Winning the Pulitzer Prize for Drama (the second one for the playwright) turned the play, a dissection of passion, greed, and deception in a family on a Mississippi Delta plantation, all the more prestigious and influential as an exploration of the mysteries of the human kind.
Brooks Atkinson raved in his New York Times review (March 25, 1955) about Williams’ honesty and simplicity of craftsmanship, noting that “It seems not to have been written. It is the basic truth.”
Made into a film with an all-star cast turned Williams play into a remarkable success at the box-office. The movie opened at the Radio City Music Hall on September 18, 1958, running there for months. It’s one of the biggest box-office grossers of 1958, the 10th biggest that MGM ever had—and the most commercially appealing of all of Williams screen adaptations.
Paul Newman played Brick, a role that Ben Gazzara had originated on Broadway, Liz Taylor, then at her sexiest, was cast in the Barbara Bel Geddes’ part as Brick’s wife Maggie, Burl Ives was Big Daddy, and Judith Anderson Big Mama.
Big Daddy Tabbitt, feted by his family on his 65th birthday, is dying of cancer, but his family, wife (Judith Anderson), older son Cooper (Jack Carson) and Cooper’s wife Mae (Madeleine Sherwood) conceal the truth from him.
George Cukor was initially assigned to direct the film, though issues of censorship–homosexuality in particular–prevented him from doing it.
Richard Brooks’ version was criticized for tempering with the play, specifically eliminating the homosexual theme. In the play, Brick is a tormented soul, at loggerheads with his wife and his father, blocked by guilt connected with the suicide of a cherished buddy. The movie offered a vague notion of hero-worship in lieu of the play’s strong suggestion of homosexuality.
Even so, as tempered as it was, in the movie, Brick believes that his wife drove his best friend to suicide, and he is bent on drinking himself into oblivion, and punishing Maggie by keeping her emotionally and sexually unsatisfied, like a cat on a hot tin roof.
Paul Newman gives the strongest performance in a film marked by a uniformly high-caliber of acting. In one of the movie’s most powerful scenes, a confrontation between father (Big Daddy) and son (Brick), the latter states: “Mendacity is a system that we live in. Liquor in one way out and death’s the other.”
An Avon Production for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Produced by Lawrence Wingarten. Directed by Richard Brooks. Screenplay by Richard Brooks and James Poe. Based on the play by Tennessee Williams. Photographed by William Dadniels. Art Direction, William A. Horning and Urie McCleary. Set Decoration, Henry Grace and Robert Prisetley. Assistant Director, William Shanks. Special effects: Lee Leblanc. Color Consultant, Charles K. Hagedon. Editor, Ferris Webster. Recording Supervisor, Dr. Wesley C. Miller. Miss Taylor¬ís Wardrobe, Helen Rose. Hairstyles, Sydney Guilaroff. Makeup, William Tuttle. In Metrocolor.
Running time, 108 minutes.