstairs arguing, Britt was in the cellar with his father.
Maggie bordered on obsession with her husband’s inheritance, but when it came right down to it; her love for him surpassed her obsession. She said that her husband’s lack of desire (sexual and otherwise) for her made her feel like a cat on a hot tin roof. I think that the title has a duel meaning. One is the obvious vent of sexual frustration. The other is the desire to let your true self go and not pretend. Every single person in that house lived and worked in pretense. And, the only ones who ended up happy were the two who, in the end, decided that love was more important than pretense and lies.