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Sweet Bird of Youth

Sweet Bird of Youth(1962)

Remind Me

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Like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, writer-director Richard Brooks' other Tennessee Williams adaptation, you might call 1962's Sweet Bird of Youth an entertaining travesty. Both movies sanitize elements in Williams' play to an almost absurd length and both are in garish color, not the grim black-and-white that suits Williams adaptations much better. Yet, like its predecessor, Sweet Bird of Youth is well-acted, never dull and full of typical Williams desperation.

There's an odd combination of faithfulness and dilution going on here. Geraldine Page, Paul Newman, Rip Torn and Madeleine Sherwood reprise their roles from the 1959 Elia Kazan-directed play about a one-time golden boy, Chance Wayne (Newman), who returns to his Gulf Coast hometown accompanied by the washed-up, drunk Hollywood star, Page's Alexandra Del Lago, that he thinks will be his connection to a career in movies. After years of chasing his dream of being somebody, being relegated to surviving as a gigolo and putting off any real commitment to hometown girlfriend Heavenly (Shirley Knight), Chance has opportunistically glommed onto insecure Alexandra while working as a cabana boy in Palm Beach.

Chance knows Heavenly's father, a Huey Long-type political wrangler named "Boss" Finley (Ed Begley), doesn't want him around. Flashbacks show us how "Boss's" gift of a train ticket to New York and orders to come back a success were just a way to get young Chase out of town and that, after Chance had started an acting career on Broadway, "Boss" publicly volunteered him to head a band of enlistees after the Korean War starts during Chance's homecoming. But Chance doesn't know just how deeply he's opposed until he returns home and learns that, after his last trip home, he left Heavenly pregnant and her father and hotheaded brother (Torn) to arrange a hush-hush abortion. Now they don't just dislike him, they want revenge.

Just about everyone's a self-absorbed scoundrel ready to trample over someone else in Sweet Bird of Youth, from Begley's swaggering politico to his bully-in-waiting son. Alexandra, turned into a transfixing car crash of a person by Page's performance, is totally controlled by her ego, and there's a great scene late in the movie when, during a phone conversation, she discovers the new movie she thought was a career-ending dog (and the reason for her booze-and-hash bender) is being well-received. It's as if she awakes from an emotional coma, taking control of herself again and shaking off Chance's influence. Chance can't snap out of his moral funk so easily, though. He can't even get in to see Heavenly, let alone patch things up, and he's desperately tape-recording Alexandra saying incriminating things so he can blackmail her into helping him, if being her boy toy isn't enough to win her aid. Along with Ben Quick in The Long Hot Summer and Fast Eddie Felson in The Hustler, he's one of the choice flawed characters early in Newman's career. The fact that graceful Knight (Dutchman, The Rain People) is one of the few actresses who could have played a character named Heavenly without irony makes the couple even more intriguing and Chance more flawed because of his angelic paramour.

Although Sweet Bird of Youth was pushing up against the fences of movie censorship, circa 1962, showing Alexandra smoking hash at one point, Brooks was forced to water down elements of Williams' play. Pregnancy and abortion aren't Chance's unwitting gifts to Heavenly in the play; a serious case of VD and a hysterectomy are, forever ending her chances of reproducing. And the facial beating Chance gets during the movie's "Hollywood ending" climax isn't nearly as cutting to his manhood as his fate on stage. Like the changes in plot elements, you also just have to accept that Newman is too old for the role of Chance. He was 36 when the movie was filmed, just two months younger than Page and a decade older than Knight. I've made bigger leaps of faith for a movie, so it's not a major flaw.

The Sweet Bird of Youth DVD, available individually or as part of the Tennessee Williams Film Collection, includes a brief making-of documentary that covers the differences between the play and the movie and includes interviews with Torn, Knight and Sherwood. The featurette makes no mention of any indecision on Newman's part to play Chance onscreen, so it's a surprise to see the screen test also included, which offers a scene between Page and Torn in which Torn plays Chance. Since the screen test apparently quotes the play, not the eventual screenplay, it's interesting to hear Williams' dialogue, which is often rawer than what's in the movie.

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by Paul Sherman