“Living with someone can be lonelier that living alone,” says Maggie, the character played by Elizabeth Taylor. Everybody’s lonely in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” from Maggie’s husband Brick (Paul Newman), who mourns the loss of his football buddy Skipper and drinks too much, to Brick’s father, Big Daddy (Burl Ives), who’s dying of cancer only nobody wants to tell him.
“There ain’t nothin’ more powerful than the odor of mendacity!” Big Daddy proclaims, and the odor is mighty powerful in his household. Brick’s repressed homosexual love for Skipper—which was mostly eliminated from the film version of Tennessee Williams’ play, much to the playwright’s dismay—has made his marriage to Maggie a sham. And Big Daddy’s marked preference for the dissolute Brick over his dutiful older brother, Gooper (played by the under-appreciated character actor Jack Carson) has turned his family into a squabbling mess.
Is it money they’re all after? Not really. Not the way the film tells it, anyhow. It’s love they need, every last one of them. At least Big Daddy is allowed to tell Brick what truth is: “Truth is dreams that don’t come true, and nobody prints your name in the paper ’til you die.” But by the end of the film, not only have Brick and Big Daddy reconciled, but Brick intends to make love to his wife. Problem solved, just like that.
So maybe the movie version doesn’t hang together, but I think this was Liz Taylor’s greatest role. Her Maggie embodies the spirit of Williams’s play, its courage and the shimmering, enduring vitality of its central message. Life is too short not to live it on your own terms. Come to think of it, that’s what Liz did.