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Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Classic Film Review: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)

An adaptation of Tennessee Williams's play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof tells the story of a troubled Southern family, led by Big Daddy Pollitt (Burl Ives). He is unaware that he's dying of cancer and has returned home on his 65th birthday determined to take the second chance he thinks life has offered him. But he's concerned by the fractured relationship between his alcoholic younger son, Brick (Paul Newman), and wife Maggie (Elizabeth Taylor) while his elder son, Gooper (Jack Carson) is plotting with his shrew of a wife Mae (Madeline Sherwood) to take over the business properly and shut Brick out of the equation. Rounding out the main cast is Judith Anderson as Big Momma Pollitt.

This is a stunningly strong film. You need to concentrate while watching it because the dialogue is so complex that it merits full attention. That said, the plot isn't difficult, centring around Brick's alcoholism and the trickling out of the secret about Big Daddy's health. The action is static but the performances are so brilliant that everything else does simply become a stage for them to stand on. Firstly, Elizabeth Taylor shines as Maggie and the decision to film this in colour helps keep attention on her though, really, it's difficult in scenes between her and Newman to decide who to look at. They are both captivating. Judith Anderson, equally, deserves a mention for her role as Big Momma, particularly in the wonderful scene where Gooper and Mae are trying to intimidate her. While the relationship between the matriarch and patriarch is strained, the way this develops throughout the day, with the revelations about Big Daddy's health, is very subtle and Anderson handles a difficult character with aplomb. Similarly, while character of Mae is the most odious, irritating person I've encountered in film for a while (along with her brood of kids), Madeline Sherwood does a fine job with her.

However, this film unquestionably belongs to Burl Ives. From about a third of the way through it becomes apparent that you're watching one of the best performances committed to film probably ever. There's a brilliant extended scene between Big Daddy and Brick, later joined by Maggie, which is one of the most charged moments of the entire piece but the conversation between father and son in the basement is the highlight of the film. It's just exquisite and left me in awe.

That direct references to Brick's homosexuality were cleansed from the adaptation is unsurprising and, to be honest, I don't think it makes a difference but perhaps that's just because I watch everything with an eye to the subtext anyway. Ultimately, this film is a simple story told using outstanding dialogue and some compelling actors. I lost myself in it and was genuinely surprised when I realised I'd sat transfixed for so long. It's not a film you can easily stop in the middle of a scene, one of the highest forms of praise there is in this day and age.


The Goldfish said...

I *adore* Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and it's a weird fit in the list of my favourite films (my list would be diverse, but it's hardly jam-packed with melodrama). I also think the references to Brick's homosexuality is done very well - even today, you can imagine situations where the subject would be strongly implied rather that stated plainly in a family row.

I also think that it looks gorgeous. The set and costumes - even Brick's pyjamas - are absolutely perfect. Meanwhile, I've been keeping an eye out for a dress like Maggie's pretty much my entire adult life. ;-)

CharmedLassie said...

If I got to wear that dress I'd be disappointed that it didn't turn me into Maggie - I could do with some of her cattiness!