Tennessee Williams has a penchant for tragedy, but sometimes he’s so stylish that we lose sight of the tragedy in the presence of all the hilarity in his work. I like to think that Sweet Bird of Youth is the polar opposite of Cat On a Hot Tin Roof. Whereas Sweet Bird of Youth is an elegant comedy poising as a tragedy, Cat On a Hot Tin Roof is a tragedy posing a comedy. As Maggie flits around the room in her alacrity, as Big Daddy embarrasses his wife and his son and as Mae provides enough slapstick we forget that there’s nothing really positive in this house. Big Daddy is a bastard, and every character is disappointed in life – not a far stretch for a Tennessee play.
Like all of Williams’ play Cat On a Hot Tin Roof depends on the casting of the two leads, and Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman are effectively cast as Brick and Maggie. I’m a sentimental sort of guy, so I’ll admit that the modified ending although not as sharp as the original does leave me with a little bit of hope. Certainly, Newman’s portrayal of Brick as something of a fallen hero is probably more glorified than Tennesse but I really can’t fault him either. And oh, Elizabeth Taylor is absolutely stunning as Maggie. If Martha is her Blanche Dubois then Maggie the Cat is her Scarlet O’Hara. It’s not as manic as Albee’s but it’s a perfect fit for her – vociferous, passionate and sensual.
Tennessee and Kazan surely were a good match, and regardless of how this holds up to actual play this film is undoubtedly one of the pillars of classic cinema.