Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)
Not rated and I don't even know where to take this review. Fundamentally, this is a movie about sexuality. But knowing that it is a Hollywoodized adaptation for a movie about far more than what we're seeing on screen, it's both raw and intense while simultanously being overly sanitized for America's protection. It does involve cruelty and drinking and there is a lot of sex talk. Also, there's the love for the Confederacy that was part of Lost Cause Theory in this one. Still, not rated.
DIRECTOR: Richard Brooks
I did something that is very not me. I watched the movie before I read the play. That's something I shouldn't do with a movie that has a history like this. I knew that Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was a thematic departure from Tennessee Williams's original script. There's a reason that he didn't get credit for writing this script, even as a co-author. It's because this is a movie that is so afraid of saying anything that it's a miracle that some people can still consider the movie to be a classic. Okay, let me give a little background and it might give me the inspiration to write for the next half-hour.
Next week, I'm teaching A Streetcar Named Desire. It's going to be a speedrun, unfortunately. (Completely off-topic, it was an incredibly productive year.) But I show a little documentary on Tennessee Williams and I know all about his homosexuality and the drinking and the suicide in the family. The documentary goes into Cat on a Hot Tin Roof a lot, so I thought that I should finally catch up on that one. Normally, I watch a staged production of the play before watching the movie. Why not read the play? Because plays are meant to be seen. (Then I read it. I'm obsessive and it's probably healthy that I'm bending instead of staying rigid.) But I Googled and couldn't find a production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof that was filmed available that wasn't amateur footage of a college production. (I'm also super judgey, I realize.) So I was stuck with the film version, which is considered a classic. Anyway, I know that the documentary mentioned that the movie version had to make some pretty intense changes because it was going to be made into a film. So I did some research, read some summaries, and boy...those changes are substantial.
The story of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is first and foremost about the shame of homosexuality. Dealing with Tennessee Williams's own status in society, he has Brick being the avatar for him. This is a guy who feels washed up and a has been. He was the star and forced into a world where heterosexuality is expected of him. His stardom overwhelms his sense of self. Okay. But that's not the movie. The movie is all about being a has-been and just not loving his wife. That's a very different story. Brick, in the movie, comes across as a bit of a narcissist (which I bet is probably true in the play too). But while the play version of the story has an unstoppable force (the need for an heir from Brick) meeting an immovable object (the fact that he is unable to be attracted to women), this immovable object is replaced by something that comes-and-goes with the weather, romance. The stakes are so much different in the movie because of this. All of the responsibility falls on Brick in the movie. All he has to do is stop drinking and make love to his wife. The problem is solved. There's a male heir for Big Daddy and that's the root of the problem. You are allowed to yell at someone for being unappreciative and drinking too much. You can't really yell at someone to stop being gay.
It's kind of what makes the ending of the movie a hot mess. Man, the end does not feel like the rest of the story at all. There's no scenario where Tennessee Williams wrote that ending. From what I know about Williams, he's the guy who says that some problems can't be solved; they can just get worse. But then there's this movie, which tonally changes and Brick just gets his act together in a minute. Maggie comes across as entirely too sympathetic in this movie. She still does that really odd thing, pretending to be pregnant to ensure that Gooper and Mae don't have a claim to Big Daddy's estate. But that problem is mostly solved by the agreement that they're going to try. I know that the play has Brick taking sympathy on Maggie by getting her out of that jam, but that's a stay of execution versus a solution to the problems that Big Daddy is facing. Like, I don't know. I can't stress enough how much the movie misses the point of the play because it censored the key conceit of the story. Why even make a movie? (I mean, the answer is clearly money. Tennessee Williams was a marketable name at the time and people be wanting money.)
But let's watch the movie for being a movie. Sometimes, knowledge isn't power. It's thing that cripples you and my anxiety is spiraling into a light depression right now. My writing has just defined my feelings. Anyway, without the homosexual thing, the Skipper thing is super cryptic. It's almost too cryptic for the story. So the thing that Brick is hung up about is that his wife seduced Skipper and didn't follow through on it? I mean, sure, that would make me mad too. But the bigger takeaway is that HBO's Succession owes a lot to the film version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. This was a coincidence, of course. We're on the finale of season two and the parallels are hilariously on point. But it is an interesting story with really weird acting. Part of that comes from the very on-point Tennessee Williams nicknames that everyone seems to really hold onto quite tightly. It's so hard to take the acting seriously when everyone's like "Sister Woman" this and "Big Daddy" that. I know. It's Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor. I thing they do a fine job (although Brick is just a bit too handsome for that role and I can't stop thinking of Tennessee Williams in that role). But it's a lot.
I will say, though, give me 20 minutes and I was hooked. I was anti-the movie for a long time. I wanted to like it from moment one, but it has a lot of stuff thrown at me. But once I was in, I was really in. Sure, the play would probably wreck me. But the movie started picking up once dynamics were messed with. The thing about the beginning of the movie is that Brick is a bully from moment one. I'm so used to Stanley and Blanche being a give and take. I don't see a lot of that in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Instead, there's a desperation in Maggie that Brick chooses to negate a lot. But then when the tables are turned and Brick has to confront Big Daddy, there's something fascinating about something else to play in that moment.[ As the film continues, Brick then re-establishes control over Big Daddy. With the case of the film, it's implied that Brick instantenously got over his alcoholism. But it is in that moment that the story progresses into something that is complex. Now, I don't know about the love comment. I know what the movie is trying to say about love versus ownership. I know that Big Daddy is meant to represent domineering male personas and corporate America / the Glory of the Old South. But it also seems like a really simplistic view about love.
I do believe that Brick hits the nail on the head when he says that Big Daddy doesn't love his wife. There's a real point to be made there. But buying her things wasn't exclusively about ownership. It's about being illiterate emotionally (I'm darned proud of those words combined). Big Daddy has grown so big in his britches (oh, now, the movie has me doing it!) that he forgot what it means to be a normal person. Part of that comes from his environment. Everyone is fawning over him because of his money that he forgot what real love looks like. I want to believe that his wife really loves him, but she's so overshadowed by play acting all day that he forgets what he saw in his wife to begin with. It's frustrating, because Big Daddy isn't a villain in that scene, which Brick plays up a bit. I actually have a lot of empathy for Big Daddy because he's so lost that it's heartbreaking.
It's a good movie by itself, but it is completely tarnished by the fact that it loses the point of the original play. Too much knowledge hurt in this case.
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Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.