[box cover]

Sweet Bird of Youth

The Tennessee Williams Collection

When approaching 1962's Sweet Bird of Youth, go for the parts rather than the whole. There are scenic viewpoints to enjoy here: the better pages of a script adapted from Tennessee Williams' play (albeit a compromised script from one of his weaker plays), Ed Begley's Oscar-winning performance as corrupt small-town politico "Boss" Finley, and especially Geraldine Page's boozy, bitter, has-been movie star Alexandra Del Lago. Page originally crafted the role on Broadway in Elia Kazan's 1959-60 stage production. And she could hardly have asked for better screen chemistry than with her co-star from the Kazan production, Paul Newman as the good-looking and naively ambitious gigolo, Chance Wayne. (Kazan's original stage cast also included Madeleine Sherwood, Rip Torn, and Bruce Dern. Sherwood and Torn likewise reprise their roles here.) For the pretty blonde ingénue, let's add Shirley Knight as Chance's ex-girlfriend, Heavenly, Boss Finley's daughter. However, other than those historical markers, the film is a long drive through swampy melodrama. Richard Brooks (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Blackboard Jungle, Elmer Gantry, In Cold Blood) adapted and directed this dogeared paperback that's told largely through spasmodic flashbacks that set up the present clash of pathologies in a Gulf Coast hamlet.

Boss Finley runs sweat-stained St. Cloud, Florida with all the success that corruption, demagoguery, and masked terrorism of opposition can buy. Years ago he ran Chance out of town with a one-way ticket and the temptations of the American Dream: "This is America. Today you're nobody, tomorrow you're somebody." He's none too pleased when Chance rolls back into his hometown in a big-fin Cadillac with vodka-soaked "Princess" Del Lago sprawled in the backseat. Seems that when Chance headed out to New York and Hollywood with plans to become a matinee idol, he didn't know that he'd left Heavenly pregnant. Her father strongarmed an illegal abortion and has been nursing his revenge fantasies ever since. Holed up in a hotel room with Alexandra, bare-chested Chance connives to trade sex (Alexandra's "only dependable distraction") for her connections in the movie business. Both are pathetic, pill-popping dreamers and desperate manipulators, yet she has the clarity of vision to understand that "when monster meets monster" it's a relationship of convenience, easily discarded.

Still, Williams' gift is that we can sympathize with his monsters. Chance aims to reconcile with his one lost love, Heavenly, unaware of what happened to her since he last saw her. Flashbacks to their "sweet bird" days reveal that Chance once had the potential for a real relationship and a life better than a flamed-out hustler. But, as Heavenly tells her vindictive father, when Chance left to follow his dream the right doors never opened, so he went through the wrong ones. "Each of us has his own private hell to go to," Alexandra says, and Chance finds his — delivered by Boss Finley's vigilante gang of enforcer thugs led by Rip Torn.

This film interpretation awkwardly abuts Williams' meditations on the inescapability of our past with mannered and stagy text that Brooks didn't transfer well from stage to screen. Under Brooks' tin ear for Southern authenticity, Williams' (and Kazan's) nuances and complexities are smoothed out, and the flawed characters flattened to types, although well-spoken and well-played ones. The whole thing hasn't aged well either, reminding us at key points that one era's "savage" adaptation of "provocative, adult entertainment" (as its theatrical trailer put it) can become another's frayed histrionics (or "hysterical twaddle," as Pauline Kael put it).

Most of that couldn't be helped, of course. The original play pushed envelopes with its blunt references to v.d. (Chance had infected Heavenly), a brutal hysterectomy (the "secret operation" that gutted and forever sterilized Heavenly), and — in a climax that must have been the talk of Sardi's — Chance's castration as retribution for fouling Boss' "pure" daughter. These core theatrics were too much for 1962 Hollywood. So here, through rewrites and elisions, Heavenly's plight is unmistakably implied as an abortion, the luridities of Chance and Alexandra's "contract" are underplayed, and when Rip Torn's character tells defenseless Chance that it's time to remove "lover boy's meal ticket," what follows is almost comical in its anti-climax. Then we get a tacked-on "happy" ending that brings up only uninvited memories of The Graduate.

On the other hand, everyone we see Actors Studio'ing through the material does a toothsome job of it. Newman's Broadway-honed surefootedness in the role (one of his long list of finely turned handsome losers and misfits) is muted but never falters. Begley's Best Supporting Actor win isn't one of Oscar's golden choices, but his overacting does add dynamism to a generally sullen piece of work. Knight was nominated for Best Supporting Actress, and powerhouse Page really should have taken home her nominated Best Actress Oscar that night. (She did get the Golden Globe.) Her phone call soliloquy with Walter Winchell remains a plum audition piece for female actors "of a certain age." Also noteworthy are Madeleine Sherwood as Boss' vengeful mistress and Mildred Dunnock as Aunt Nonnie, who gets the last word.

*          *          *

Warner Home Video brings Sweet Bird of Youth, part of the Tennessee Williams Film Collection, to DVD with a print that looks good, by and large, but it's awfully spotty. The color, contrast, and definition are fine, and the transfer is faultless, but the image (2.35:1, anamorphic) is pocked with flecks and scratches. It's one of the dirtier prints we've seen in a long while from typically excellent Warner. The DD 1.0 monaural audio fares better.

The main extra is a new featurette (11 mins.) that offers a worthwhile thumbnail summary of the film's history and production, as well as how much Williams' autobiography and preoccupations shaded his work. It's not flashy, but it does bring learned comments from (Warner DVD go-to favorite) Drew Casper, playwright Del Shores, and actors Rip Torn, Shirley Knight, and Madeleine Sherwood. Also here and interesting is screen-test footage (3 mins.) with Page and Torn, with Torn playing the Chance role in their blowup scene near the end. It's from a pre-sanitized script, so it still contains lines pointing to Chance's threatened castration and the v.d.-curing hysterectomy that disfigured Heavenly "on a butcher's hook like a chicken dressed for Sunday."

And we get the jazzy theatrical trailer for this savage adaptation of provocative, adult entertainment. Keep-case.

—Mark Bourne

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