The Compelling Drama of “Sweet Bird of Youth”

Three years after it debuted on stage, Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth jumped to the big screen in a riveting film version that was released by Warner Brothers in 1962. The movie, which controversially took liberties from its source material followed young wastrel Chance Wayne (Paul Newman)  as he returns to his Florida backwater hometown with fading screen star Alexandra Del Lago (Geraldine Page) in tow, hoping that ex-lover Heavenly Finley (Shirley Knight) would join him in his last-ditch bid for Hollywood discovery. Unfortunately, Heavenly’s political boss dad (Best Supporting Actor Oscar-winner Ed Begley) ran Chance off in the first place…and will make him sorry he ever came back.

As with all of Williams’ works, there is as much drama smoldering under the surface as there is directly in the face of the audience. However, despite this being a powerful rendering of the story (including an impressive appearance from co-star  Rip Torn), one can’t but help feel that there is a missed opportunity here. Richard Brooks does an astonishing and underrated directing job, but the aforementioned divergence from the original work — most notably a “happy” ending that removes the punch of Williams’ vision — is slapdash and disrespectful to the playwright’s intention…leading one to wonder how much better this film’s already fine critical reputation would be if the conclusion were as bleak as its stage counterpart’s were.

Yet somehow this film version of Sweet Bird of Youth stills soars, and while it is no longer the initial expose on faded promise that the play was, it tells a unique story that is worthy of being told. That may be why it continues to endure, just as the human spirit does.