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Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: A Family Grapples With the Difficulties of Life

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Dusty is an avid classic movie fan who wants to share movie stories and evoke conversation about them.

Movie Poster

Elizabeth Taylor is Maggie the Cat

Elizabeth Taylor is Maggie the Cat

Cast

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

1 hr. 48 mins. Drama 1958 8.0 stars

Director: Richard Brooks

Cast: Elizabeth Taylor - Maggie the Cat

Paul Newman - Brick

Burl Ives - Big Daddy

Jack Carson - Gooper

Judith Anderson - Big Mama (Ida)

Madeleine Sherwood - Mae

Larry Gates - Dr. Baugh

Note: Spoiler alert. This review reveals the outcome of the movie

Big Daddy Returns from the Clinic

Burl Ives as Big Daddy

Burl Ives as Big Daddy

Synopsis (Part 1)

It starts on a lonely Mississippi high school track late at night. Brick Pollitt, a former football hero is trying to relive his glory days by proving, if only to himself, that he’s still a great athlete. He has two things against him this particular midnight, however. One is that he’s roughly 30 years old and the other is that he’s drunk. He imagines the roar of the crowd as he sets up the high hurdles and as he then attempts to run and jump them. After a few successful hurdles his ankle meets with a hurdle and he crashes to the ground. The crowd noise of his imaginations is gone; he has broken that ankle; the glory has eluded him again.

The next day back at the family plantation Brick is laid up in his room with a cast and a crutch, nursing a whiskey. His wife, Maggie is walking across the lawn when she is attacked by her young niece with a handful of ice cream. This is not a playful food fight. It is emblematic of a feud that that has developed in that family. Maggie retaliates by smearing ice cream all over the little girl’s face. Brick’s successful brother, Gooper and family have come to the plantation to hear the medical news of the family patriarch, Big Daddy and to celebrate his birthday.

Brick is in a sour mood; he spurns Maggie’s romantic advances and clings to his drink. Thus is the mood, a mood of animosity at the Pollitt plantation.

Gooper and his family, a wife and five kids, drive off to meet Big Daddy’s plane as it returns from the cancer clinic. Maggie also drives, but separately. Brick stays home content to keep company with his bottle.

The airport belongs to the plantation and the company, Pollitt Enterprises. As the plane lands, Big Mama, the family matriarch and Dr. Baugh emerge, then Big Daddy comes out.

He has just received good news; the clinic has found no trace of cancer in him and he feels like a brand new man, the first day of the rest of his life. Big Daddy is a curmudgeonly old man who has no desire to tolerate his grandchildren though their mother tries to push them on him. Maggie has driven separately to the airport. When Big Daddy is asked by his wife if he wouldn’t rather ride back to the house with the children, he forcefully retorts, “No!” and then opts to ride back with Maggie, a daughter-in-law he finds attractive.

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Back at the house all sorts of people, family and friends hold a celebration for him, mostly for his birthday, but also for his good news. However, his son, Brick refuses to go down to the party. Instead he stays upstairs in his room nursing his drink.

Dr. Baugh comes upstairs to visit Brick under the pretense of wanting to check out his ankle. But he has a much darker reason to visit Brick; he has come to tell Brick the truth about Big Daddy’s diagnosis. The medical staff at the clinic had all lied to Big Daddy and the rest of the family. Not only did Big Daddy have cancer, but it is in fact aggressive and terminal. Brick’s older brother, Gooper, was the only other person that the doctor had revealed the truth to.

Brick wants to leave, go back to his apartment in New Orleans. He doesn’t want to deal with being around his family. He doesn’t want to be around his father at all; he doesn’t want to be around his wife. Now with this bad news that has crashed down upon them all his desire to leave is intensified. Brick tells Maggie the bad news. Maggie is saddened; she truly likes her father-in-law.

Maggie and Brick Argue Constantly

Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman

Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman

Synopsis (Part 2)

Maggie has another issue that she has been trying to discuss with Brick and that is the matter of inheritance. Big Daddy has but two sons, Gooper and Brick. Gooper is a successful attorney in Memphis and has five children and another on the way. Brick is a drunken ex-football star who can’t hold a job and has no children. Maggie knows that the more Brick pushes Big Daddy away the less likely he will get anything in Big Daddy’s will. She also knows that the more Brick pushes her away the less likely they will ever have children. And Brick does that; he pushes Maggie away constantly. There is a reason for the animosity between Maggie and Brick. It is the same reason that drove Brick to the bottle. Maggie now introduces us to that reason; it is a person named Skipper who was Brick’s teammate on the football field and his best friend. Skipper is now deceased having committed suicide several years ago. The subject of Skipper however is a lightning rod for Brick and he lashes out at Maggie.

