A washed-up gigolo desperate for one last break, an aging actress trying to out-run her demons, and a nasty, manipulative politician determined to keep his prized daughter from the man she loves are just a few of the vivid characters who populate Sweet Bird of Youth, writer-director Richard Brooks' searing - albeit watered down - adaptation of Tennessee Williams' hit play. Adult themes, colorful confrontations, and terrific performances distinguish this steamy, often brutal Southern drama that's a showcase for Paul Newman, Geraldine Page, Shirley Knight, Rip Torn, and Ed Begley. A brand new master brings this underrated film to life like never before, and solid lossless audio and all the supplements from the 2006 DVD make this Blu-ray presentation from Warner Archive worthy of an upgrade. Highly Recommended.
"Nobody's young anymore."
Movie censorship was especially cruel to Tennessee Williams, whose stirring, provocative plays challenged the core principles of Hollywood's stringent Production Code. The adult themes that permeate his work and painful truths he lays bare often had to be altered or deleted altogether for film adaptations, thus reducing his full-boil narratives to a mild simmer. Vague euphemisms replaced blunt assessments about sexuality and taboo proclivities and endings were changed to punish reprehensible characters and add notes of optimism. While watered-down Williams is way better than no Williams at all, it's a shame the potent, impactful, often groundbreaking dramas of one of America's greatest playwrights couldn't be seen in their original form on the silver screen.
Though produced in the early 1960s, Sweet Bird of Youth still suffered its share of tinkering during the adaptation process, and though it doesn't quite measure up to such Williams classics as A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, it remains a searing, layered, and affecting tale that touches on a multitude of hot-button topics. Such prevailing Williams themes as lost youth, thwarted dreams, desperate longing, the horrors of aging, the parasitic nature of humanity, and the crushing of innocence and dignity by barbaric brutes course through this drama, along with more topical issues like political corruption, racism, fascism, oppression, and the allure of power and fame. Excess often defines Williams, and Sweet Bird of Youth wallows in it, sometimes to distraction. Though it all gets a bit thick at times, writer-director Richard Brooks somehow organizes all of Williams' thoughtful messages and transmits them loud and clear in an absorbing, affecting film that doesn't get the credit it deserves.
MGM imported most of the original Broadway actors for its screen treatment and entrusted them to the care of Brooks, who put a hopeful, heterosexual spin on Cat on a Hot Tin Roof four years before. That film, which could only allude to the homosexuality that was the play's focal point, was a runaway hit, and thanks to another revised ending that allows love to conquer all, Sweet Bird of Youth did very well at the box office, too. Similarities between the two films abound. Both take place in a stifling Southern setting, depict a fractured family torn apart by greed, feature a bald, blustery, rotund patriarch, and, most notably, star Paul Newman as a man facing a masculinity crisis. Though Sweet Bird of Youth often is seen as Cat's less sexy stepsister, it stands on its own as an engrossing and engaging piece of entertainment. Slick yet gritty, the movie embraces the material's brash and bawdy tone while still radiating the underlying tenderness, anguish, and heartbreak that make this story of unapologetic users and morally bankrupt, power-hungry bullies resonate.
Initially, it's tough to divorce Newman's portrayal of opportunistic gigolo Chance Wayne from his portrayal of Brick Pollitt in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. With his sullen, cynical demeanor, Southern accent, and penchant for walking around shirtless, Chance resembles Brick more than a little, but it soon becomes apparent he has no trouble satisfying women in the bedroom. A "chance" encounter with aging, faded movie star Alexandra Del Lago (Geraldine Page), who's gone AWOL from Hollywood after fearing her latest film will destroy her career, leads to an unlikely liaison and whole lotta strife on the Florida coast. During a wild road trip, Chance secures booze, drugs, and a degree of anonymity for Alexandra, and performs sexual favors as well. The two end up in Chance's hometown, where a drunken, depressed, and bedraggled Alexandra holes up in her hotel room under the crazy alias of Princess Kosmonopolis, while Chance tries to repair his tarnished reputation and rekindle his storybook romance with high school sweetheart Heavenly Finley (Shirley Knight), daughter of corrupt political kingpin Tom "Boss" Finley (Ed Begley), whose fanatical followers don masks, burn books, and commit mayhem under the guise of the Finley Youth Club, a name that eerily evokes a similar cult spawned by Hitler.
