My chum Tim and I watch a film every week, taking it in turns to pick. The only catch? Each film has to be linked to the previous one by a shared actor. We’re on the hunt for classics we’ve missed, hidden gems and films to reappraise now we’re, uh, getting older.
We finished up our Robert Redford season with The Sting, which is still rather good.
It was back to the warm embrace of Paul Newman, and I had first pick. We’ve already tackled a few Newman films as part of CRFC – The Sting of course, plus Butch Cassidy, Pocket Money, Harper, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, The Prize and Torn Curtain. I had a look through his filmography and had to stop myself getting too overwhelmed. Limiting myself to just his 50s and 60s output I had a list of ten films I was pretty keen to try, but one stood out above the others – Sweet Bird of Youth.
Sweet Bird of Youth and me
Sweet Bird of Youth is an adaptation of a Tennessee Williams play. I’ve not seen it on stage or read the play (and his plays are worth reading, not just seeing – his stage directions are wonderful; here’s an excerpt from the stage directions of A Streetcar Named Desire: ‘Her delicate beauty must avoid a strong light. There is something about her uncertain manner, as well as her white clothes, that suggests a moth.’). A few weeks back we watched The Chase, which I described as being a sub-Tennessee Williams melodrama. Ever since I’ve been hankering after a bit of the proper stuff, and so here we are. Other than its provenance I know nothing about it going in.
Sweet Bird of Youth (1962): Drifter Chance Wayne returns to his hometown after many years of trying to make it in the movies. Arriving with him is a faded film star he picked up along the way, Alexandra Del Lago. 7.4 stars
Well this was exactly what Doctor Melodrama ordered.
- An Oscar-winning performance as a controlling patriarch from Ed Begley (not junior)? Tick.
- Faded star with all the airs and lack of graces you might expect? Tick.
- Son stewing with emasculated rage? Tick.
- Lovelorn daughter waiting, but not hoping, for the return of her troubled sweetheart? Tick.
- Town that’s wired like a powderkeg and ready to blow? Tick.
- Paul Newman as a drifter who likes taking his shirt off? DOUBLE TICK.
It’s a brilliant, heady trip below the surface of a small town, secrets being revealed like scabs being picked off a wound. The central relationship between Newman’s drifter (Chance Wayne, would you believe) and Geraldine Page’s glamourpuss Alexandra Del Lago is steamy in a way I wasn’t quite expecting for 1962. It’s where those Newman gifs come from.
Ed Begley is delightfully horrible as the town bigwig, particularly in a tense scene with his long-term mistress, and a young Rip Torn is his perfectly malevolent brat of a son.
The whole thing is heavy like a late summer sun, exactly the way Tennessee Williams should be. Except… (SPOILERS AHEAD)
While some aspects were more daring than I expected, the censors took the explosive ending and turned it into a blank. In the film, the lovelorn daughter’s pregnancy and illegal abortion is changed to venereal disease leading to a hysterectomy. Still pretty hard stuff for the early 60s. But then at the very close of the film Chance Wayne is beaten up and told never to return, as “no woman is going to want him now…” He’s been whacked in the face a couple of times, but is otherwise pretty unaffected. In the play… he’s castrated. Bit stronger, right? And it unfortunately completely deflates everything that’s come before, everything that has been building to this pivotal, unspeakable moment.
Still very much worth watching though, as up until that final moment it’s pitch perfect.
A great effort, but a shame it didn’t quite have the balls to go all the way. Impotent at the climax. A bit limp at the end. You get the idea. Now for a NEW CATEGORY:
Paul Newman Shirtless-o-meter
I’ve still got a long list of Newman films just from two decades of his career that I want to see, but will Tim humour me with one of them or pick something a bit more recent? We shall see…