Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Sweet Bird of Youth

Because I have not read or seen Tennessee Williams’ 1959 play Sweet Bird of Youth (I’ll read it soon), I cannot judge the Richard Brooks 1962 film adaptation by comparison. I doubt that much if any dialogue in the film was written by Williams. If I am wrong, then the play must be a presentiment of his long decline. The film invokes so many Southern stereotypes and conventions that it would be difficult to list them all. It is a panoply of every perverted manifestation of what would pass for sin and corruption in the 1950s that Brooks or Williams could possibly conceive of. The film is highly mannered and melodramatic. Paul Newman in the role of the main character Chance Wayne plays a one-dimensional, one-note gigolo who believes that sooner or later, primarily on the basis of sex and his good looks, he will break into the Hollywood big time. The love of his life is a woman named Heavenly Finley (Shirley Knight), the daughter of the local political boss—a former governor who swaggers with all the subtlety of Orson Welles in a B-grade wine commercial.

In a Williams play one looks for nuanced psychological insight into human character. We don’t find that here. Newman’s character is engaged in a long and protracted decline. His companion at the start of the film is an aging Hollywood actress, Alexandra Del Lago (Geraldine Page), who he hopes, in return for his service as a driver and in other capacities, will get him a screen test. She is an egotistical, narcissistic diva hooked on drugs and alcohol and her dream of a comeback. Boss Finley (Ed Begley—he has the best role in the film) doesn’t want his daughter to waste her life on Newman, so he connives in one way or the other to keep them apart. When Newman leaves town and Heavenly discovers she is pregnant with his baby, Boss Finley finds a doctor who will perform an abortion and who also agrees to marry her. Boss Finley’s son Tom (Rip Torn) is the head of the “Finley Youth Brigade” (or some such name), a quasi-vigilante group on the same level as the Hitler Youth. Heavenly herself has apparently resorted to self-destructive promiscuity out of despair over her father’s insistence that she stay away from Chance.

Boss Finley is a Southern demagogue in the vein of Huey Long, but he is mainly one protracted cartoon stereotype. He professes outrage at accusations he is corrupt, yet he doesn’t hesitate to strong arm, manhandle, and intimidate to get his way. He demands that his daughter appear with him at a televised rally so that she can deny rumors of her profligate behavior. The result is that Finley’s political rival (apparently a professor from a local university) appears at the rally to announce via loudspeaker that Finley arranged to have his daughter marry the doctor who performed an abortion on her. (For some reason, he doesn’t mention Boss Finley’s long-term affair with a floozy named Miss Lucy).

Several comic scenes focus on Boss Finley’s political cronies and their willingness to tell him whatever he wants to hear and believe. The film suggests that Southern demagogues thrive on the basis of gullible and unthinking mobs who respond to populist slogans and platitudes. Interestingly, the film highlights Boss Finley’s use of media such as radio and television to spread his political message—carrying forward on the points made in Robert Rosen’s 1949 adaptation of All the King’s Men and the Elia Kazan film A Face in the Crowd (1957, based on the Budd Schulberg screenplay). Chance Wayne tries to contact various Hollywood gossip mongers such as Walter Winchell to promote his faltering career.

A basic theme is the search for happiness and satisfaction—for success. Chance Wayne was moving towards a successful career in acting when Boss Finley managed to get him sent to Korea. There he discovers that he is a coward and returns home in disgrace. Alexandra Del Lago, once a film star famous for her beauty, has been in decline for fifteen years—she longs for a comeback. Boss Finley’s career depends on his popularity with voters. Heavenly believes happiness means her relationship with Chance. All of these characters struggle to recover the success and happiness they believe once lay within their grasps. In contrast are the teeming anonymous crowds that Del Lago and Finley depend on for their fame and power, and whom Chance Wayne hopes to convince of his talent. The film portrays these crowds as populated with leering Hogarthian mosters attracted to sex and beauty, demagogic promises and moralistic platitudes, and impervious to reason and ideals, those qualities of an enlightened and educated electorate on which democracies depend for their survival. This film’s view of American democracy, of the American South, is dim indeed.

Based on descriptions I have read, the film substantially changes events in the play. In the play, Heavenly contracts a venereal disease from her relationship with Chance and has a hysterectomy as a result, while in the film she becomes pregnant and has an abortion. In the play Boss Finley’s thugs castrate Chance, while in the film they merely break his nose. The play has a decidedly unhappy ending in which Chance and Heavenly do not reconcile, while in the film they drive away together in a Cadillac—even so, it is impossible to imagine they will have much of a life.

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