Kiss Me or Kill Me: Sexual Desperation and Identity Erasure in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor in CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF (1958) | artwork by Brianna Ashby
illustration by Brianna Ashby

“What is the victory of a cat on a hot tin roof? Just staying on it, I guess. Long as she can.”

Consider the poster art for 1958’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Artist Reynold Brown—who would become famous for how his bold color palettes accentuated 50-foot women and gigantic tarantulas and creatures from the Black Lagoon—surrounds an illustration of the gorgeous, resentful Elizabeth Taylor with a mélange of sultry yellows. Her eyes are accusing; her cherry lips almost pout; her lacquered nails look like claws. Clad in the iconic slip from the film and perched on a bed, Taylor looks half-goddess, half-sin, like a succubus poised to pounce. “This is Maggie the Cat,” the poster reads, and Maggie the Cat is alive.

Taylor is the hero and the villain of Richard Brooks’ adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ sweat-soaked play about the lines of power and resentment and sexuality running through a powerful, dysfunctional Southern family, but nearly every character in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is some combination of the two. Only a few are truly reprehensible, maybe: the “little no-neck monsters” nieces and nephews who throw ice cream at Maggie and mock her for being childless. And only one is truly innocent, maybe: Paul Newman’s Brick Pollitt, husband to Taylor’s Maggie, a man operating in an alcoholic haze, barely dressed, with those unforgettable eyes and that chiseled jawline and that wily smirk.

Taylor and Newman in a bedroom together, where they share nearly all their scenes in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, are combative and ferocious and profoundly erotic. They yell at each other, they throw things, they’re trapped in a manipulative game of cat and mouse. They may love each other and they probably hate each other. Kiss me or kill me. Love me or leave me. Attraction and repulsion tied together, battling each other for dominance, each one attempting to dictate the terms of their marriage.

“We occupy the same cage, that’s all,” Maggie spits at her husband, seconds after she tries to seduce him. Moments later, he’ll attack her. They can’t live with each other and they can’t live without each other. What’s the trick to keeping your hand over a flame? Not minding that it hurts. What’s the point of staying with someone you lust for and despise in equal measure? Not minding that you’ll get hurt. If he didn’t care for me, I could have never made him mad.

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Cat on a Hot Tin Roof begins with a drunk Paul Newman, nearly a decade before he would begin another film similarly sloshed (Cool Hand Luke). The headlights of Brick’s baby blue sedan illuminate the field of Eastern Mississippi High School. The night air seems sticky; his shirt is practically plastered to his body. Dragging the hurdles onto the track seems like no trouble at all. Brick hears cheering from the bleachers, imagines fans in the stands, is convinced that they’re yelling his name: “We want Pollitt!” He clears one hurdle, another, a third. His eyes are as beautifully colored as a blustery sea, tears shimmering inside them, and his body is gorgeous in movement—until he falls over the last hurdle, until the illusion is shattered, until he suddenly looks older than the energetic athlete he just was. Until the field he’s lying on becomes a couch; until what he’s grasping in his hands are a highball glass and a crutch.

A man lost in the past, a dreamer with no sense of the present, a husband disinterested in his wife—Brick is a 30-year-old ex-professional football player who quit his job as a sports announcer and has increasingly been drowning himself in booze. Is it the constant inebriation that causes his lack of sexual interest, or something else? Maggie can’t figure it out. She knows what she looks like. She knows the lust she arouses in men. She waltzes into the room they’re sharing and takes off her stockings, sliding a new leg of hose up each leg, fastening the top snaps on her garter belt, asking her husband how she looks. She stands in front of the mirror. She rotates her body around his. Her black curls are in stark contrast to her creamy porcelain skin and violet eyes; her perfect hourglass figure elevates any outfit she wears. Maggie Pollitt is every man’s dream, unless that man is her husband.

From that first scene onward, we see and hear a constant refrain: Maggie the Cat will not be ignored. Brick’s apathy doesn’t mean anyone else is barred from looking at her body. She is convinced that Brick’s father Big Daddy (Burl Ives) finds her sexually attractive (“The way he looks me up and down and over, he’s still got an eye for girls”). She is dismissive of her pregnant, intrusive, cruel sister-in-law Mae (Madeleine Sherwood), the one who parades around her children as they wave a Confederate flag. Mae’s sole outfit in the film, a pleated empire-waist dress in a musty mauve, couldn’t be further from Maggie’s gauzy white gown, with a deep back and a deeper neckline, cinched at the waist, sometimes transparent in certain light. Mae is pretending to be a child to underline the ones she’s brought into this world; Maggie is only concerned with her presentation as a sexual being, not a maternal one.

