The Hays Code has been defunct for over 50-years, yet it’s scar tissue is visible throughout Hollywood filmmaking to this day. Formally known as the Motion Picture Production Code, the Hays Code was a system of censorship bent to conservative values. According to its ethos, no picture should ever “lower the moral standards of those who see it” nor should “the sympathy of the audience… be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil, or sin.” This ethos would later be updated into an official list of banned and semi-banned content ranging from profanity to the depiction of sexual relationships between both people of the same sex and different races.
While numerous films were altered to conform to the code—as was the way if they wished to be released stateside—adaptations were affected the most. The simple reason being that prose and plays are much older mediums than film. Where they’d had millennia to grapple with moral boundaries, debating what content should and should not be included in a text, cinema had a mere 35-years. Meaning that several things banned by the code were not only present but crucial to, texts filmmakers sought to adapt.
Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca, based on the Daphne du Maurier novel of the same name, had its sexual politics diluted by the code into outright lesbophobia. Casablanca, which is adapted from an unproduced stage play, had to remove much of its sexual content to meet the code’s standards. Even cinema’s current problem child, Gone with the Wind, rubbed up against the code. The word “damn” fell under the ban on profane language, and the film’s creative team had to fight for its inclusion in the now-iconic final line. But no film speaks more to the ongoing damage and cultural reductivism of Hays Code censorship than the 1958 adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
Questions of censorship and creative control surrounded Cat on a Hot Tin Roof long before it made the jump from the theatre stage to sound stage. The play is quintessential Williams, telling the story of a wealthy southern family consumed from within by secrets, lies, avarice, and pettiness. These themes manifest in various ways, the most compelling, and controversial, however, was in the character Brick.
An ex-athlete, Brick struggles with his homosexual feelings toward his recently deceased friend Skipper. Grief struck, Brick behaves recklessly and injures his legs, leaving him housebound. He drinks away his feelings and distances himself from his wife Maggie “the Cat”. Their marriage becomes increasingly loveless, and the more Maggie fights to hold it together, the more distant Brick becomes. As scripted, Brick is a complicated critique of heteronormativity and social mores years ahead of its time. It was these themes and Brick’s characterization that would become a source of frequent controversy.
The first person to push against Williams’ creative vision was Elia Kazan, the director of the original 1955 Broadway production. He demanded that Williams rewrite the third act, adamant that the morality was too ambiguous for audiences, who were sure to reject the play out of hand in its then-current state. Among his issues was Brick, who he felt didn’t grow enough and was too harsh on Maggie. Williams disliked the notion of a rewrite but was desperate for a hit. His last play, Camino Real, was an out and out bomb. He capitulated to Kazan’s demands, rewriting the third act heavily. While the question of Brick’s sexuality remains unresolved, the new ending was noticeably more heteronormative. Maggie locks away the liquor and promises Brick that she will bear his child, suggesting that while their marriage is not mended, creating a family together would resolve many of their issues. Unfortunately for Williams, rewrites and moral simplification would become the rule when handling Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
The original Broadway production was met with success and Hollywood quickly became interested in making a screen adaptation. MGM acquired the rights, casting Paul Newman as Brick, Elizabeth Taylor as Maggie, and cajoling Burl Ives into reprising his stage role as family patriarch Big Daddy. Studio man Richard Brooks, who had made a string of successful, if unimaginative, adaptations including The Brothers Karamazov (1958) and Blackboard Jungle (1955), was attached to write and direct. What ensued was a complete dismantling and reassembling of the text. While the themes of family, falsehoods, and greed stuck, Brick’s homosexual panic was erased so as to conform with the Hays Code. In its place, Brooks, along with screenwriter James Poe, added the theme of atrophied masculinity.
A major addition made to the film to support this new theme is the opening scene, where we see how Brick injures his leg. Drunk and wracked with sadness over Skipper’s death, he drives to an empty stadium and sets up a series of hurdles. He imagines a roaring crowd, yearning for his past glories, a time where his life was simple, and Skipper was still alive. He runs, vaulting each hurdle but catches on the last one. He sprawls through the dirt, breaking his leg in the process.
As a prologue, this sequence is entirely unnecessary. It adds nothing of note to the story, the cause of Brick’s injury is touched upon so frequently throughout the film that to showing it feels gratuitous. What it does do, however, is to show the audience Brick’s state of mind when he became injured. He’s thinking irrationally, behaving like an upset teenager. This idea becomes the spine upon which Brooks rebuilds Brick’s character, and by extension the story holistically. Brick’s issue isn’t that he’s a repressed homosexual, but that he’s immature, a little boy wearing a grown man’s clothes. Brick’s deteriorating adulthood is paralleled against Big Daddy’s cancer, the impermanence of his patriarch becoming his new thematic foil, while his relationship to Skipper is jettisoned from the story almost entirely.
