Richard Brooks's screen version of Tennessee Williams' powerhouse play Sweet Bird of Youth is a compromised movie that reflects the mores and censorship pressures of the early 1960s. Sweet Bird was deemed audacious in its straightforward handling of the then taboo issues of drugs, venereal disease, abortion, and degeneracy.
The movie is set in St. Cloud, a seamy Gulf Coast town, that is even more corrupt, vicious, and hypocritical than Hollywood. In the first scene, Chance Wayne (Paul Newman at his most handsome) comes back to town with a fading movie star, Alexandra Del Lago (Geraldine Page). Down on his luck, he's hoping that De Lago will get him a screen test and launch his Hollywood career, so that he can build a new life with his first (and real), love, Heavenly (Shirley Knight), the daughter of boss Finley (Ed Begley), who had kicked him out of town. A gigolo paid for his sexual services, he is elegantly dressed and drives a Cadillac Convertible.
Note the obvious symbolic meanings of the protagonists' names in Williams' work: Alma (soul in Spanish) in “Summer and Smoke” and Heavenly and Chance in this movie. Finley's spinsterish sister, aunt Nonnie (Mildred Dunnock), a victimized, frightened browbeaten woman, is the only person who still likes Chance, cherishing his love to Heavenly.
The tyrant father has forbidden Heavenly to see Chance, Heavenly's youth flame who, on his last visit in town, infected her with venereal disease. Instead, Finley is trying to arrange for his daughter to marry the doctor who, under pressure, had sterilized her.
The contrast between Chance, who stands for life and adventurism, and the doctor, who brought sterilization on Heavenly, is used to illuminate two types of men and two types of marriages, one based on passion and love, the other on calculation and interest.
Deviating from conventions of small-town films, Williams does not contrast the small Florida town with the Big City of Hollywood. Sex, drugs, and booze are all integral to Alexandra's (and Hollywood) lifestyle, and she is the first to admit, “I was born monster.” However, she is no more monster than Boss Finley; in fact, Alexandra is his female counterpart. Both are calculating and manipulative, relating to people only in terms of what they can get out of them.
As writer-adapter and director, Brooks turns the town folks into broad stereotypes. Finley had sent Chance out of town with a one-way ticket to New York, telling him, “A town like this has no room for a go-getter, no opportunity for a man who's going places.” To get rid of him, Finley sells Chance his version of the American Dream: “This is America. Today you're nobody, tomorrow you're somebody.”
A corrupt dictator, Finley is a roughneck in the mold of the Southern demagogue Huey Long (who served as the model for “All the King's Men”). Finley manipulates the mayor, the police, the editor, and an organization called “the Daughters of Dixie,” whose support he needs for his reelection campaign. Finley terrorizes all those who dare speak against him in public. The house of one such critic, Professor Smith (it's no coincidence that he is an academic), was invaded by Finley's mob.
When television reports that the invaders wore masks and tags of “Finley Youth Club,” Finley demands that his name be removed from the scandal. He also mistreats his black servant and the other innocent blacks in town. Finley has another problem: Miss Lucy (Madeline Sherwood), his kept mistress, has exposed his weakness sexual impotence. Lucy had written with her lipstick in the ladies room's mirror, “Boss Finley can't cut the mustard,” for which she is slapped and deprived of his usual presents.
Fearing censorship, Brooks compromised the play's ending. In the movie, Chance is merely beaten-up (his nose broken), whereas in the play he was castrated. Thus, the whole point of destroying “lover boy's meal ticket,” so crucial in the play, gets lost in the film.
“Sweet Bird” also contains an absurd and implausible resolution: Heavenly defies her father's order and the two lovers are reunited. (It's legit to ask, what kid of future will they have) In the film's last image, even Aunt Nonnie turns rebellious when she tells Finley, “You go straight to hell.”
Also due to censorship, the movie whitewashes Chance, who in the play is a much more complex and corrupt character. Brooks distorts the play's meaning, stressing instead a more universal one: Generation gap. We are led to believe that youth love is pure and innocent, spoiled by the corrupt and selfish politician.
The movie is staged as a naturalistic melodrama, with flashbacks inserted into the narrative and a neat (if not entirely happy) ending, in defiance of the original play's harsher tone and downbeat resolution.
Nonetheless, like other movies based on Williams' work, “Sweet Bird” is distinguished by acting of the highest order, from the leads down to the smallest part. Geraldine Page, as the aging, fading movie star; and Paul Newman, as stud, repeated their stage roles in the movie. Ed Begley won the Supporting Actor Oscar for his role of the corrupt politician
Despite some scenes of extraordinarily emotional power, the movie is sharply uneven and it can't conceal its theatrical origins. The critical reaction was mixed. Bosley Crowther wrote in his review that “underneath glitter and added motion, we are still against the same 'dank' characters that slithered and squirmed and growled and howled across the stage,” showing that critics could be just as (if not more) conservative as viewers. Nonetheless, the movie was quite successful with the public, grossing in rentals $2.7 million, a figure above the norm in 1962.
Lines to Remember
In one of the most famous scenes, which is imbued with a gay subtext, Geraldine Page looks at Paul Newman in the morning after she had picked him up. She puts on her glasses and says: “I may have done better, but God knows, I have done worse.”
A Roxbury Production.
Produced by Pandro S. Berman.
Directed and written by Richard Brooks.
Based on the play by Tennessee Williams.
Photographed by Milton Krasner.
Music Supervisor, Harold Gelman.
Orchestra conducted by Robert Armbruster.
Art Direction, George W. Davis and Urie McCleary.
Set decorations, Henry Grace and Hugh Hunt.
Special visual effects, Lee LeBlanc.
Film Editor, Henry Berman.
Recording Supervisor, Franklin Milton.
Makeup, William Tuttle.
Hairstyles, Sydney Guilaroff.
Associate Producer, Kathryn Hereford.
Assistant Director, Hank Moonjean.
CinemaScope and MetroColor.
Color Consultant, Charles K. Hagedon.
Running time, 120 minutes.