Dir: Richard Brooks (In Cold Blood; Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; $)
After Hot Tin Roof and Streetcar, my knowledge of Tennessee Williams drops off dramatically (get it). So I queued up Sweet Bird of Youth knowing little about it. This movie belongs in conversation with the two famous TW adaptations, a splendidly dark tale of lost love and broken dreams.
Paul Newman is Chance Wayne, a local hero who goes to New York to find fame but ends up using his good looks to get no farther than a boy-toy. He has left behind Heavenly Finley (I love those TW names), the daughter of the local political Boss (Oscar winning performance for Ed Begley). Chance has drifted in and out of town over the years, always on the verge of making it so that he can prove his worth to Heavenly. This time, he has in tow a drunken actress (Geraldine Page) trying to forget the loss of her beauty and power.
While Newman is really dynamite, he almost loses the show to Page's Alexadra Del Lago, who dominates the second half of the film after sleeping through most of the first act. Her story is stupendous, a great mixture of foreshadowing and resistance to the inevitable so that we understand Chance's probable future through her own failings. At different times in the film she is the helpless victim of circumstance and the all-powerful dominator of would-be successes like Wayne.
Paul has never been more attractive, and that is saying a lot. His impotence of Hot Tin Roof here becomes the seeting sexuality of Brando in Streetcar. His struggle with Boss Finley is less engaging than that with Del Lago (see All the King's Men for that story line told better), but Newman's determination carries through scenes.
A special suprise is Madeleine Sherwood, who played the shrewish Mae Flynn in Hot Tin Roof, but here takes a sultry turn as Finley's neglected mistress. It is rare to see actresses get that kind of range from the same director; usually they are either sex symnbols OR unattractive foils. Sherwood pulls of both very nicely over the two movies.
Sweet Bird of Youth is a very tough examination of power and beauty, the way that either can be manipulated for selfish gain. It is a very compelling film, and deserves your attention.