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Review: Sweet Bird of Youth (1962)

Throughout his career, Tennessee Williams had written plays that deal squarely with his interest in violence. Violence not of a senseless, excessive kind but one that is nevertheless destructive, and targeted most of all to bring out the vulnerability of the others. The lack of any outrage that attended his violent plays emboldened him in furthering his involvement with graphic materials, and it climaxed with the release of Suddenly Last Summer in 1958, a one-act play that draws on issues like lobotomy and cannibalism. Williams was almost certain then that he’d be tarred and feathered, but the play proved a commercial and critical success. This says much about the social currents of the time, which fed on narratives like that to help coping with the bitter reality and malaise. In this case the public was obviously taken to Williams’s measure of honesty, savagery and explosiveness.

In the preface of Sweet Bird of Youth Williams attributes his propensity of violence to a means “to contend with this adversary of fear.” Fear can restore courage to the hearts of the weak, and can also be the last straw of the perennially defeated. Violence is sometimes a way of dispelling the fear but mostly with tragic consequences. Hope is absent; it seems almost as though Williams does not believe in the possibility of redemption or altered fate. There is always a sense of starkness despite the ceaseless hullabaloo.

Williams’s unsettling drama sets an uphill task for filmmakers. Past attempts at transposing Williams’s onto screen yielded very few good results. Richard Brooks, the director of the acclaimed Cat on the Hot Tin Roof (1958), did not repeat success four years later with Sweet Bird of Youth, a film that is now dismissed as one of the lesser adaptations of Williams’s great plays. It boasts of a stellar cast, with Paul Newman, Geraldine Page, Rip Torn and Madeleine Sherwood reprising their roles from Elia Kazan’s Broadway long-runner.

Brooks’s production is by and large a clunky, cluttered affair, failing to grasp the correct mood and tone of the original and unwisely concluding with an implausibly happy ending, something the critics most carped at. Newman plays Chance Wayne, a small-time drifter going home to St. Cloud, Florida, with the Tinseltown has-been Alexandra Del Largo he picks up, in hope of winning back his childhood sweetheart Heavenly Findley, daughter to Boss Findley, a despotic, insular political provocateur, who tyrannises the small town with his racist cause and malign influence. Learning of Chance’s unpropitious arrival, the townsfolk are in league against him, since years ago he left without the knowledge of an unborn bastard. Driven by a need to elope with his girl out of the hostile town, Chance sees Del Largo as a springboard to Hollywood and blackmails her unsuccessfully. The highlight of the play is the acerbic exchange between the two protagonists, which the film decided to pare down, and in consequence dwindled substantially the solid characterisation of both leads, wasting especially the talent of Page, whose formidability should’ve required more screen time.

One thing the director did well was his handle of the fine balance between chaos and solitude, and his sage resolve not to attenuate the controversial issues like drug and abortion. Moral criticism may still be valid, though one is likelier to be swayed from judging, and instead sympathise with the victim-hero, whose sauciness is coloured with certain likeability. Newman lent charm, intelligence and a light dose of loucheness to a role that seemed his own.

A lugubrious melodrama but highly entertaining. Reading the play the second time after the film I was reminded of its affinity with Streetcar Named Desire- both centre on pariahs wronged by a provincial society, the relentless nature of time, the dreamers’ inability to overcome reality, and feature ditzy, aging beauties who at one moment stare boldly but wearily into the mirror, confronting their fading looks with dogged pride and wavering dignity.


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