A former golden boy with an Adonis physique whose only crime was falling in love with Heavenly, Chance becomes an irritant to her doting yet domineering father who hopes to preserve his daughter's purity forevermore. Boss Finley tricks the young, starry-eyed Chance into leaving Heavenly to seek his fortune in New York, which leads to dashed dreams, poverty, and eventual desperation. Soon, Chance gets by the only way he can, using his body to prey off of lonely women, and now he plans to put the squeeze on Alexandra, too. By exploiting her vulnerability and blackmailing her about her drug use, Chance hopes to secure a screen test that will lead to stardom, riches, self-respect, and his long-delayed happily-ever-after with Heavenly, the only woman who can rescue him from his personal hell.
Though most of Williams' dramas deal with manipulations and shady dealings, Sweet Bird of Youth takes those ideas a step further, hammering home the point that everyone is a user in some shape or form, and when push comes to shove our own self-interest outweighs any feelings we might harbor for others. Moments of tenderness are fleeting, just like youth, which holds great promise but vanishes too quickly and leaves a trail of regret, despair, and shattered dreams in its wake. And like virginity, innocence cannot be reclaimed. Once life dirties us, Williams tells us, we can never be clean again.
By 1962, the censors' grip on Hollywood began to ease, which benefits Sweet Bird of Youth, but only to a certain extent. Brooks was forced to excise any references to castration and venereal disease - major elements of the stage play - and replace them with more innocuous, less offensive acts and afflictions. Marijuana use, though, was amazingly allowed to remain. (Chance calls it "pot"; Alexandra refers to it as "hashish.") I have to admit the open stash of weed on Alexandra's bed and free-wheeling rolling and smoking of cigarettes that transpires throughout the film raised my eyebrows. Sex is frankly depicted as well, with the promiscuous, animalistic behavior of both Chance and Alexandra accepted if not condoned.
Sweet Bird of Youth is that rare Williams drama that largely revolves around a man, but even though Alexandra doesn't get the lion's share of screen time, she's fascinating and flamboyant enough to join the gallery of Williams' other legendary female characters. Page plays her to the hilt, pulling out all the stops in an over-the-top portrayal of an over-the-top diva. Part Norma Desmond, part Blanche DuBois ("There is no place to retire to when you retire from the movies except oblivion," she memorably says), Alexandra is a jumble of contradictions and neuroses, and Page, in an Oscar-nominated performance (she lost to Anne Bancroft in The Miracle Worker), brilliantly evokes her maddeningly mercurial personality.
Newman projects a macho sexuality and devil-may-care cockiness, but makes sure we see the insecurity, anguish, and self-loathing that churn within Chance's chiseled physique. Always a loser, Chance believes it's finally his turn to win, but when life conspires against him once more, he adopts a fatalistic attitude that Newman effectively projects. He and Page originated their roles on Broadway and are so comfortable in their characters' respective skins we never once doubt their convictions.
Knight is, well, heavenly as Heavenly, earning a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nod for her touching portrayal of a bruised angel whose wings have been clipped by both her oppressive, shady family and a delusional lost love who swoops in and out of her life. Rip Torn, who would marry Page the following year, makes a big impression as the Boss's lapdog son (a role he also originated on Broadway) who sinks to reprehensible depths in a futile attempt to gain his disparaging father's love and approval.
Begley took home the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his colorful turn as the irascible, gleefully vicious Boss who, much like Broderick Crawford's Willie Stark in All the King's Men, prizes political power and public adulation above all else. Once you see the scene between him and Madeleine Sherwood (who shines as Boss's ditzy mistress who turns out not to be so ditzy after all) that prominently features a jewelry box, you'll never look at that iconic moment in Pretty Woman quite the same way again.
Brooks, who won an Oscar the previous year for his Elmer Gantry script (he also earned three Best Director nominations over the course of his 35-year career), respects Williams' voice and honors his eloquence. He nicely opens up the play, but is smart enough to keep as much of Williams' original dialogue as possible. Location shooting adds authenticity, but a key exterior sequence that occurs shortly before the climax is obviously - and inexplicably - shot on a soundstage. That lends an unfortunate artificiality to a tale that requires as much realism as possible.