With Brick’s thematic focus shifted from manhood and maturity—as opposed to the play’s themes of queer truth vs homophobia—the values of the film become noticeably more conservative than the text it is adapting. The family unit which Williams is highly critical of becomes the primary source of resolution. Only when Brick is mature enough to step up as head of the household is his arc complete.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof not only conforms with the Hays Code but, through revisions, is made an exemplar of it. Brooks neatly erases the narrative’s knottiest questions and replaces them with the kind of perfect Christian values the code sets out to propagate. The film became the kind of homophobic attack on queerness that Williams sought to critique, inverting his complex progressives in favor of easily digestible moralizing.
It is not Brick, though, who is most short-changed by the removal of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’s queer elements. What is concocted to replace them is inferior, yes, but thematically robust, and they serve both Brick and the broader narrative well enough. No, the character most hurt is Brick’s wife, Maggie.
Throughout the play, Maggie is aware, to a degree, of her husband’s latent homosexuality, and jealous of it. Maggie’s also cunning; born into a life of poverty, she understands more than most the value of their class position. She works tirelessly to protect herself from greedy relatives, who would cut herself and Brick out of the family, and Big Daddy’s will, if they had the chance. Her attempts to salvage her marriage are not necessarily born out of marital devotion—although her feelings in that department are complicated—but out of pragmatism. She knows that Brick is Big Daddy’s favorite child, and the promise of lineage equates to the promise of financial security. So, while Brick may not want her, she needs him, and they need to be a vision of harmonious marriage. A husband is a key that opens the right doors.
Maggie is a stunning mix of desire, status, and emotion filtered through the lens of gender. Few characters, let alone female characters, are afforded her intricate characterization. She is the most well-realized character in the play, and one of the finest that Williams ever wrote.
The removal of Brick’s homosexuality in the film undercuts Maggie’s complexity. When she makes advances on Brick, it doesn’t read as an attempt to legitimize their relationship in the eyes of the family, it just reads as neediness. There’s no “other man” to account for Brick’s disinterest, he’s just disinterested, which disempowers Maggie because no there’s nothing for her to struggle against, making her issues feel trivial. She’s a shadow of her stage counterpart, her desperation for Brick to take notice subordinates her, making her seem less than him.
Elizabeth Taylor does overtime to make Maggie feel multifaceted, so much so that she was nominated for Best Actress for her portrayal. Williams’ dialogue is delicious, and she has a particular talent for delivering it, dominating every scene that she in. She crackles with the verve and rawness of the original play, but as with the rest of the film, it feels abridged. Maggie, like so much of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, is the radio edit of a song that you’ve heard in full. It’s still good but the missing parts feel conspicuous.
Famously, Tennessee Williams was so unhappy with the changes that he told people queuing for the premier to “Go home”, saying “This movie will set the Industry back fifty years.” Despite his efforts, the film was a hit, grossing at the Box Office and earning an additional five Academy Award nominations along with Taylors for a total of six. Considering the success and the cultural impact at the time, one has to wonder if there is some amount of truth to Williams’ claim.
A stage adaptation of a play, a Tennessee Williams play especially, is such perfect Oscar fodder that attention and acclaim are practically guaranteed. A causality exists between the removal of homosexual themes in films like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Hollywood’s difficult relationship with the depiction of queer people and women today. Brick was allowed flaws and complexity, but only within the parameters of absolute heteronormativity. Maggie was allowed a modicum of depth and complexity, but never so much as to grant her autonomy from Brick and the values he represents. Characters whose relationship to queerness is as complicated as the scripted version of Brick are still hard to come by. The same is true of Maggie, who’s femininity is full of nuance and contours that make her complicated in a way most women on screen are simply not allowed to be.
The Hays Code segregated cultural sects, allowing that certain mode conservatism to develop and grow on-screen, while everything outside of it was suppressed. In effect, creating the divide we have today, where queer people and women (and Black people, who are conspicuously absent despite the film being set in the deep south) are fighting just to catch up. What Cat on a Hot Tin Roof sans the Hays Code might have looked is difficult to imagine, but it is worth imagining, because that ideation is aspirational. Like Brick (the film version that is), so much of Hollywood is still immature, a child in adult clothing, overdue to grow up.