The Role of Homosexuality in 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof'
There is a moment in the first hour of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) where married couple Maggie (Elizabeth Taylor) and Brick (Paul Newman) are arguing and they mention a man named Skipper. The mention of Skipper changes the entire dynamic of their argument. Suddenly, Brick switches to the defensive, trying to find his way out of the fight as Maggie pursues him more aggressively.
“Why won’t you face the truth, just once...about Skipper, about me, about yourself?” Maggie asks.
Brick’s response is to call downstairs to the rest of the family: “Are you bringing that party up here or not?”
This is about as close as the film gets to an outright discussion of Brick’s romance with his best friend and teammate Skipper. However, the topic hangs heavily over the entire film. The tension will be especially apparent to those viewers familiar with Tennessee Williams’ original play. This tension, the sense of overwhelming unmentioned pain, is the (unfortunately) subtle way that director Richard Brooks involves Brick’s queerness into the plot. Williams’ original play leans much more heavily on the homosexual relationship between Brick and Skipper, but due to the Hays Code in effect at the time, the film was forced to make significant edits. The code prohibited, among various other things, any mention of a homosexual relationship. When considering this parameter, it’s a wonder that Brooks even wanted to make the film. However, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof manages to be an incredible film by both making the presence of homosexuality known to the audience and making a social statement regarding its erasure.
There’s no getting around the influence Brick and Skipper’s relationship has on the film. The first act unfolds without giving an explanation or motivation for Brick’s alcoholism, unhappy marriage, or rocky relationship with his father. It’s only after the mention of Skipper and Brick’s reaction to his death that things come into focus; Brick was devastated after the death of his lover Skipper. This is a very intentional move made by Richard Brooks. He removes any potential scapegoat that the viewer could use to rationalize Brick’s pain. Skipper’s death is the only explanation for Brick’s intense and overwhelming grief and that grief is conflated with that of a lover’s pain, not a friend’s. Admittedly, Brooks is relying on the audience to make these jumps in logic. However, these jumps are helped along by incredible performances by Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor. Under Brooks’ direction, their energies and attitudes adjust when Skipper is mentioned. The characters’ tonal shifts are telling and work to underscore the presence of homosexuality in the film.
Considering the scope of the Hays Code, Brooks’ choice to make homosexuality’s role almost blatant in the film is inspiring. This is a code that prevented films from even showing a married couple in bed together (at least one of them had to have a foot on the ground). For Brooks to center an entire narrative around a man losing his male lover is impressive and speaks to the way the film draws on emotional cues in order to enhance the narrative.
Brooks’ ingenuity goes beyond his ability to embed homosexuality into the fabric of the film’s narrative. He goes a step further by using the purposeful erasure of homosexuality from the story as a method of articulating a social statement. The erasure of Brick’s homosexuality mimics the experiences of millions in America and across the world at the time. It was considered a solution to avoid the topic, to remove it from the conversation, rather than deal with the truth and its implications. In this way, Brooks is able to enhance the themes of the film. We are introduced to characters who cannot get past their own internal turmoil to reconcile their interpersonal conflicts.
There is a certain word that’s spoken several times by both Brick and his father, Big Daddy Pollitt (played by a remarkably good Burl Ives): mendacity. It’s a word with a simple definition: untruthfulness. The two characters repeat the word ad nauseum throughout the film as a way of explaining, understanding, and rationalizing their conflict. The word and its repetition is key to understanding the statement Brooks is making. On the surface, the word explains the source of conflict within the family. More than that, however, the word explains the film itself. By making no explicit mention of Brick’s homosexual relationship, the film is telling an untruth, it bases itself within mendacity. The repetition of the word throughout the film acts as a hammer to nail on this point - serving as a continual reminder of the audience’s complicitness in the untruth, and society’s continued oppression of homosexual stories.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is an admirable and impressive creation by director Richard Brooks and heartbreakingly performed by a trio of actors at the top of their game. Despite enforced limits, it still sears with all the carnal beauty of a Tennessee Williams play while advancing a brilliant commentary on the presence and erasure of homosexuality in popular culture.