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Sweet Bird Of YouthUSA 1962
Directed by Richard Brooks
Running time 120 minutes
After the success of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) director Richard Brooks once again adapts a Tennessee Williams play with Paul Newman as his leading man in this overwrought melodrama about a naïve young man turned gigolo, Chance Wayne (Newman), who returns to his Gulf Coast hometown from trying to make the grade in Hollywood. With him is his current "patroness", Alexandra Del Lago (Geraldine Page), a.k.a "Princess", who is part of his misguided plan to rekindle his relationship with his former sweetheart, Heavenly Finley (Shirley Knight) who is kept under close guard by her tyrannical father, Boss Finlay (Ed Begley), and her thuggish brother (Rip Torn).
From the get-go Sweet Bird of Youth revels in Williams notion of life's “private hell”, each of the characters playing theirs out over the two hour running time – Chance’s desperate attempts to achieve the American Dream, Alexandra’s fear of fading from the limelight, Boss Finlay’s bullying strategies to deny his hypocrisy, his son’s empty bravo hiding a sense of inadequacy and so on. Although each performance is in this respect a twisted delight in itself as exemplifying the grotesqueness that Williams loves to depict, dramatically they don’t come together and we are largely left with the plot, which includes various flashbacks, to carry the film. In this respect the relationship between Chance and Heavenly is the film’s most obvious weak point, the two only briefly engaging together in a flashback and the film’s rather abrupt finale.
Ed Begley deservedly won an Oscar for his memorable performance as the ever-smiling crooked politician but Geraldine Page who is also very good as the booze-soaked fading Hollywood starlet did not even get nominated (although for some reason Shirley Knight, who has nothing to do but be sweetly demure, did). Newman is largely there for his good looks and chiselled abs, Williams's original protagonist apparently being a far less appealing character than he Is made out to be here whilst the film’s happy ending was a sop to film-going audiences of the time. Despite these mollifications as a floridly jaundiced soap opera Sweet Bird of Youth has its appeal.
FYI: In an unusually daring scene which has Chance and The Princess smoking a reefer, the latter corrects Chance when he asks where she got the "weed" claiming that it is "hashish". Clearly, however, Chance was right.