Big Daddy comes up to see Brick and they argue. Big Daddy is furious about Brick’s drinking habit. Brick tells Big Daddy that he drinks to escape from ‘mendacity’ – the institutional lying that takes place all around them, in their culture, in their church, in their home.

Big Daddy, Maggie and Brick have a revealing argument about Skipper, about the presumptions surrounding that whole chapter in Brick’s life. Brick assumed that Skipper had an affair with Maggie, but it was not true – Brick had held that against Maggie for years. When Skipper had tried to call Brick for help, Brick refused to answer the phone and Skipper had then jumped out of an upper story window to his death. Brick has ever since felt the guilt of that event. He has used the alcohol to cope.

It is nighttime at the Pollitt plantation and it is pouring rain. Brick hobbles on his crutch out to his car; he intends to run away, but Big Daddy follows him out trying to talk sense into him. They argue and Brick lets it slip that the favorable diagnosis he received at the clinic was a lie. Brick then told him, “Mendacity is the system we all live in”

Stunned, Big Daddy walks back into the house. Maggie rushes out to attend to Brick who by this time has managed to get his car stuck in the mud and has also managed to break his crutch in two. Maggie assists him back into the house.

Big Daddy retreats to the basement. Brick, Gooper, Maggie and Mae decide it’s time to come clean to Big Mama and inform her that Big Daddy is terminal. She does not take the news well.

Brick goes down to the basement, still an angry man, but feeling bad that he’s told his father about the true clinic report. For the first time he calls his father Pa rather than Big Daddy – something Big Daddy notices and points out. Brick throws a tantrum in the basement destroying things even ruining a large picture of himself as a football star. He then breaks down in tears and weeping.

Brick tells Big Daddy that they’ve lived in the same house for years and they are still strangers. He tells Big Daddy that he, Big Daddy, owns his family but doesn’t love them. He explains that buying things for his family is not the same as loving them and then implies that love is precisely what they all lack and need.

Big Daddy goes on to talk about his father, a dirt poor hobo who rode the box cars with him when he was a child. Big Daddy said his earliest feelings were ones of shame and that eventually he buried his father in an unmarked grave along a railroad track. His father had left him virtually nothing, but that he died laughing. Brick suggested to Big Daddy that that laugh was because he had his son with him and had taken him along everywhere he went, that his father had loved him.

Big Daddy realizes that Brick was right. The tension that has festered throughout the whole movie has broken. Brick and his father then help each other back up the stairs, both with a dramatic attitude change.

Meanwhile Gooper and Mae have had legal papers drawn up to aid in the smooth transfer of the plantation from Big Daddy to them. They’re trying to get Big Mama to sign them, but she adamantly refuses. Sensing the attitude change of Brick and Big Daddy Maggie makes a bold announcement and couches it as a birthday present to Big Daddy. She announces to all that she is pregnant! Big Daddy believes her – though it’s actually untrue. Nevertheless Brick backs her up in her story. With his points of tension being alleviated he has the ability to make it become true and he summons Maggie up to the bedroom. Big Daddy and Big Mama are thrilled – inheritance is set.

Brick Tells Big Daddy the Bad News

Burl Ives and Paul Newman

Burl Ives and Paul Newman

Analysis (part 1)

Hard topics, passion and bitterness characterize the wealthy Pollitt family living on a plantation in the delta country of Mississippi during the 1950s.

Several issues arise during this treatment of a dysfunctional American family. The theme that wraps the whole movie up is spoken first by Big Daddy to Brick, “mendacity is the system we live in”. Later Brick would repeat this theme to Big Daddy. The aim of the story is to point this out to us and to demonstrate, very clearly, how destructive of a system it is.

This is a masterfully woven story that takes a glimpse at a family with broken relationships plain for all to see except the members of that family who are willfully blind to their own interpersonal failures.

The broken relationships play out most prominently in the marriage of Brick and Maggie, which from the start appears to not be any sort of marriage at all. Another prominent dysfunctional relationship is between Brick and his father, Big Daddy. It is clear that their problem goes back a long way. In fact it is the reconciliation of that relationship that serves as the catalyst to the solution of all the family’s problems.

Big Daddy himself is a problem for the entire family because he has failed to relate to them in any meaningful way, but he doesn’t realize it. Big Daddy had never learned that message of the old adage, “money can’t buy love”. Money and plenty of it is what the family had, but love is what they desperately needed and lacked.

Big Daddy’s personality has probably set the stage for the family’s abysmal condition. His older son, Gooper, has excelled in the practice of law, but while successful he is not satisfied. He has five kids and they are brats or as their Aunt Maggie calls them, “no neck monsters”. Gooper’s wife, Mae, is more than eager to have Big Daddy deed his property lock stock and barrel to her and Gooper. They are discussing inheritance because Big Daddy has been away at a clinic being tested for cancer. They’re primary concern seems to be their place in the will.

Brick, the younger son, on the other had wants nothing to do with Big Daddy. Though Brick feels this way, he is the favorite son.

