Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Tuesday's Overlooked Movies: Sweet Bird of Youth

(This post originally appeared in slightly different form on July 23, 2009.)

Livia’s working on a book with a Tennessee Williams connection (that book, of course, was KILLER ON A HOT TIN ROOF, the second in her Delilah Dickinson series), so we decided to watch some of the movies based on Williams’ plays that we’d either never seen before or hadn’t seen in a long time.

I’m certain I’d never seen SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH before. It came out several years after CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF (my favorite Williams film) and also stars Paul Newman. No Elizabeth Taylor this time, though. It was also written for the screen and directed by Richard Brooks, who did CAT. In this one Newman plays a young man named Chance Wayne, a would-be actor who has failed at every turn. He returns to his hometown in Mississippi with an aging actress, Alexandra Del Lago (Geraldine Page), he met in Palm Beach, and Chance is convinced she’s going to be his ticket to fame and fortune. Along the way, though, he wants to be reunited with his former girlfriend, who happens to be the daughter of a powerful, corrupt politician named Boss Finley (Ed Begley in a performance that won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar), who also has an evil son who hates Chance.

Lots of possibilities there for lurid, overheated drama, and the movie takes advantage of most of them. I kept thinking that if this was a novel and the corrupt politician wound up dead about 40 pages in and Chance was blamed for the murder, this would be a Gold Medal by Harry Whittington or another Williams (Charles), or possibly Gil Brewer or Day Keene. But since it’s based on a Tennessee Williams play, that doesn’t happen. Instead everybody lashes everybody else half to death with impassioned speeches for a couple of hours. That sounds more critical than I mean for it to. It’s just that with Williams, you know going in you’re going to get characters who are going through a lot of raw emotional torture. And although some of it comes across as a little hokey and over-the-top now, most of it works.

Nobody was ever better than Paul Newman at playing a thoroughly unsympathetic cad that you wind up rooting for anyway, and he does his usual fine job in this film. Geraldine Page is also pretty good as the actress who fears that her comeback film is a flop. Ed Begley chews the scenery a little too much for my taste as Boss Finley, but Rip Torn is pure evil as his son. Shirley Knight, as Chance’s former girlfriend, isn’t given much to do, but she looks good doing it.

This is a really bleak film with a studio-mandated ending that’s not really happy but at least somewhat hopeful, an ending that Williams and Brooks both disliked. I thought it worked all right, though, and without it the movie might have been too overpoweringly grim. Even as it is, it’s hard to say that I actually enjoyed it. I admired it, though, and think it’s a pretty good film. I’m not sure how I missed seeing it in the past 40-some-odd years, though. It must have played on TV dozens of times when I was growing up.


pattinase (abbott) said...

I remember this-saw it at an age I didn't get it at all. And saw the play a few years ago. Bleak is the right word.

Walker Martin said...

I have this film in the Tennessee Williams dvd box set. It's been awhile since I've seen it; I'll have to watch it again.

Victorian Barbarian said...

The film is quite different from the play, especially the ending which is quite unhappy for Chance in the stage version.

Ed Gorman said...

I wrote a lot of terrible plays when I was in college. My idols were Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams. Williams was in vogue then, O'Neill less so. I still like certain plays of Williams' but as I've gotten older the overwrought elements of his work put me off. Sweet Bird of Youth is a good example. There's some good material buried in all the hysteria but it really does get lost. Williams was a great artist but for me O'Neill was the more universal and profound of the two. My opinion only of course.