When youths give him the bird, Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger gives them the gavel.
He used love like most men use money.
Some people (like those in the special features on this DVD) consider Tennessee Williams to be in the same echelon as Shakespeare in terms of his impact on theater. One of his many hit plays was Sweet Bird of Youth, a bitter lament on our fleeting years of vigor and beauty. I'm sure the play does justice to Williams's reputation. The movie version alters enough of the story to completely change its tone and intent, which makes it a less satisfying dramatic work. Nonetheless, the movie has enough piercing moments to make it worth a watch.
Facts of the Case
Chance Wayne (Paul Newman, The Long Hot Summer) drives down the highway in a swanky convertible with a vodka-swilling starlet in the back seat. It's obvious that Alexandra Del Lago (Geraldine Page, The Long Hot Summer, Hondo) is not entirely sure where she is or who Chance is. Is he kidnapping her, or is she merely wasted out of her mind?
It turns out to be a little of both. Chance sees in Alexandra's fame a chance to break into Hollywood, so he can finally take his longtime love Heavenly Finley (Shirley Knight, Grandma's Boy) away from her power-hungry politician father, "Boss" Finley (Ed Begley, Hang 'Em High). Her brother, Thomas "Tom" J. Finley, Jr. (Rip Torn, Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story), and old Boss Finley will do everything they can to shoot down Chance's relationship with Heavenly. He might find an unlikely ally in the form of Boss Finley's spurned lover, Miss Lucy (Madeleine Sherwood, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof). But when Alexandra comes out of her stupor, Chance might be on his own for good.
So much praise has been showered on Tennessee Williams that my kudos would be but raindrops. He is the definitive modern playwright, wielding wit, words, and drama like fine surgical instruments. He peers into the dark hearts of humanity and reflects them in a way that is as palatable as it is disturbing. His are not cardboard heroes or villains, but gray-shaded, fully formed characters. He makes histrionics seem like laudable character traits, violence as natural as a thunderstorm.
The movie version of Sweet Bird of Youth is filled with vintage Williams, from its overbearing patriarch to its high-strung lead female character. The movie weeps with Southern color, such as a Confederate parade, mint juleps, and balmy summer nights. It is also fraught with violence both implied and real, from Tom Finley Jr.'s glowering face to Boss Finley's stream of crude threats. In fact, the movie masterfully builds tension into a crescendo.
While that crescendo builds, we're treated to a fractured study of deplorable people pursuing their own drives without regard for others. The coarsest example is Boss Finley, who manipulates, intimidates, and violates everyone around him to seize and maintain power. Alexandra, the pretty monster, is conniving and cruel when she isn't doped to the gills. She's pathologically dependent upon people, a sponge who drains adulation out of those around her while ignoring their needs. Her brief moments of clarity and compassion are subsumed back into herself on a whim.
Even Chance, the ostensible hero of the film, doles out helping after helping of despicable behavior. He is constantly manipulating Alexandra and his friends, working the system of Karma to get his break. His reason is the noblest of all: true love. A central question in the movie, however, is whether this noblest of goals is justification for kidnapping, coercion, blackmail, and drug pushing.
The actors are impeccable in their portrayal of these complicated characters. Three of the four main actors were nominated for Oscars (with Ed Begley taking one), while Paul Newman is no stranger to the Academy Awards, either. Though the film's roots are theatrical, no scenery was chewed in its making. The characters are just exaggerated enough to seem unreal, but the performances bring the characters back to earth. Newman is in his element, while Geraldine Page recasts herself for the screen. Boss Finley becomes more than a stock bad guy in Begley's hands. Shirley Knight isn't given much screen time, but she wastes none of it on her way to crafting a perceptive, victimized girl torn between love and her love's unredeeming qualities.
