' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Sweet Bird Of Youth

Friday, June 15, 2012

Friday's Old Fashioned: Sweet Bird Of Youth

Chance Wayne (Paul Newman) rolls back into the hometown he long ago abandoned in a convertible for a chariot, cool as a cucumber listening to Charlie Parker, with a vodka-chugging, pill-popping Hollywood starlet spectacularly named Alexandra Del Lago (Geraldine Page) at his side – er, passed out in the backseat. He deposits her in a hotel suite and then sidles down to the bar where he orders a martini and makes a phone call to the Louella Parsons, ensuring the people he knows at the nearby table hear him making a call to the Louella Parsons. Clearly he’s letting these small town bumpkins know who went out to the west coast and struck cinematic oil. But wait, the Louella Parsons can’t be reached. Does he really know her? Or is this all a ruse?

This adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ stage play “Sweet Bird Of Youth” by Richard Brooks (who also helmed as director) sets up the stage and then slowly, over the course of two hours, draws back the curtain to reveal the seedy, suspect goings-on backstage. Chance Wayne, it turns out, is no Tinseltown Player, he is the driver and/or loverboy of Ms. Del Lago (i.e. Princess Kosmonopolis) and he has come home to re-gain the girl that got away. That is the subtly named Heavenly Finley (Shirley Knight), daughter to the subtly named “Boss” Finley (Ed Begley), so called for his status as the local ornery political head honcho. He’s such a sexist pig he smacks around his mistress AND his daughter who he also prims and poses as a perfect “heavenly” angel (ah?) for means of electability. And this is why years ago he denied Chance Wayne’s request to ask for Heavenly’s hand in marriage. And this is why he and his unctuous son routinely make un-veiled threats against Chance upon his return to mind his own beeswax.

Chance, it turns out, wound up out west to prove he could be a Cary Grant as opposed to merely wearing a bartending jacket fashioned after one Cary Grant wore. And this is why his intention is not just to re-woo Heavenly but to blackmail Princess into granting him the shot in the movies to which he feels he has become entitled. And, in the end, the latter makes us wonder about his true motivations for the former?

Paul Newman is so inherently Paul Newman-y that even in that introductory scene in the bar with him masquerading as a movie star it’s hard to see him for what he is – a rat’s ass. He wasn’t always this way, as the movie will show us, but since leaving his hometown and coming back he has morphed into a desperate manipulator. Thus, when Heavenly pledges her desire to still be with Chance as opposed to the town doctor to whom she is engaged at the behest of the “Boss”, Chance rebuffs because he still must see through his dreams. But this, of course, all smells distinctly of hogwash. 

Tennessee, it would seem, had a mighty big bone to pick with Hollywood. Whether it’s the way Alexandra del Lago is nothing but drunk, disturbed and useless until she is suddenly offered a new part to play at which point she cleans herself up lickety split as if to suggest her whole personality was a put-on or how it is eventually revealed Chance’s return has less to do with winning the hand of fair Heavenly than with blackmailing his movie star lady friend into getting him a movie star part. Though don’t think the author sides with the small town. On the contrary, he paints them to be just as conniving and cold-hearted as the out-of-towners. Williams hailed from Dixie but the worldview is strikingly similar to that of a particular Dane……one Lars von Trier. Everyone is evil. Except for Heavenly. Because, you know, obviously.

The happy ending, however, seems oddly out of place, probably because it wasn’t happy at all when performed on Broadway. Yet for that very reason it seems to contain a certain amount of splendid poetic justice. Can’t you just imagine Tennessee Williams watching the movie version, seeing the ending, laughing, taking a gulp of bourbon, and saying, “Yup. That’s the Hollywood I was referring to all right.”


Andrew K. said...

For one, so so so SO happy that you reviewed this. It's a favourite of mine and it is rarely remembered which is a shame because I think it's a fine adaptation and boasts a tour-de-force performance from Geraldine Page (which I am unable to look away from)...although the entire cast is pretty special (Mildred Dunnock, in particular, does some interesting things.)

Things that make me thinking: your description of Chance. He's not very good, but I wouldn't call him an ass, and I don't think Tennessee thinks so either (although, he doesn't think Blanche is "bad" either and people are pretty split on her). It's of course one of the good things about the film because you can extrapolate what you wish from the characters.

And, that final monologue from Alexandra about them all being monsters essentially sums it all up - excellently.

(The ending though inorganic makes me pleased because - have you read the play? - the actual ending just wrecks me. Terribly. The play is really so deceptive, it lulls you along on this wave of ironic near comedy and then devastates. And the new ending gives the actors some nice bits.)

Long comment, done.

Anonymous said...

My goodness, that photo of Newman w/ his eyes closed... I'm... speechless. This man just exudes so much sexiness [fan self]

Nick Prigge said...

Andrew: I see what you're saying. I do. And they do present him with reasons for being the way he is but......when he shunned Heavenly there at the end, man, I just couldn't settle with his behavior. I thought that was cruel. And when it turned out his whole scheme was blackmail. Ah well, Hollywood taints so many. (And no, I haven't read that play. I kind of want to now to get a handle on the real end.)

Ruth: Newman is a handsome man. I mean, he'd have to be, right, to land Joanne Woodward?

Lasso The Movies said...

This is one of those movies that I have never seen even though I have owned it for years. Thanks to everyone's thoughts, I am going to bump it up on my list and watch it soon. Thanks for the thoughts, and I look forward to more.