And whether in her creamy white slip or that graceful gown, straddling the line between angelic and sinful, Maggie clings to the hope that Brick, the man who was “a wonderful lover” and “so exciting to be in love with,” will one day come back to her. “If I thought you’d never, never make love to me again, why, I’d find me the longest, sharpest knife I could and I’d stick it straight into my heart,” she tells Brick; “I can’t see any man but you,” she tells Brick; “Living with somebody you love can be lonelier than living entirely alone when the one you love doesn’t love you,” she tells Brick. She’s either trying to seduce him or cursing him or resolutely defending him, and those varying moods inform a complicated character whose understandings of love and hate are closer together than they are apart.

Brick acts like he owns every room he’s in, with a mixture of easy confidence and laconic authority. And, to be fair, he sort of does, given that the plantation manor where he and Maggie share a room is the home he may inherit from Big Daddy. The house is situated upon land he may also inherit from his father—all 28,000 acres of it. The most successful cotton plantation in the entire state, an empire built by Big Daddy and squabbled over by their older brother Gooper (Jack Carson) and Mae. Gooper and Mae mock Brick, they eavesdrop on his arguments with Maggie, they know the pair are no longer sharing a bed, they tell their kids their uncle is a failure and a drunk. They see Brick collapsing into himself, and they back away. They don’t think of coming forward.

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The version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof that makes it to the screen, that becomes a box office smash, that pits two of the most undeniably attractive stars of the time against each other, is not the version that Tennessee Williams wrote. It is sultry, yes, and it is Southern, yes, but it does not consider gay desire. It does not use the terms “queer,” or “sissies,” or “dirty old men,” because neither the homosexual focus nor the explicit attacks on homophobic panic in Williams’ play are even really subtext in the film. Maybe if you squint very closely; maybe if you’re familiar with the source material already. Maybe if you’re looking past the obvious thirst exuding from Maggie the Cat for something less heteronormative, something less Old Hollywood. (Although as we know now, Old Hollywood was full of queer men pretending not to be, including Taylor’s Giant co-star Rock Hudson.)

And so, onscreen, Williams’ favorite work on the page retains its explorations of consuming greed and moral indifference, of inescapable death and patriarchal decay. But it switches its focus, from repressed sexuality to lost masculinity. The difference, due to the Hays Code censorship guidelines, is a huge one. The film’s conclusion features a reconciliation sequence that isn’t present in Williams’ original third act, nor in his updated third act that Elia Kazan directed on Broadway.

Throughout Brooks’ film, there are declarations of sexual desire and love that are lacking in Williams’ work, too. Character motivations are altered, made more specifically heterosexual. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof as a film is fundamentally different from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof as a theater production, which is fundamentally different from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof as a printed play. But the rawness and eroticism that Taylor and Newman bring to the film version is an indisputable allure, an exploration of the barrier between adoration and abhorrence. The material is undoubtedly less complex than Williams’s original, but the performances are as hard-hitting as the booze Brick Pollitt keeps throwing back. The carnal energy roils and simmers in the air, like the thunderstorms rolling in over the plantation, drenching everyone to the bone.  

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Brick and Maggie are already leading separate lives by the time they drive from New Orleans to Mississippi to attend Big Daddy’s 65th birthday party and receive what they think is good news—Big Daddy, who had recently fallen ill, now has a clean bill of health. Who would run the plantation after Big Daddy’s death had been in question, and with Brick’s increasing alcoholism, Maggie thinks their cut of the fortune is in jeopardy: “You’re a drinker, and that takes money,” Maggie says, quietly adding, “You’re a drinker, and I’m childless.”

Whether Maggie will have a child, whether Maggie is making Brick happy, whether Maggie is fulfilling her duty as a woman and a wife come up again and again in the film version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Those conversations, those accusations, lobbed at her by Brick’s mother and father and brother and sister-in-law, everyone in the family, make their way into the bedroom where Maggie has locked herself in with Brick. She escapes to Brick and he escapes from her, barricading himself into the bathroom, caressing his face against a sheer gown she has hanging on the back of the door. Only in privacy can he lust for her, whereas Maggie’s desire for him is overwhelmingly public—so much so that Brick mocks her for it. Cinematographer William Daniels frames the two always as a pair: fighters squaring off against each other, dancers lining up for a routine, Maggie forcing her body in front of Brick and Brick retreating from it. The only time he reaches for her is to hurt her. He hit me, and it felt like a kiss.

