Accompanied by special ‘for adults only’ notices when it opened in 1962, Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth had been cleaned up considerably for the big screen. Though much of the ugliness of the stage version has been excised by screenwriter/director Richard Brooks rewrite, Paul Newman, Ed Begley, Rip Torn and particularly Geraldine Page maintain the emotional struggle behind Williams’ dialogue.
An aging gigolo, Chance Wayne (Newman) returns to his hometown of St Cloud, Florida with his latest catch, Alexandra Del Lago (Geraldine Page) a once famous actress who has taken to drinking vodka and smoking hashish. Upon arrival in town, the two check into a hotel so Alexandria can recover from a drinking binge. Chance has big plans. He wants Alexandria to sign him to a movie contract, along with his estranged girlfriend Heavenly (Shirley Knight). Her father, ‘Boss’ Finley (Ed Begley), is a powerful and corrupt political kingpin who ran Chance out of town several years earlier and is none too pleased to see him again. When Chance headed out to New York and Hollywood with plans to become a matinee idol, he didn’t know he’d left Heavenly pregnant. Her father strong armed an illegal abortion and has been nursing personal revenge fantasies ever since. Chance, holed up in a hotel room with Alexandria, looks to trade sex for her connections in the movie business. Both are pathetic figures, popping pills like their candy, yet through the haze she has the clarity to understand that “when monster meets monster” It’s a relationship of convenience, and easily discarded.
Time has lessened the shock value of the story and the characters. Still, Williams gift to make us sympathetic to his characters is powerful. Chance longs to reconnect with Heavenly, unaware of what has happened to her since he last saw her. Flashbacks to their “sweet bird” days reveal Chance had a shot at a “normal” life. But, as Heavenly tells her father, when Chance left to follow his dream the right doors never opened, so he went through the wrong ones. Instead, he walked right into his own personal hell, at the hands of Rip Torn and his gang of thugs.
Fearing censors, Richard Brooks comprised the plays ending. In the film, Chance is merely beaten up (his nose broken), while in the play he was castrated. Thus, the whole point of destroying “lover boy’s mail ticket,” so crucial in the play, gets lost in the film.
Nevertheless, like other films based on Williams work, Sweet Bird of Youth is distinguished by acting of the highest order from the leads down to the smallest part. The great Geraldine Page as the fading movie star; Paul Newman as the young stud repeated their stage roles. Ed Begley won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as Boss Finley.
Despite some emotionally powerful scenes, Sweet Bird of Youth is sharply uneven and unable to conceal its theatrical origins. However, the chance to watch such a talented group of actors is always a treat making this film easy to recommend.
Presented in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio, Warner Archive’s new 1080p master looks terrific. The image is noticeably brighter and sharper than the 2006 DVD release. Detail is particularly apparent in the closeups of actors faces–beads of sweat on Ed Begley’s forehead, Paul Newman’s sparkling blue eyes. Colors are strong throughout and blacks are inky. Faces appear natural. There are no real flaws with the print. Fans should be pleased with this transfer.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track represents the film accurately. Free of any hisses, pops, or crackles. Dialogue and music cues are clean and clear throughout.
English SDH subtitles are included.
The following extras are available:
- Sweet Bird of Youth: Chasing Time (HD, 11:42) In this featurette from 2006, cast members Shirley Knight, Rip Torn and Madeline Sherwood discuss their experiences making the film.
- Screen Test for Geraldine Page and Rip Torn (HD, 11:54) Rip Torn is playing Chance Wayne.
- Theatrical Trailer (HD, 2:54)
Sweet Bird of Youth (1962)
Movie title: Sweet Bird of Youth
Duration: 120 min
Director(s): Richard Brooks
Actor(s): Paul Newman, Geraldine Page, Shirley Knight, Ed Begley, Rip Torn , Mildred Dunnock