Sweet Bird of Youth may never be ranked as one of Williams' defining works, but its insights on human nature will always be relevant and its condemnation of prejudice, corruption, and unchecked power resonates just as strongly today as it ever did. The film version, as best it can, remains faithful to Williams' vision and reminds us of the power one poetic voice can wield. Censorship may have diluted Williams - at least as far as the movies are concerned - but thank goodness it never silenced him. The truth deserves to be told, and love him or hate him, Williams tells the truth.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Sweet Bird of Youth arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu without music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
A brand new master breathes new life into Sweet Bird of Youth, lending it the kind of youthful glow Alexandra and Chance so desperately desire. The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer is a big step up from the 2006 DVD, flaunting enhanced color, increased vibrancy, better contrast and clarity, and a source print that's free of the faint speckling that plagued the previous edition. Faint grain preserves the film-like feel, with only one sequence featuring Shirley Knight and Ed Begley that begins around the 36-minute mark exhibiting excessive texture. (The scene looks the same on the DVD, so it's likely baked into the original film.)
The yellow lettering of the main titles exudes plenty of pop, as do bold reds and Page's copper-colored hair. Blacks are rich and deep, whites are bright and resist blooming, patterns are rock-solid, and superior shadow delineation keeps crush at bay. Page's alabaster skin is well rendered and nicely contrasts against Newman's bronze complexion. Close-ups are lovely, showcasing sweat and grime when necessary, but also providing a number of glamorous images of Page and Newman, whose ripped physique will certainly cause hearts to flutter. Without question, Sweet Bird of Youth has never looked better on home video, and fans of this sizzling drama shouldn't hesitate to upgrade.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track supplies clear, well-modulated sound without any age-related hiss, pops, or crackle. Dialogue is well prioritized and easy to comprehend, and excellent fidelity lends the various music cues (there's no original score) presence and depth. A wide dynamic scale handles all the highs and lows without a hint of distortion, and sonic accents like revving car engines, fisticuffs, and shattering glass are crisp and distinct. Though the play's the thing here, this is still a full-bodied track that nicely fills the room and immerses us in the intimate drama.
All the supplements from the 2006 DVD have been ported over to this Blu-ray release.
Featurette: "Sweet Bird of Youth: Chasing Time" (HD, 12 minutes) - The main draw of this slick 2006 retrospective are the reminiscences of cast members Rip Torn, Shirley Knight, and Madeleine Sherwood, all of whom have since passed away. (Knight died just two months ago in April 2020, Torn died in July of 2019, and Sherwood died in 2016.) Torn recalls his first meeting with Page, while Knight credits Page, Newman, Torn, and Sherwood with improving her skills as an actress. The featurette also salutes the direction of Richard Brooks, examines the story's provocative themes, and addresses the differences between Williams' original stage play and the slightly watered down, more optimistic screen adaptation.
Vintage Geraldine Page and Rip Torn Screen Test (HD, 3 minutes) - Torn plays Chance opposite Page in this terrific test that uses the play's original text, which strikingly differs from the screenplay in a few key passages. Page is brilliant (no wonder she got the part), and this snippet gives us a taste of what the movie might have been like had the censors not intervened.
Theatrical Trailer (HD, 3 minutes) - The film's original preview completes the extras package.
If you're a Tennessee Williams fan, you'll likely agree Sweet Bird of Youth can't quite match A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, or even The Night of the Iguana, but it's still a potent Southern drama packed with incendiary themes and distinguished by a gallery of top-notch performances. The story of a parasitic gigolo who latches onto a fading, aging movie actress and hopes to trade sex for a shot at stardom exposes the human race as a cult of users, manipulators, and bullies that preys on the weak and exploits the vulnerable for personal gain. Paul Newman, Geraldine Page, Shirley Knight, Rip Torn, Ed Begley, and Madeleine Sherwood all shine, and Warner Archive honors them and writer-director Richard Brooks with a superior video transfer that leaves the previous DVD in the dust. Solid lossless audio and all the extras from the 2006 DVD sweeten the appeal of this release, which is well worth the upgrade. Sweet Bird of Youth is often raw, occasionally riotous, and always riveting, and it comes highly recommended.