It’s time for a Paul Newman double feature, apparently, and this was the first film. Not one I’d ever heard of but directed by Richard Brooks, who I think is probably under-rated as a film director. Sweet Bird of Youth is the seamy tale of an aging-but-still-Paul-Newman-gigolo who rescues/kidnaps a famous-but-aging movie star (Geraldine Page) and brings her cross-country to St. Cloud (in the Florida panhandle) in order to extort a movie deal out of her that he can share with his once good-girl girlfriend, Heavenly. Heavenly is played Shirley Knight, now probably best known as Paul Blart’s mom, but last seen by us in Redwood Highway.
It’s so squalid and seamy and sultry and sweaty it feels like a Tennessee Williams play. Which, in fact, it was. (A co-worker pointed that out to me the next day.)
The story is that Chance (Newman) has driven Alexandra Del Lago (Page) to St. Cloud while keeping her drunk and stoned and with a master plan of getting her to confess on tape how she manages to smuggle in all the fabulous drugs she’s on. Well, specifically, hashish, a gift from our Arab friends. Hers is smuggled in from Turkey which, frankly, I don’t understand since it’s just a cannabis product, and there’s nothing that beats good ol’ American cannabis.
I have no idea what I’m talking about. Williams may have, he may not have. It’s hardly important.
Chance is trying to get to Heavenly but her dad, Boss Finley (played by Ed Begley, known around here as the hero of 12 Angry Men (1957)—well, next to Lee J. Cobb, of course) basically separated the two when they were young and in love by convincing Chance that he had to make a name for himself before whisking away the virginal Heavenly. Boss Finley then apparently spent the next ten years trying to marry her off to old men with money, and she apparently responded by floozing it up.
It’s all very Southern Gothic which, as you (should) know, I usually find as unpleasant as warm sweet tea. Nonetheless, I liked this film.
There’s some serious scenery chewing going on between Page and Newman, and it’s as good as it is ridiculously stagey. This is an actor’s film and these two can really act. Everyone does great: Begley gets to play a different kind of scumbag. Knight hits just the right balance between helpless victim and hero. Rip Torn, whom I did not recognize in the least, is fantastic as the thuggish son who does all of Boss’s dirty work, apparently without much support from his father, who seems ready to throw him under the bus as it becomes politically convenient. (As it turns out, everyone did great at least in part because they’d all been doing the roles on Broadway for hundreds of shows.)
Did I mention the abortion? No? Well, the movie doesn’t either, exactly. Actually, I think it’s presented as a venereal disease, but that doesn’t make any sense. It was an abortion in the play and the last minute dodge here clanks. There’s also a scene at the end where it looks like they’re going to castrate ol’ Chance, but they do not. This does not make any sense either but I was grateful for it, and for what was, essentially, a happy ending.
This movie was remade with Mark Harmon and Elizabeth Taylor in the ’80s, but there is literally no way that could be good. Washed up Geraldine Page is not quite 40 here. Elizabeth Taylor would be nearly 70, which…yeah, no that don’t make no kind of sense. Also. Mark Harmon? vs Paul Newman? Help me out here, ladies…
Anyway, I can recommend this, sorta, if you like acting-heavy dramas (I do) and don’t mind your Southern Gothic watered down (I really don’t mind that at all). In some ways the kids would prefer this to the next feature: Cool Hand Luke.
And, most importantly, the Flower would finally be able to identify Paul Newman, whom she somehow envisioned as a cross between Paul Simon and Randy Newman. (Despite the whole Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid show we saw earlier.) That confusion? Cleared forever.