September 25, 2009
Prompted by Shirley Knight’s impending appearance at the George Street Playhouse, we watched “Sweet Bird of Youth,” the 1962 film adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ 1959 Broadway play. I have never seen the play on stage, and I have read that the tale lost some of its edge with the modifications that had to be made to satisfy the sensibilities of the early ’60s. By today’s standards it’s tame, but it dealt with some tough subject matter for the Eisenhower era.
This film has one of those casts that dazzles the mind: Paul Newman, Geraldine Page, Rip Torn, and the wonderful Canadian actress and even more wonderful human being, Madeleine Sherwood, recreated their Broadway roles, and they were joined by the redoubtable Ed Begley Sr. Geraldine Page and Rip Torn both were nominated for Tony awards for their work in the play. Begley won an Oscar and Page and Knight were nominated for the film.
Newman plays Chance Wayne, who returns from Hollywood to his hometown in Florida, almost literally dragging along with him a legendary movie star, Alexandra Del Lago (Page), who has sunk into a drug-and-alcohol-induced stupor after what she perceives as the failure of her latest film. On the surface, Chance Wayne is her driver and spear carrier. In reality, he is exploiting her — in every possible way — in the hope that she will give him what has been an elusive “big break” in the movies.
Alexandra travels to Florida with Chance because she has gone underground to avoid the fallout from what she has adjudged a box-office flop. Chance has another goal — to reunite with Heavenly Finley, the love of his life whose father, Tom “Boss” Finley (Begley), is a moralizing, corrupt, and ruthless political kingpin who doesn’t want Chance near his daughter.
Finley’s son, Tom Jr., who doesn’t have his father’s cunning but outdoes him in brutality, is played by Rip Torn.
This film, which in 1961 was off limits to audiences under 18, may have been sanded down from Williams’ original version, but it far outstrips the embarrassing 1989 television remake with Elizabeth Taylor and Mark Harmon as Alexandra and Chance and Rip Torn as “Boss” Finley. Even though its techniques are dated, the movie can play with your emotions as you try to sort out your feelings about the actress and her gigolo — both of whom are infuriating yet sympathetic — and frazzle your nerves as Chance keeps antagonizing the volatile and dangerous “Boss.” The players in this film aren’t stars first and foremost; they’re actors, doing their work as well as it can be done.