Maggie’s aim in all this is to protect Brick’s interests even though he doesn’t want it. She would like to have the property, but more importantly she doesn’t want Brick to be cheated out of his share. Maggie tells Brick that sometimes she feels like a cat on a hot tin roof and tells him she’ll win. Later, when Brick asks, “What is the victory of a cat on a hot tin roof?” Maggie replies, “Just staying on I guess, long as she can”.

Brick and Maggie have their own issues. Those issues interconnect with Brick’s self-destructive alcoholism and with his disdain for his father. Brick is under the impression that Maggie, his wife, had an affair with his best friend and teammate, Skipper. One fateful night in the past Skipper had tried to talk to Brick and Brick hung up on him. Skipper responded by jumping out of an upper story window of the hotel he was staying in thus committing suicide. Maggie had been there and Brick ended up blaming her for the whole problem. He then resorted to alcohol and their marriage was ‘in name only’ hence no children, and no grandchildren for Big Daddy.

A cruel trick is placed on Big Daddy. The cancer clinic reported no evidence of cancer, but it was a lie! The family was told that because they wanted Big Daddy to be happy especially on his birthday. One by one the doctor told the truth to the sons and their wives. The lot of fate fell to Brick to divulge the truth to Big Daddy during the heat of an argument. The scene was set outside in a driving rain storm, probably to heighten effect. But that scene started the ball rolling on the solution to their relationship problems. Of course telling everyone at first that there was nothing physically wrong with Big Daddy was a colossal example of the mendacity that they lived with every day.

They Tell Big Mama the Bad News

Jack Carson, Larry Gates, Judith Anderson, Elizabeth Taylor, Madeleine Sherwood

Jack Carson, Larry Gates, Judith Anderson, Elizabeth Taylor, Madeleine Sherwood

Analysis (part 2)

The issue of Maggie’s affair with Skipper was laid to rest when she recounted the events of that night and stated categorically that she had remained faithful to Brick. Up to that time Brick had refused to even allow her to speak of it, not allowed her to explain the events of that night. It was Big Daddy who forced them to speak openly and for the first time in years.

The greatest breakthrough of the movie and the scene which breaks the log jam of everyone’s dysfunctionalism comes in the basement scene. Big Daddy had retreated to his basement to suffer silently and look at all the junk he had accumulated over the years.

Brick goes down to talk with him calling him Pa. This is the first time in the movie when he or anyone else called his father anything other than Big Daddy and it is significant. Brick was softened just a little by the truth that came out in the Skipper and Maggie conversation, but he wasn’t done confronting his father. Down in the basement Brick had a tantrum in which he destroyed several items including a large picture of himself as a football star. The tantrum shocked Big Daddy. His father began showing him all the things he had bought for his family, a proof in his eyes of his love for them, but Brick and his father then discussed Brick’s grandfather and how he left Big Daddy nothing but shame. Brick countered that he had left him love and implied that its value far outweighed these things stored up in the basement.

Big Daddy’s will broke when he admitted that he had loved his father. After the break through Big Daddy confronted Brick and said, “I’m willing to die. What I want to know is if you’re willing to live.” From that moment on there was real peace between Brick and Big Daddy and they helped each other up the stairs. Once back on the main level of the house the two changed men dealt with the family noticeably different.

The movie reinforces both the conflict and the reconciliation of Brick and Big Daddy by subtle means. Take for example a hand extended to help someone up. There are three scenes where this gesture is displayed. During one of the heated argument scenes Brick suddenly stopped stonewalling his father when Big Daddy mentioned Brick’s friend, Skipper. That struck a nerve. Shortly after that when Brick fell down Big Daddy offered his hand to help him up, but Brick sternly refused his help. Much later, in the basement Big Daddy was on the floor and when Brick extended his hand to help, Big Daddy refused. Finally after Brick and Big Daddy reached a point of reconciliation and they needed to climb back up out of the basement Big Daddy held out his hand to Brick and suggested that they could help each other up the stairs.

Maggie announced that she was expecting - not totally true, but the barriers that had stood in the way were now obviously removed. Her announcement reflected the changes seen in Brick and Big Daddy, and Big Mama. As well Gooper acknowledged the same. Big Daddy invited Big Mama to walk the property with him before he had to give it up.

Somehow Brick and Big Daddy found a way to untangle the knot of mendacity that had long entangled the lives in their family. It is the story of a family with deep interpersonal animosities grappling and defeating those animosities to insure peace and harmony as one generation passes to the next.

The Basement Scene

Paul Newmand and Burl Ives

Paul Newmand and Burl Ives

Movie Trailer

Big Mama Confronts Maggie

Mendacity

Brick Tells Big Daddy the Bad News That He's Terminal

The Basement Scene (part 1)

The Basement Scene (part 2)

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