In Williams’ source text, the rift in the marriage is made startlingly plain. Brick and his best friend Skipper, his partner when they played football together at the University of Mississippi, were an unstoppable team. They did everything together, they were inseparable, even after Brick married Maggie. Who were they to each other? Brick says the friendship was “one great good thing which is true,” but Maggie counters with this:

“Skipper and I made love, if love you could call it, because it made both of us feel a little bit closer to you. You see, you son of a bitch, you asked too much of people, of me, of him, of all the unlucky poor damned sons of bitches that happen to love you, and there was a whole pack of them, yes, there was a pack of them besides me and Skipper, you asked too goddam much of people that loved you, you—superior creature!—you godlike being!—And so we made love to each other to dream it was you, both of us! Yes, yes, yes! Truth, truth! What’s so awful about it?”

Skipper jumped out of an 11th-story window and died after that, once he had called Brick to profess his feelings—which Brick refused to acknowledge. And since then, as Williams’ play describes, the younger Pollitt son has been drinking himself into a stupor, pushing away everyone and anyone, refusing Maggie’s offering of herself, rejecting her love as a poison. Brick is convinced her actions already killed one man. What else could she do?

Pivot from the theater to the sound stage, and the film version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof chops apart so much of this narrative that the only remaining pieces are Brick and Skipper’s friendship (devoid of physical longing) and Maggie’s infidelity. Her speech is condensed, flattened, turned into an exploration solely of morality rather than sexuality:

“Skipper was no good…Maybe I’m no good, either. Nobody’s good. But Brick, Skipper is dead, and I’m alive…Maggie the Cat is alive! I’m alive! Why are you afraid of the truth?”

And what is Brick’s truth? Not a consideration that his devotion to Skipper could have been love, but something more like Holden Caulfield’s obsession with truth and sincerity in Catcher in the Rye: “Didn’t you ever believe in anything, anybody?” Brick asks Big Daddy. His relationship with Skipper was devoid of the differences in class embodied in his marriage to Maggie, who grew up poor, and of the jealousy and friction he feels toward older brother Gooper, who has allowed his wife Mae to slander his younger brother, and of his resentment toward Big Daddy, who withheld love from him during his childhood. Brick’s queer identity is erased for a more-acceptable-at-the-time crisis of masculinity, one that can be resolved by a tumble in bed and a baby on the way.

It’s Brick’s yearning for honesty, and the heteronormative way the film resolves it, that allows Newman’s version of Brick to open himself to Maggie’s sexual desire. What Cat on a Hot Tin Roof emphasizes over and over again is the pureness of Maggie’s devotion to Brick, the way her constant fieriness, explosive temper, and vibrant sensuality are all in service to her husband. Even when she lies—as she does when she announces “I have Brick’s child in my body” at the end of the film—it is in allegiance to him, an allegiance that Brick finally rewards in the film’s most arousing moment.

He defends his wife to Mae (“Not everybody makes as much noise about love as you do…Truth is something desperate, and Maggie’s got it”). He calls for her, for the first time in the entire film (“Maggie…come on up here”). And his final command (“Lock the door”) is issued as he leans against a chest of drawers and gazes at her, mimicking the pose Taylor herself used in Reynold Brown’s poster for the film. The man who once hid from his wife behind a locked door is now joining her in that seclusion, that secrecy, that sensuality. He looks her in the face, he stands up straight, he kisses her, and he throws his pillow back on the bed. He took me in his arms, with all the tenderness there is, and when he kissed me, he made me his.

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For the film version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to present heterosexuality and the possibility of a child as its happy ending is, of course, far different from Williams’ final scene, which allows Brick to provide respect for his wife without a fulfillment of their sexual relationship. Her strength in the face of Gooper and Mae’s derision, along with her unwavering loyalty, inspire him. Williams writes Brick’s final consideration of his wife as one of “growing admiration,” which Brick voices to her with an “I admire you, Maggie.” But unlike onscreen, Maggie gets the final word here:

“Oh, you weak, beautiful people who give up with such grace. What you need is someone to take hold of you—gently, with love, and hand your life back to you, like something gold you let go of—and I can! I’m determined to do it—and nothing’s more determined than a cat on a tin roof—is there? Is there, baby?”

What matters more to the story of Maggie the Cat: her husband’s ardor, or his respect? Each version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof puts forth a different understanding of what the character aspires to, but they all agree on her vitality. “That girl’s got life in her, alright.” Whether that life is her own sexual desire or her ability to procreate is a grey area in both Williams’ source material and Brooks’ adaptation—as is Brick’s queerness. Considerations of sexual desperation and identity erasure are undeniably tied together: pleasure and pain, longing and loathing, kiss me or kill me. The divide between the desire to consume or be consumed in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is quite thin, and whether Maggie or Brick stay on the roof or jump off of it, it’s the lingering question that neither Williams’ play nor Brooks’ film ever fully answer.