Late one night, a drunken Brick Pollitt (Paul Newman) is out trying to recapture his glory days of high school sports by leaping hurdles on a track field, dreaming about his moments as a youthful athlete. Unexpectedly, he falls and breaks his leg, leaving him dependent on a crutch. Brick, along with his wife, Maggie "the Cat" (Elizabeth Taylor), are seen the next day visiting his family's estate in eastern Mississippi, there to celebrate Big Daddy's (Burl Ives) 65th birthday.
Depressed, Brick has spent the last few years drinking, while resisting the affections of his wife, who taunts him about the inheritance of Big Daddy's wealth. This has resulted in an obviously tempestuous marriage – there are speculations as to why Maggie does not yet have a child while Brick's brother Gooper (Jack Carson) and his plump wife Mae (Madeleine Sherwood) have a whole pack of children.
Big Daddy and Big Mama (Judith Anderson) arrive home from the hospital via their private airplane and are greeted by Gooper and his wife - and all their kids - along with Maggie. Despite the efforts of Mae, Gooper and their kids to draw his attention to them, Big Daddy has eyes only for Maggie. The news is that Big Daddy is not dying from cancer. However, the doctor later meets privately with first Gooper and then Brick where he divulges that it is a deception. Big Daddy has inoperable cancer and will likely be dead within a year, and the truth is being kept from him. Brick later confides in Maggie with the truth about Big Daddy's health, and she is heartbroken. Maggie wants Brick to take an interest in his father - for both selfish and unselfish reasons, but Brick stubbornly refuses.
As the party winds down for the night, Big Daddy meets with Brick in his room and reveals that he is fed up with his alcoholic son’s behavior, demanding to know why he is so stubborn. At one point Maggie joins them and reveals what happened a few years ago on the night Brick's best friend and football teammate Skipper committed suicide. Maggie was jealous of Skipper because he had more of Brick's time, and says that Skip was lost without Brick at his side. She decided to ruin their relationship "by any means necessary", intending to seduce Skipper and put the lie to his loyalty to her husband. However, Maggie ran away without completing the plan. Brick had blamed Maggie for Skipper's death, but actually blames himself for not helping Skipper when he repeatedly phoned Brick in a hysterical state.
After an argument, Brick lets it slip that Big Daddy will die from cancer and that this birthday will be his last. Shaken, Big Daddy retreats to the basement. Meanwhile, Gooper, who is a lawyer, and his wife argue with Big Mama about the family's cotton business and Big Daddy's will. Brick descends into the basement, a labyrinth of antiques and family possessions hidden away. He and Big Daddy confront each other before a large cut-out of Brick in his glory days as an athlete, and ultimately reach a reconciliation of sorts.
The rest of the family begins to crumble under pressure, with Big Mama stepping up as a strong figure. Maggie says that she'd like to give Big Daddy her birthday present: the announcement of her being pregnant. After the jealous Mae calls Maggie a liar, Big Daddy and Brick defend her, even though they know the statement to be untrue. Even Gooper finds himself admitting, "That girl's got life in her, alright." Maggie and Brick reconcile, and the two kiss, with the implication that they will make love, possibly making Maggie's "lie" become "truth".Elizabeth Taylor as Margaret "Maggie/Maggie the Cat" Pollitt
Paul Newman as Brick Pollitt
Burl Ives as Harvey "Big Daddy" Pollitt
Judith Anderson as Ida "Big Mama" Pollitt
Jack Carson as Cooper "Gooper" Pollitt
Madeleine Sherwood as Mae Flynn "Sister Woman" Pollit
Larry Gates as Dr. Baugh
Vaughn Taylor as Deacon Davis
Tennessee Williams was reportedly unhappy with the screenplay, which removed almost all of the homosexual themes and revised the third act section to include a lengthy scene of reconciliation between Brick and Big Daddy. Paul Newman, the film's star, had also stated his disappointment with the adaptation. The Hays Code limited Brick's portrayal of sexual desire for Skipper, and diminished the original play's critique of homophobia and sexism. Williams so disliked the toned-down film adaptation of his play that he told people in the queue, "This movie will set the industry back 50 years. Go home!"
Despite this, the film was highly acclaimed by critics and audiences alike and it received six Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor (Newman), Best Actress (Taylor), Best Director (Brooks), Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium, and Best Cinematography, Color (William Daniels). Cat may have been too controversial for the Academy voters; the film eventually didn't win any Oscars and the Best Picture award went to Gigi, another Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer production, that year. Ives won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for The Big Country at the same ceremony.
According to MGM records the film earned $7,660,000 in the US and Canada and $3,625,000 elsewhere resulting in a profit of $2,428,000.