At its heart, Sweet Bird of Youth leaves the spirit of Williams's writing intact. The movie magnifies the ticks of the Cosmic Clock to the point where they reverberate through every word and action. Alexandra and Miss Lucy are keenly aware of the passing of time, while Chance and Tom Jr. try their damnedest to ignore it. (Tom is even the president of the Finley Youth Club.) This setting, combined with Chance's and Alexandra's potent characters, makes for some crackling exchanges. Newman and Page have chemistry that makes some slower scenes watchable.
Although the film is stagy, with long stretches in hotel rooms or parlors, writer-director Richard Brooks breaks up this stagy feel with fades to the past in which the characters replay their best days. Those days are long gone, but they linger like ripe grapes just out of reach, guiding the action like a spectral hand. It is a clever way to use cinema to reinforce the themes in the play.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The problem comes at the end, and to its credit, Warner Brothers does not gloss over this in the special features. Because of the censorship codes in place at the time, Sweet Bird of Youth's finale is radically different from the one in the play. The consequences are muted so much that they're unrecognizable, and the upbeat ride into the sunset is a slap in the face to a dramatist like Williams.
Most of the DVD transfer reflects the usual fine job by Warner Brothers. There is more grain than I'm used to seeing in their classic restorations, but grain is a natural result of filming and preferable to digital artifacts. Some minor edge enhancement creeps in, and some of the colors seem muted. Otherwise, the transfer is detailed and stable, with nice delineation and reasonable contrast. But a couple of scenes were somehow missed by the cleanup crew or were in such poor shape that they look dramatically worse than the rest. When Finley talks to Heavenly on the beach, the grain becomes assertive, and the lens seems clouded by a patina of dirt. The ending revisits this weirdness. Such lapses in quality are not typical for Warner Brothers, so I'm not sure what to make of it.
The sound is serviceable, if not overly clean. Undoubtedly because of the 2.0 mono, I found the mix slightly claustrophobic. The level fluctuates just enough to be annoying, requiring more volume than I'm comfortable with to be completely audible. There's not much to be done about it, so no harm, no foul—but this isn't an engaging mix, either.
The DVD comes with a concise, graceful handful of extras that say what needs to be said with a minimum of fuss. It is refreshing when a studio passes up opportunities for self-promotion in favor of actual information. The featurette is brief, but it is packed with interviews from many of the actors from the movie, and edited to show the most telling snippets of their interviews. The extensive screen test shows Rip Torn in the role of Chance, while Page is more melodramatic than she would be in the film itself.
I'm not one for ominous omens, but the 24 hours surrounding my viewing of this DVD were a little spooky. The day I came home from work to watch this movie, I stepped on a fallen robin's egg and smashed it. I felt weird walking to my car with an unborn bird on the sole of my shoe. When I got home, my son was inexplicably and obsessively interested in his toy birds, which he had heretofore ignored completely. He went through his toy box and picked out every chicken, toucan, and peacock figurine he could get his crayon-speckled hands on. We engaged in a lengthy session of make-believe where the birds were all having a dinner party. That night we read a Sesame Street book, and he was inordinately tickled by a stray bird in one of the pictures. I watched Sweet Bird of Youth and went to bed. This morning as I drove to work, "Free Bird" was playing on the radio. I wasn't in the mood for it, so I switched channels to the jazz station. As I listened, the tune slowly seemed familiar: it was a jazz rendition of the Beatles' "Blackbird." Spooked, I changed the station again only to catch an ad for a Black Crowes concert. I turned off the radio and got out of the car. Just before I entered the building, I almost tripped over a dead bird on the sidewalk staring up at me with his cold, beady eyes. What does it all mean? I don't know, but it was too weird not to mention.
Because of some slow scenes and a questionable reworking of the source material, Sweet Bird of Youth is not the definitive screen translation of Tennessee Williams. But it is unmistakably Tennessee Williams, which automatically gives it symbolic richness and complex characters. Fine acting helps the cause; Sweet Bird of Youth is worth a purchase for fans of nasty human drama.
This youth shall be tried as an adult and is sentenced to time already served. This bird is free to go.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Sweet Bird of Youth: Chasing Time
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