Sweet Bird of Youth
Review by Philip Fisher
This 1961 film of the Broadway stage hit has much in common with another Tennessee Williams family saga from the Deep South, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Both were directed by Richard Brooks and starred Paul Newman, together with Madeleine Sherwood in a smaller character part.
Newman plays Chance Wayne, a typical Williams failure, handsome but feckless with not the slightest possibility of long-term success in his chosen career as a film actor.
His arrival back home causes all kinds of problems for everybody that he meets. Wayne is accompanying glamorous film star, Alexandra del Lago, also inexplicably known as Princess Kosmonopolis. She is wonderfully played by Geraldine Page, who starred with Newman in the Broadway production too. With the help of excessive quantities of booze and drugs, she is escaping from herself, but more accurately the perceived failure of her latest film.
Wayne is her chauffeur cum gigolo who hopes that she will launch him as a Hollywood actor. However, he has other fish to fry, having been chased out of town by Ed Begley's "Boss" Finley, a small-town crooked politician with big town ambitions.
The Boss's problem is that his pretty blonde haired daughter, Heavenly, still believes that Chance to be a fine thing and loves him desperately despite a recent abortion. This role is taken by Shirley Knight, who can still be seen on TV today in Desperate Housewives.
The bully who has been recruited to protect his father's interests and his sister's reputation is Tom Junior, a lesser man than his father in every sense, given mean reality by Rip Torn. This actor must have enjoyed the stage production, if only for the chance it gave him to meet Miss Page and marry her.
The drama builds nicely with, on the one hand, Wayne nursing the famous actress back to normality, taking the opportunity to get a little blackmail material, which he hopes will further his career. On the other, he bravely fights the Boss in an effort to win back the hand of his love.
In addition to the big names, Mildred Dunnock, who so often appears as the maiden aunt in films of the period, gives a most amusing, sympathetic but poignant performance in just that role.
Brooks gives us a really spectacular finale at the Boss's triumphal political rally, to counterpoint an amusing, opening featuring a drunken car journey that Wayne and Miss del Lago were lucky to survive.
As always with Williams, this is steamy stuff and thoroughly entertaining, with its mix of politics and love, proving a real winner.