The primary struggle in Richard Brook’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) is not one typically associated with the American South. For Brick (Paul Newman), depressive alcoholism seems to be the result of any number of causes—regret that he is older and can’t be the star athlete he used to be, humiliation over his wife’s betrayal, grief over his friend Skipper’s suicide, shame over his feelings of guilt for the suicide, or something else. In the end, as he and his father Big Daddy (Burl Ives) confess to one another in the basement cluttered with family acquisitions, it’s suggested that the root cause of his problems is that his father never truly loved him. Given Brick’s behavior and mood throughout the film, this explanation seems inadequate—the disconnect between Brick’s mood and the ultimate explanations for it leave the film seeming empty.
The reason, of course, is that the Brooks screenplay strips away the theme of homosexuality from the stage play, provides a happy ending to replace the desperately despairing one that Tennessee Williams originally wrote. In the play Brick doesn’t drink because his daddy didn’t love him enough or because he thinks his best friend slept with his wife—he drinks because he loved Skipper, and his own failings along with those of the oppressive world in which they lived prevented them from fully accepting or expressing those feelings. In the film, it’s hinted that Skipper loved Brick in an unnatural way that Brick himself rejected. When Big Daddy hints at this possibility, Brick blames him for dragging the friendship through the gutter, but that’s as far as this 1958 film is willing to go.
The film Cat on a Hot Tin Roof requires that Maggie’s (Elizabeth Taylor) struggle to win back her husband’s affections will actually succeed. In the play, we realize that it won’t. Maggie’s struggle then seems more one of economic and personal survival. So wants to conceive a child with Brick so that she can breed her way into the family and thereby into Big Daddy’s inheritance. In the play she’s less sympathetic and more conniving than in the film—she’s more like her competitor Mae (Gooper’s wife). In the film it’s love she’s after, and a family. Yes, she wants the inheritance, but she wants it as much for Brick as for herself. She sees Gooper as unsuitable and incapable of carrying the family name forward (despite his five children—and one on the way—with May). In the film Gooper and May care far more about the inheritance than they do about Big Daddy, while in the play they are much closer to the same level as Maggie the cat.
The film carefully positions itself as a Southern film by way of iconography. The family lives in a large traditional Southern mansion with columns and porticos. Black house workers serve guests. Big Daddy’s farm is 25,000 acres (we’re repeatedly reminded). Everyone speaks with a heavy Southern accent, though not heavy enough to seem false. May’s children, trained to march and sing for Big Daddy’s entertainment, carry a Confederate battle flag with them when they go to greet him at the airport and when they march around the house playing “Dixie.” (The film does a good job of conveying Williams’ distaste for children—these are among the most distasteful children on American film).
In fact, these Southern symbols are simply decoration. Race, Southern nationalism, traditional regional culture, have little to do with the concerns of the film. Patriarchy, patrimony, gender, class—these are the central issues. They are part of Southern history and culture, but they are part of culture and history in general. Perhaps the most “Southern” element in the film is the class division. Maggie comes from a poor, lower-class background. Her need to survive, her desire for Brick to take possession of the patrimony that is his by right (at least everyone in the film seems to think so, except Gooper and May--and Gooper is the older of the sons). By marrying into Brick’s family, and by giving birth to a child, presumably a son, she will acquire the necessary means of survival. In the play, Maggie is an equivocal character. It’s never clear whether her love for Brick is stronger than her desire for wealth, or whether the two motives have become so entwined that they can’t be separated. Brick’s possible homosexuality complicates the issue of Maggie’s love even further. In the film, though Maggie makes clear that she wants Brick to receive Big Daddy’s patrimony, her love for him is the driving force in her behavior. There’s no issue of homosexuality to complicate of confuse her motives. Mae comes from an upper-class family that has lost its wealth. She had a privileged upbringing, but needs the inheritance from Big Daddy so that she and Gooper and their progeny can live in the lifestyle she wants. Love does not drive her behavior; pure greed and the desperate need to cling to some vestige of family name and honor are what drive her.
Another aspect of class in the film is Big Daddy and his origins. Although we may speak of Brick as taking possession of his patrimony, it is not as if Big Daddy’s family is descended from Southern aristocracy. His story is a rags to riches tale. As a young boy he rode the rails with his father, who bequeathed to him only an empty suitcase, a hat, and memories. He says he was driven to acquire wealth so that he could share material things with the people he loved, his wife and his sons, though Brick says he substituted things for love. (This acquisitive substitution of possessions for love echoes Citizen Kane, 1941). And in his ambition he seems to have driven off or dismissed any conventional connections to his family. Big Daddy says he had to pretend to love Big Momma for 40 years. He makes no bones of preferring Brick to Gooper, or of intensely disliking Gooper’s children. In a sense Big Daddy is another version of Faulkner’s Flem Snopes, or of the Faulknerian patriarch Will Varner in The Long Hot Summer.
The film Cat on a Hot Tin Roof offers a redemptive conclusion for everyone (but Mae and Gooper) that is hollow to the core. Brick and Big Daddy come to an understanding. Maggie tells her lie, Brick doesn’t betray her, and together they proceed up the stairs to the bedroom where they will make the lie into truth. Big Daddy invites Big Momma to walk out on the farm and survey the land. By stripping away the issue in the play that ties everything together—Brick and Skipper’s forbidden love—the film denies itself necessary logical underpinnings of Williams’ play. Instead we have a lot of loud people yelling for sustained periods of increasing monotony and then a kind of family harmony. We have a claustrophobic domestic drama that in the end makes little sense.
But Cat on a Hot Tin Roof reminds us what Elizabeth Taylor was like at her height, and Burl Ives gives the best performance of his career, the “Little White Duck” notwithstanding.