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One of Tennessee Williams' most corrosive and disturbing plays, Sweet Bird of Youth was a smash success under Elia Kazan's direction on the Broadway stage but had a more difficult time making the transition to the silver screen. For one thing, MGM knew it was going to run into problems with the Production Code over the story: Chance Wayne, a gigolo with aspirations of becoming a Hollywood actor, is exploiting his relationship with a once-famous movie actress who has a weakness for alcohol and hashish. When the couple visit Wayne's hometown in Florida, some ugly town secrets involving Chance and the daughter of a corrupt local politician are finally exposed. The horrific ending of the play has Chance being castrated by some local roughnecks. Since the screen version couldn't be as explicit, director/screenwriter Richard Brooks completely re-wrote the ending and came up with a conclusion that is practically upbeat in comparison to the original fadeout.
Luckily, four of the most important cast members from the Broadway play - Paul Newman, Geraldine Page, Rip Torn, and Madeleine Sherwood - agreed to re-create their stage roles for the screen. Newman, cast again as Chance Wayne, was rapidly becoming a major Hollywood star and already had two Best Actor nominations under his belt (one for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), the other for The Hustler, 1961). While his performance in Sweet Bird of Youth is commendable, it is Geraldine Page who steals the film as Alexandra Del Lago, a character who was originally inspired by Tallaluh Bankhead, a close personal friend of Tennessee Williams.
Most critics cite Page's famous telephone conversation scene with Walter Winchell as a dramatic highpoint and an ideal primer for aspiring actresses. "Mr. Brooks took a good deal of time with that scene," recalled Page in A Look at Tennessee Williams by Mike Steen (Hawthorn Books, Inc.). "I remember that I was having such difficulty with it. It wasn't right...and I was sort of lying across the bed with the phone, hanging on to it in a complete state of demoralization. And Brooks came over to me and very quietly said, 'Now, there's no rush. Take it easy. There's plenty of time.' And he started talking away to kind of calm me down so I wouldn't get too discouraged. And as he was talking to me, it was the weirdest thing, I could feel the scene coming on. I could feel it gathering, and he's talking away at me, and I said, "Will you get out of here and let me act?" And he caught what I meant right away and just backed up and said very quietly to the cameraman to roll and that's the time I did it that's used in the film. But ordinarily nobody takes the time to try and capture it when it really takes off, you know, and that was marvelous."
In spite of a great performance, Geraldine Page, who was Oscar nominated for Sweet Bird of Youth, didn't win the Academy Award that year. Instead, the Best Actress Oscar went to Anne Bancroft in The Miracle Worker. Sweet Bird of Youth also received nominations for Best Supporting Actor (Ed Begley in the role of the evil "Boss" Finley), and Best Supporting Actress (Shirley Knight as Chance Wayne's jilted and disgraced girlfriend, Heavenly Finley). Only Begley walked away a winner on Oscar night for a role that was originated on Broadway by Sidney Blackmer.
Director: Richard Brooks
Producer: Pandro S. Berman
Screenplay: Richard Brooks, based on the play by Tennessee Williams
Cinematography: Milton Krasner
Editor: Henry Berman
Art Direction: George W. Davis, Urie McCleary
Music: Harold Gelman
Cast: Paul Newman (Chance Wayne), Geraldine Page (Alexandra Del Lago), Shirley Knight (Heavenly Finley), Ed Begley (Tom "Boss" Finley), Rip Torn (Thomas "Tom" J. Finley, Jr.).
C-121m. Letterboxed. Close captioning.
by Jeff Stafford