Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Richard Brooks | Sweet Bird of Youth

nobody’s young anymore
by Douglas Messerli

Richard Brooks (screenplay, based on the drama by Tennessee Williams, and director) / 1962

Just as Richard Brooks had bowdlerized Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, washing away any literal suggestions that Brick was gay, so did he alter the ending of his 1962 version of Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth, but here the change makes very little sense given that the movie quite openly deals with a gigolo, the Benzedrine-popping Chance Wayne (Paul Newman), who services the aging movie actress, Alexandra Del Lago (Geraldine Page), herself an alcoholic who  smokes hashish. Chance, in turn, has passed on venereal disease to his childhood girlfriend (Shirley Knight), whose father is an open bigot, “Boss” Finley (Ed Begley), who has bought up the state gas reserves along with the services of the Florida State governor as well as lining the pockets of the local mayor and the head of the city hospital, who “cured” his daughter through sterilization. That after that list of transgressions, the director should still feel the necessity of gussying up the character of Chance and switching the boy’s final castration to a scarring the face makes absolutely no sense, particularly after Finley’s henchmen make it clear that they are going to destroy “lover boy’s meal ticket,” and Finley himself earlier warns, after referring to Chance as a “Prince”: “I had a dog called Prince. I had to butcher him to keep all the bitches in town from being violated.”

      Despite those needless changes, nonetheless, Brook’s version of the 1959 plays comes through remarkably well through the powerful tragi-comical huffs and puffs of Page as she comes out of a several-day stupor into which she has crawled after witnessing the camera’s unforgiving revelations of her aging face. The handsome, golden toned and firm-bodied Chance has been a salve and restoration which she has awarded herself. As she gradually comes to in a hotel bed in St. Cloud Florida on, coincidentally, an Easter celebration of and white washing of “Boss” Finley, she tries to recall just who her bed partner is. Donning glasses, partly broken in a drunken fall, Del Lago, hiding under the moniker of Princess Kosmonopolis, summarizes the tone of Williams play: “Well, I may have done better…but God knows I have done worse.”

     Chance, meanwhile, has only done worse in his spiral downwards from a young man with a promising theater career into an older, after-the-Korean war, actor knocking on so many doors that he finally has entered all the wrong ones. As he admits to his age-conscious “princess,” “Nobody’s young anymore.”

    During Del Lago’s dazed stupor he has gotten her to sign him on as an actor for a film company in which she is partner. And later, to protect her need for him, he has caught her talking about her drugs on tape, even daring to blackmail his employer if she does not go through with the deal and provide him with the money necessary to reach his goal.

     She laughs in his face, but negotiates with him, nevertheless, demanding sex—now that she has been temporarily resurrected—in exchange for the money and gig. Chance recognizes her as a kind of “monster,” a being entirely devoted to herself. Yet in her near complete honesty, he also must grant that she is a kind of “nice monster,” as opposed to the real monsters—Finley, his bourbon-swilling political friends, his book-burning, idiot son (Rip Torn), and the others of the community who capitulate to Finley’s bullying tactics—with whom he has grown up. From the wrong side of the tracks, Chance is a kind of mirror image, in fact, of Del Lago, a fact she immediately perceives; but while she has, at least in the past, had real talent, Chance, as she puts it, may have only talent in bed.

       What she doesn’t know is that Chance is also an incurable Romantic, a man still in love with his high school sweetheart, Heavenly, the daughter of the despicable Finley, and that he has returned home, once more, to take her away with him to his pipe dream acting career in Hollywood. Never before had I comprehended just how similar, in some respects, is Williams’ Chance Wayne—even by name suggesting a kind gambling cowboy—to Willy Loman and his sons. Finley, in fact, has recognized that immediately, providing the boy with the money to get away, prove himself and, incidentally, get rid of him and his attentions to his beloved daughter. In a sense, Finely is a more ruthless kind of Willie, selling the young man a perverted notion of the American Dream: “This is America. Today you’re nobody, tomorrow you’re somebody.”  But, of course, it is a dream deferred, as Langston Hughes put it, a dream that in its delusional grandeur can never come true. And, in that sense, Chance is a fool as well as a man who has given up all of his values to achieve the impossible. Although he may be as much a “monster” as Del Lago, unlike her, he is a self-deluded monster, a being who thinks he is acting on behalf of others through his own insatiable desires.

     And unlike Miller, Williams’ does not even attempt to deem Chance and Del Lago’s absurd excesses as a subject of serious thought. If “attention must be paid,” it is not for the sanctity of their lives but for the insane comical performances of the larger-than-life exaggerations of their daily behavior. Yet there is a kind sacredness in those exaggerations. If they are fools, they are also, strangely enough, figures not unlike Christ, recognizing, as both finally do, that they must accept the inevitable crucifixion for their acts. Del Lago—whose name suggests a strange kind of water saint, an element that surrounds them throughout (the film was shot not in the South, but in Malibu)—is, at film’s end, determined to return to the bruising honesty of the camera’s glare when, through Chance’s accidental reconnection of her with columnist Walter Winchell, she discovers that her film has been a hit. So too, upon discovering that he has infected and destroyed the love he has had for Heavenly, Chance walks directly into the enemy’s hands, almost ecstatically accepting their torture as expiation for his acts.

     That that punishment should be nothing more than a broken nose and a possible scar, is absolutely absurd. It has to be the destruction of that one thing for which Chance truly had a sexual magneticism, the magical ability that all of Williams’ anti-heroes share—and which too many Americans, encapsulated in the hypocritical puritanical outcries of the Finley’s of the world, still can’t accept—to sweat it out in lust.

     The fact that Brooks shows Heavenly joining up with her former lover and that her long-forbearing Aunt Nonnie (Mildred Dunnock) curses her tormentor, Finley, as she leaves the house (“You can go straight to hell!”) really doesn’t matter; they are merely two Marys reiterating the miracle which they have just witnessed. For Williams’ Christ has clearly risen from the dead.

Los Angeles, Memorial Day, 2012

1 comment:

  1. Great cast backs Paul Newman's Chance Wayne, a Hollywood hopeful who never gets to see his star shine.