The familiar strains of Charles Wolcott’s soundtrack to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof [directed by Richard Brooks,1958] is resolutely upbeat, even with the darker undertones. As soon as the music starts, through my many viewings of this movie, I know I’m in for a treat. I know it’s going to be an epic journey. With the sad passing of Elizabeth Taylor, I wanted to pay homage to one of my favorite characters she played – Maggie the Cat.
As a child, I loved watching Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet [Clarence Brown, 1944] – connecting with this quiet, earnest girl with the wide eyes and trembling voice. For a period of time [the horse period all young girls go through], this movie was a daily ritual. But as I grew up, Elizabeth Taylor grew up too in the films I was exposed to. She became poised, confident, strong and unapologetic. She lived life on her own terms – making choices she paid for dearly – but she owned it. And I’ve admired her courage all along the way.
Put aside for the moment Tennessee Williams’ brilliant play and Burl Ives’ incredibly moving performance and absolutely everything about Paul Newman – I love Elizabeth Taylor in this movie. In the stifling Southern summer, she comes across cool and self-aware, self-possessed though on the verge of breakdown, vulnerable, full of quiet longing and noisier demands.
‘I feel all the time like a cat on a hot tin roof,’ she says to Brick.
‘Then jump off the roof, Maggie,’ Brick responds. ‘Cats jump off the roof all the time and they land on their feet.’
‘Jump where? Into what?’ she asks incredulously.
‘Take a lover,’ Brick nearly spits the words at her.
‘I don’t deserve that,’ she says. ‘I can’t see any man but you, even with my eyes closed I just see you…I’m more determined than you think. I’ll win alright.’
‘Win what? What is the victory of a cat on a hot tin roof?’
‘Just staying on it, I guess, long as she can.’
Throughout the film Maggie holds herself at a bit of a remove from the rest of the group. In the face of his dreadful family, she keeps her composure. And when she turns sultry – her white slip with lace trim hugging every gorgeous curve – she sizzles and it’s only with superhuman strength that Paul Newman as Brick is able to treat her with indifference.
One of my favorite scenes is when Maggie is first trying to broach the subject of Skipper with Brick in the bedroom, the party underway downstairs. They shout at each other – Maggie trying to tell him what happened in the hotel room and Brick trying his hardest to stop her – him chasing her around the room with his crutch. In the fever pitch of the scene, he swings his crutch at Maggie, narrowly misses her and falls to the floor from the effort. Then one of the no-neck monsters [Brick’s niece] comes in, shooting a cap gun and breaking the intensity of the moment.
‘What are you doing on the floor?’ the no-neck monster asks.
‘I tried to kill your aunt Maggie…’ Brick says. ‘But I failed and I fell.’
He looks at Maggie, sitting on the bed, tears streaming down her face, and they share an intimate, rueful laugh.
It’s so touching.
With the storm outside mirroring the storm inside, truth bursts through like a lightning bolt. And in its light, everything takes on a different form. When Maggie finally has the opportunity to tell Brick what really happened between her and Skipper, she goes still inside, all the emotions of the past several years focused on a single point. She makes her case simply and eloquently – cutting right to the heart.
Hollywood didn’t disappoint us at the end of the movie, allowing us to see Maggie and Brick reconciled. It never fails to make me cheer. These two wounded people can come together and help each other heal, help each other be stronger. The entire cast of Cat on a Hot Tin Roofwas phenomenal, but Elizabeth Taylor put the entirety of her self into this role and it showed. She was one of the greatest actresses I’ve ever seen and she will be truly missed.