Elizabeth Taylor, In Memoriam: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1966)
MAGGIE THE CAT IS ALIVE!
by Garland Grey
At the start of Cat On a Hot Tin Roof, Maggie (Elizabeth Taylor) and Brick (Paul Newman) are staying at the estate of Brick’s parents, Big Daddy (Burl Ives) and Big Mama (Dame Judith Anderson). Brick’s older brother Gooper, his wife Mae, and all of their children are staying in the same house. Everyone is gathered for news about Big Daddy’s health and to fight for their own piece of the estate.
In the first scene Brick, alcoholic, ex-football player, former sport announcer, rakish failure, is jumping hurdles at night at the local stadium and breaks his leg. The next day, while the whole family waits for Big Daddy to get back from the clinic, Maggie follows Brick around their bedroom, coming on to him, being rejected, and trying to convince Brick to fight for a share of his father’s estate. Maggie has agreed to an arrangement, an agreement, a deal, that involves leaving Brick alone and not trying to have sex with him. Newman is very good at drinking and being sarcastic in this scene, but Taylor’s part is so much larger. Maggie tries everything she can think of to engage him. She tells him that she loves him, she needs him, that if she thought she’d never have sex with him again she’d take a knife and stick it into her own heart, gives him a very distinct “When I come back from the airport we’re going to make a baby” look through the screen door and then leaves.
Mae and Gooper’s clan arrives at the airport with instruments and a bland repertoire of loud, annoying music. Maggie shows up in a convertible and they all snipe at each other in a polite, Southern way that reveals information about the characters and moves the plot forward. When the plane lands Big Mama announces Big Daddy is going to live and only has a spastic colon. Big Daddy rides home with Maggie and starts creeping on her. Maggie looks embarrassed.
Back at the house, Maggie tries to convince Brick to leave the room, to come to his father’s birthday party, to make any effort at all. When he has an outburst, she takes that as her cue to start locking doors and putting the moves on him. “Don’t make a fool of yourself, Maggie.” Brick says as Maggie crosses the room to close and lock the doors to the balcony. She pauses in front of the sheer white curtains, and speaks over her shoulder. “I don’t mind making a fool of myself over you.” “Well I mind.” He says, walking across the room to open the other door. “I feel embarrassed for you.” “Feel embarrassed!” She shouts, crossing to him. “But I can’t live on this way!” “Now you agreed to accept that condition!” “I know I did but I can’t! I just can’t!” she says, embracing him. He tells her to let go, retreats into the bathroom, and then smells the hell out of a negligee she has hanging on the door.
Big Mama barges into Brick and Maggie’s room asking why doors are locked, starts interrogating Maggie about Brick’s drinking and blaming her for her marital problems. At one point she pats the bed with her hand and basically calls Maggie a bad wife for withholding sex. You know, because that is such an accurate portrayal of how things are shaking out, with Liz dropping sex bombs like Tom Jones and Paul’s shields still at full capacity, that assessment seems fair. Now is a good time to mention that Brick started drinking after his very, very close “friend” Skipper committed suicide. Skipper and Brick were a great team, and Maggie was so jealous of the time they spent together that she tried to seduce Skipper to cut him out of the picture. Which explains why all Brick wants to do is be left alone to drink and mourn his poor dead boyfriend. For years I assumed that this was made explicit in the movie, but it was cut out because of the Hays Code. But there is a moment, when Brick is on the floor and his father is hulking over him and he’s shouting about Big Daddy dragging Skipper’s name through the mud, that you just know. Without knowing this Brick’s long speeches about lies and mendacity don’t make sense. He can’t tell his father why he drinks because it just simply isn’t an option. You get married, you have children, and you work until you are dead.
Of course, just because Brick loved Skipper doesn’t mean he also doesn’t love Maggie. There is a wonderful scene where Maggie is sitting patiently at the birthday table, and Mae is chattering on and on about her children. Maggie is disco smiling her way through the whole thing and you can tell she just wants to pick up an aluminum folding chair and just start smashing shit, but she doesn’t because she is pure stealth. She sits there. Listening to it. Until Mae makes an oblique reference to Big Daddy’s mortality and having grandchildren to “take over” and Maggie strikes. “Why that’s no way to talk.” Maggie says, her voice faux shocked and cotton candy sweet, as if she is actually shocked she’s having this conversation right now but is willing to be patient with Mae. “What way?” Mae asks, rightfully frightened. “Take over.” Maggie says. “Well I just meant-” “When we all know Big Daddy’s going to live to be at least a hundred.” Maggie says, glancing quickly at Big Daddy and then sitting back with a look on her face like butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth. This is why Brick fell in love with Maggie. Because she is not to be fucked with.
When she gets back to the room Brick is packing to leave, having found out from the doctor Big Daddy is going to die. When Maggie finds out, she drops the sultry, seductive angle and starts scheming. “They got a plan baby.” She says, pacing the room. Making calculations. She wants Brick to love her. She wants to protect both their interests. And she needs to tell him how Skipper died. When she tries to tell him and he invites the entire family up to their room to stop her. She starts getting loud. Brick swings at her with his crutch, falls, there is an appearance by one of the children - who were my least favorite part of the movie - and the family members start trickling in. Most of the rest of the film is Maggie using her knowledge that Big Daddy is going to die to align herself with Big Mama and Brick and Big Daddy working their shit out and making peace with his impending death while talking about what life means. I never understood why Brick seems so eager to go back to Maggie at the end of the movie, until I watched it after Elizabeth Taylor passed away last week. Maggie is a survivor, a conniver, a schemer, and that is what Brick loves about her. They belong together because they understand each other. When he finally realizes he has to protect his interests he finds Maggie’s already set everything up and he loves her for it. He loves her exactly as she is.
The last scene I’d like to discuss is a scene that takes place upstairs in Brick and Maggie’s room. Big Mama is carrying a large birthday cake covered with lit candles, trying to stop Brick and Big Daddy from fighting by having him blow out his candles. Big Daddy starts telling his wife what he thinks of her, as her face slowly collapses and becomes vacant. He commands her to blow out the candles. She does not move. The camera holds just their two faces, him angry and her retreating into sadness. The camera shifts to just outside the bedroom door, as he stands over her and she is seated. “Oh Big Daddy.” She starts, weak and weary and defeated. “In all these years you never believed I loved you.” She does not look at him.. She stands and slowly walks out the door, still carrying the cake. “And i did. I did, so much. I did love you. I even loved your hate. And your hardness.” Big Mama, like everyone in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, loves someone without being loved in return. And even though most of the characters learn to love and be loved by the end of the movie, the sight of her carrying that cake through the doorway, with the candles briefly illuminating her face as it slides into darkness, will always be my favorite part of any viewing.