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Sweet Bird of Youth (1962) is a film adaptation of Tenessee Williams play directed by Richard Brooks. with Paul Newman and Geraldine Page reprising parts they played on Broadway.

Paul Newman plays Chance Wayne, an ambitious, good-looking dreamer, always expecting to find his big break around the corner. He had some small sucess years ago on stage, and is sure he will make it in Hollywood. He drifts, always returning to his home town and his one true love Heavenly (Shirley Knight). She is the daughter of the town's corrupt political boss and she waits patiently and unquestioningly for him while survives as a gigolo living off older women and using them to open doors for him.

The story takes place on his last visit home, when he is travelling with fading, alcoholic movie star Alexandra Del Lago(Geraldine Page), who is fleeing from what she sees as a failed comeback. Chance thinks he can use her contacts to get himself a screen test and that this will finally be it. The dynamic between these two is the central focus of the film, as she glories in his youth, but taunts his dreams; and he flatters, cajoles and even threatens her, trying to get what he wants.

The atmosphere in town is tense. Nobody makes Chance welcome. Boss Finley (Ed Begley) is facing a political attack, and has hemmed Heavenly in with guards. He wants Chance out of town as soon as possible. Her Aunt (Mildred Dimmock), who has always treated him like a son, nervously tells him to leave too. When he follows the family to church, Chance discovers that last time he left, Heavenly was pregnant.

Heavenly's brother, a vicious thug, approaches Alexandra, while Chance is out, and menaces her, scaring her badly and pushing her back into the drinking she has been avoiding. Drunk, she goes looking for Chance, and begs him to take her away, but he has been offered the opportunity to see Heavenly, and walks out on her.

When he meets Heavenly, she too repulses him, and he returns to the hotel to check out. Alexandra receives a call from Walter Winchell, raving about her new film. She is delighted and though Chance keeps urging her, she doesn't mention him at all. After the call he reproaches her bitterly, and she tells him that by walking out on her he's voided any contract they ever had. She paints a picture of his future, at her beck and call however she wants him -- as chauffeur, butler or lover -- her choice -- until his good looks leave him.

While they argue, a rally is gathering outside for Boss Finley to defend himself. As Chance watches, a question is raised from the floor, regarding Heavenly's abortion, which until then, he didn't know about. Rebelling against Alexandra, and horrified about the abortion, he goes to the Finley's home, where he is beaten by Heavenly's brother and a group of friends.

As Heavenly returns home with her father, she sees her brother bring his stick down on Chance's face, ruining his attractiveness forever. Appalled by this brutality, she rushes to him, and the pair drive away, leaving Boss Finley ranting behind them.

This film, throughout, has the feeling of a play that has been recorded, rather than a film in its own right. The performances are strong, (Geraldine Page and Ed Begley won oscars for their roles) but theatrical. Emotion runs high, and tension is well maintained, although the characters are on the whole, unpleasant people. Only Heavenly and Aunt Nonnie are really sympathetic -- the rest are cynical, disillusioned, violent or corrupt. Even so, you find yourself pitying Alexandra, who managed to be vulnerable as well as embittered; and supporting Chance, in the hope that he might finally stop being a loser and do something right and good.

Not a great classic, but well worth watching.

node your homework

This essay is adapted from an older essay of mine, discussing the dramatic treatment of characters who "look back with longing to a time that has been sweetened in the remembering" in plays written by Tennessee Williams.

Sweet Bird of Youth is a play by Tennessee Williams that concerns itself with looking back to the past. The main character, Chance Wayne, is a wannabe actor who earns his money as a gigolo, and returns to his hometown with a Hollywood star who believes her comeback picture has flopped. However 'Youth' does not manage to fulfil its aims as successfully as other work by Williams, and little use is made of music and the small symbolic elements are not developed enough.

