Monday, December 3, 2018

Sweet Bird of Youth

I'm not the biggest fan of Tennessee Williams, to put it mildly, but I had never seen Sweet Bird of Youth before, and since it won Ed Begly an Oscar, it's one of those movies that's been on my list to see for some time.

Paul Newman plays Chance Wayne, who at the beginning of the movie is driving to somewhere on the Gulf coast of Florida with a drunk woman in the back of the car. It turns out he's going back to his old home town, and when he gets there, he takes a suite at the big hotel. The woman is Alexandra Del Lago (Geraldine Page), who was apparently a big actress back in the day but turned to booze and hasn't been big for 15 years.

The local Dr. Scudder (Philip Abbott) goes up to see Alexandra, and recognizes Chance, because pretty much everybody in town would recognize him. Scudder has a lot of bad news for Chance. First is that Chance's mother died a few weeks previously. Scudder had sent both a telegram and a letter, but Chance got neither. In the letter, Scudder also warned that the local political boss, Boss Finley (Ed Begley) didn't want to see Chance back in town again, and certainly didn't want Chance to talk to his daughter Heavenly (Shirley Knight).

Unsurprisingly, that's part of why Chance came back. He was in love with Heavenly back before leaving, and promised to take her away to fame and fortune, but things quite never worked that way. Instead, Chance became a hanger-on to Alexandra, but he's using her for his own purposes. He's got the goods on her illegal drug habit, and if he can et the evidence on tape, he'll be able to get her to sign a contract getting screen tests for both him and Heavenly.

Meanwhile, Boss Finley is in his most difficult political campaign. He's held a variety of offices, and now seems to be the power behind the curtain. He's about as smooth an operator as you could expect from an overheated Tennessee Williams play, so fairly smooth but not quite as much as the operator in Ada or the civil servants in Yes, Minister. Worse, Boss' son Tom Jr. (Rip Torn) is quite the hothead, and has been using the "Finley Youth Clubs" to commit violence against political opponents.

Boss has a reputation for purity, although it turns out he's got a mistress, and his virginal daughter isn't quite so virginal, what with that relationshp with Chance. And Chance's return to town, might just upset the political apple cart if the truth about the Finleys' private lives should come out.

The material is firmly in the space occupied by a whole bunch of late 50s and early 60s potboilers, including the previously mentioned Ada. In that regard, it's not a bad movie, even coming from somebody who is predisposed to dislike Tennessee Williams. Part of the problem is that I find the characters loud and easily dislikeable, and Alexandra is that in spades, and not in the hissable way. Tom Jr. is closer to the fun hissable dislike, but Williams hits us over the head with his evil naïvete. We get it already. Sweet Bird of Youth also uses flashbacks in a way that I thought didn't quite work with the rest of the movie visually.

As for the good things, Newman does OK with his role, and Begley is even better Mildred Dunnock as Heavenly's aunt who is sympathetic to Chance is probably the best of the lot, however.

Tennessee Williams fans will like Sweet Bird of Youth, I think, although they've probably already seen it. It's available from the Warner Archive for anyone who hasn't.

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