Friday, 23 April 2010

Richard Brooks’ Tennessee Williams II: Sweet Bird of Youth (1962)

Richard Brooks’ second adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ work was “Sweet Bird of Youth”. This story of loss youth and shattered dreams was and still is more criticised than “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” for giving in to censors and making a travesty of the play. While I have not read the play or seen a production, I know what the main differences are. And purists will forgive me, but I really like the film, differences or not, for reasons I will give below.

Like “Cat…” this was an MGM production. Several cast members, including Geraldine Page and Paul Newman made the transition from the Broadway production. By 1962 Newman was already a star, so I am sure they didn’t hesitate much on that. Page on the other hand didn’t had much of film career (and despite 8 nominations, including one for this, and 1 Oscar she’s not remembered for her films) and I am quite happy they kept her as she is my favourite thing in the film. She’s Alexandra del Lago, an aging star persuaded to make a comeback. When she sees herself on the screen, she panics and flees. In her escape she meets with Paul Newman’s Chance Wayne, a wannabe film star and reluctant gigolo aging fast. Del Lago describes herself as a monster, but the interesting thing about her is that while she is one, she is very conscious of it. She has seen it all before and knows what to expect. So she drowns her sorrows in vodka, pills, hashish and young men. She becomes more and more dependent on these and apparently vulnerable until the point you forget who she really is. As the third act starts, she changes – and what a fantastic scene that is. Suddenly she’s the full on monster she had so often stated, yet one who still holds your sympathy.

Newman’s extremely good looks are used and abused by the director, often treating him almost as a piece of meat. Which he sort of is, as that is how he survives, going from woman to woman (there was a mention of eccentrics which I was left wondering if there hadn’t been some men as well in his past…) and yet he is the most fragile of all characters, the most innocent, realising only towards the end the reality of his situation, but then facing it full on. And this is where most criticisms come from. The ending of the play is extremely violent and bleak. I doubt also that a transposition of that ending would result very well onscreen even if it was handled carefully – you’d still have to show far more than you do on stage, which would then alienate audiences. Richard Brooks’ original choice of ending was equally bleak but “less” violent – Newman’s character would be killed, which funnily enough might have worked really well. However MGM wouldn’t be persuaded and the ending as it stands differs completely of its source material.

So why do I like it, and think it holds well? Brooks rewrote the play adding and cutting – and I think he developed the character of Heavenly, Chance’s love interest and the daughter of a corrupt Southern baron in quite a different way from Williams. In the film, while she has been beaten by life and circumstances and mostly her father, she has not been defeated. Shirley Knight’s performance show us an assurance and an inner force that is barely contained and if triggered will explode. And she does – and this is why the ending makes sense. Because the character is consistent. Because what she does in the end is in character. True, maybe it’s not Williams’ character, but it’s the film’s. To me this is the may difference between the two adaptations. In “Cat…” as I said here, the changes transform Brick from one character into another in a sudden jump.

Ed Begley as Heavenly's monstrous father won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Page and Knight got nominated for Leading and Supporting Actress respectively, but lost to Ann Bancroft and Patty Duke both in “The Miracle Worker”. The other losers in the main category were Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn and Lee Remick (for “Days of Wine and Roses”) and Angela Lansbury was robbed of the Best Supporting Oscar for “The Manchurian Candidate”.


Judy said...

I saw this recently and liked it very much - didn't realise there had been changes from the stage version, so that is interesting to know. I did notice how much play is made of Newman's looks and wondered how much of that was in the play originally and how much had been written in for him. Hoping to see 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof' again soon too.

Anonymous said...

I recently watched this movie again and found it more interesting on a second viewing. Partly, I think, because the performances are so good that you can focus on them instead of the story. My interest was sparked by researching the film for an upcoming book, “Tough as Nails: The Life and Films of Richard Brooks,” to come out in spring 2011. Brooks had left MGM after the success of “Cat” and wrote and directed “Elmer Gantry to great acclaim – and a screenwriting Oscar. He returned to MGM for “Sweet Bird,” where he and producer Pandro S. Berman hoped to make another huge Tennessee Williams hit. (It wasn’t with respect to box office.) When I talked to Shirley Knight, she told me she played Heavenly as spiritually dead – indeed, there is an ethereal quality to her in that film – because the character had undergone a hysterectomy brought on by venereal disease from her lover, Chance. (This was changed to an abortion in the film.) Such changes were demanded by the censors, even though their power had been weakened by 1962. Brooks said he changed the play’s ending – Chance awaits Finley’s goons and the castration they promise – because he didn’t believe Chance would accept such a fate. The “happy ending” wasn’t Brooks’ idea, though. Brooks said he wanted Chance to be last seen on a garbage scow, as Boss Finley had promised, not dead but tossed out with the other rubbish. But MGM wanted a more uplifting ending – and got it, leaving both Brooks and Tennessee Williams peeved. – Douglass K. Daniel