Sweet Bird Of Youth

1962, Movie, NR, 120 mins

Review

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Williams's steamy play gets the Richard Brooks whitewash--as with CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF. Instead of Newman's hustler getting castrated, it's the original stage piece that gets emasculated here. Newman, Page, Sherwood, and Torn repeat their Broadway roles, and Hollywood replaced Sidney Blackmer, Diana Hyland, and Martine Bartlett with Begley, Knight, and Dunnock--all in good form. Admittedly, Brooks was under orders to make changes to the play in order to secure approval from the Production Code. But he doesn't allow the expert cast to go to the mat like they need to.

Newman is a gigolo who thinks he can make it in film; all he needs is a break. In Florida, he meets Page, a fading movie star who is at the end of her tether. Her last movie is, she is certain, a dismal flop. When she meets Newman and he gives her a ride to his home town, she begs him for more gin. Later, when they stay in a motel together, she demands an oxygen inhalator. Then she asks Newman if he can find her some hashish to smoke. In order to keep the virile Newman at her side, she tells him that she can help him get his start in Hollywood by introducing him to the right people. They travel to Newman's hometown before going back to California. Newman wants to see his one-time girlfriend, Knight, who is the apple of her father's (Begley's) eye. Begley, a corrupt politician who runs the area, hates Newman with a passion because the last time Newman came through town he left Knight pregnant and she had to get an abortion. (In the play, she was liberally infected with syphilis by her lover and had to have her ovaries removed.) Begley wants to get even with Newman for what he did to Knight, so he plots revenge with his lackey son, Torn.

All of Williams's Southern Gothic themes are intermingled here: violence, familial conflict, sexual neurosis, the mentality of the mob. Most of it comes across as overheated nonsense, but Page's egomaniacal telephone soliloquy at the film's climax is reason enough to tune in. (For devotees of camp, BIRD was filmed for TV in 1989 in an almost total misfire directed by Nicholas Roeg, with Mark Harmon more flaccid than Newman, Rip Torn moving up a generation to Begley's role, the underrated Valerie Perrine in for Sherwood, and Elizabeth Taylor playing Alexandra Del Lago like a pretty Marie Dressler.)

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