Chance Wayne's chief memory is of his time with his former lover, Heavenly Finley, and his aim is to be reunited with her. Unfortunately for Chance, circumstances have seen to there being little chance of this occuring, as he managed to pass syphilis onto Heavenly previously, leading her to have her ovaries removed in an operation. Somewhat understandably Heavenly's family now seek vengeance, in the form of the castration of Chance. Even Heavenly now wants nothing to do with Chance, but he still expects to win her back.

Chance remembers how the town regarded him before his fame became infamy, "Man, how that town buzzed with excitement", but the reasons for his returns were not for his family, but for Heavenly. Chance believes that the biggest difference between people is those who experienced "pleasure in love" and those that haven't, and since he believes Heavenly and himself experienced this, they will never forget each other.

In some respects Chance has similarities to Jim in 'The Glass Menagerie', they were both high school heroes and they both played the lead role in plays to great acclaim, but the rest of their lives fail to live up to their initial success. Alexandra Del Lago identifies this in Chance, "a laurel wreath on your forehead, given too early, without enough effort to earn it." This is where the similarities end, for Jim comes across as a nice guy, while Chance couldn't be described like that;he's somewhat an egotistical monster, not that bothered about the death of his mother and seems completely unaware of the concept of modesty.

Chance's greatest problem is the departure of his one marketable commodity - his youth, as he is caught up in the drag of time. This is remarked up on by Aunt Nonnie, who tells him, "What you want is to go back to is your clean, unashamed youth. And you can't." Chance still believes that he can still become a star, but his experiences have changed him, he no longer has the freshness of a young man. He admits this to Alexandra, "time does it. Hardens people," but time has done more than just that to Chance. Alexandra, viewing Chance with pity, is reminded of Frank Albertzart. She fears Chance may share his fate, an early death brought on by disillusionment and failure, so she notifies him about his misfortune,

"you've gone past something you couldn't afford to go past; your time, your youth, you've passed it. It's all you had, and you've had it".

Although Chance genuinely believes he could still 'make it', he has accumulated enough bad memories during his adult life that, despite not accepting amnesia as an affliction, (after Alexandra announces her intention to forget) Chance pronounces his envy, "there's nothing better than that, I wish I could do it." There is one occasion where it emerges that Chance has managed to forget something, when he claims that his play 'The Valiant' was second in "that lousy national contest," and Aunt Nonnie corrects him saying the play got fourth place, or honourable mention.

However egocentric Chance appears, it should be noted that he is not the only person in St. Cloud to have fond memories of his past. Aunt Nonnie remembers when he was "the finest, nicest, sweetest boy in St. Cloud" while Miss Lucy recalls that "Chance Wayne used to be so attractive I couldn't stand it.". Significantly these endorsements are both from women, the male characters appear more antagonistic towards Chance. Is this because they are jealous of his sexual virility and they feel threatened by Chance's propinquity? Could this be the real reason for Chance's castration?

Alexandra Del Lago also has fond memories of the past, remembering when she was a 'real artist' not a 'monster'. But they have not sweetened for her and mention of her recent past prompts her to declare, "I want to forget anything." Indeed her memories of the reactions of the audience at the premiere of her come-back picture seem exaggerated after it is revealed that it has "broken box-office records".

Boss Finley, Heavenly's father, prefers to look back to a previous time. Boss see himself as a christ-like figure whose mission is to ensure black and white blood are not intermingled, believing he was called down by God to the South when he was fifteen. The incident which appears to indicate to me that his memories have sweetened is his tale to Heavenly about his present to his dying wife. Was laughter really her reaction or is this just an old man attempting to justify his actions to himself?

It is hard to feel sympathy for the characters in 'Sweet Bird of Youth', as despite their problems most of the characters are living a life of luxury, but come across as a pretty disagreeable crowd. This doesn't mean that it is a bad and unredeemable play, it just doesn't keep up to the high standards set by Williams's earlier output.


Written in 1996 for CSYS English.

This write-up refers to the play, not the film referred in Demeter's work above. Like most Hollywood treatments of Tennessee Williams, several elements and references of a sexual nature had been removed (many of these changes were necessary to secure approval from the Production Code), and a saccharine 'feel-good' ending added.

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