On a plantation in the American South, a family comes together to celebrate the birthday of plus-sized patriarch Big Daddy (Burl Ives). But the high-pressure situation of a family get-together puts strain on the marriage of Big Daddy’s son Brick (Paul Newman) and his wife Maggie (Elizabeth Taylor).
Adapted from a Tennessee Williams play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is predictably confined in its setting, allowing it to put the relationships of its characters under a microscope. Subject to this scrutiny, the family-focused jollity implied by Big Daddy’s name swiftly evaporates, revealing a stern businessman who struggles to show true love.
Much of the film shows marriage as a miserable slog, whether it’s being trapped with someone you don’t love, facing the prying demands of others in the realm of your own fertility, or having to listen to your excessive brood badly hoot out tunes on loud musical instruments.
But it’s not an anti-romantic film like The Last Picture Show. Expertly brought to life by its talented cast, anchored by Taylor and Newman, it strikes a note of optimism in its final act. The result is an authentically emotional look at family, expectation, guilt, disappointment and death.