Sweet Bird of Youth ★★★★★

2017 movie viewings, #87. Regular readers will know that I've been on a major Tennessee Williams kick this year (see the end of this review for links to all the other movies I've covered), precisely because I have such a strong push-pull relationship to his work, one which mirrors the way his audience in general felt about it in the years he was actively writing. Known as "actor showcase" scripts that delve into what was shocking material during the Mid-Century Modernist years of his popular height (including homosexuality, drug abuse, prostitution, and the worthlessness of the Catholic Church), his plays and resulting movies are so enjoyable exactly because they get so ridiculously over-the-top at points, the very definition of "belting it out to the back of the room" acting; and the fact that Williams tended to evoke the same stereotypes over and over (the wilted Southern belle, the blustery patriarch, the tough mean-spirited drunk, etc etc) is what makes him such an iconic figure now in the 21st century, but are the same elements that made countercultural audiences grow tired of him as the Mid-Century Modernist era slowly turned into the Postmodernist one in the 1970s.

And you can see each and every one of these things on display in Sweet Bird of Youth, released in 1962 in the middle of the "Williams Can Do No Wrong" part of his career, when every single one of his celebrated scripts became Oscar-winning prestige pics once they were eventually adapted by Hollywood. Starring Paul Newman in his sexy prime and directed by Modernist stalwart Richard Books (just four years after the duo first teamed up for yet another Williams play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), this is particularly bleak even for Tennessee, which is saying quite a lot; the tale of a young Southern slacker who's convinced by his girlfriend's overbearing father (a Boss politician in the style of Huey Long) to leave town and try to become a star in Hollywood, Newman's Chance Wayne is now slunking back in feigned glory but personal turmoil, as we learn that he has actually been making a living in Los Angeles by turning tricks for debutantes, eventually having a one-night-stand with a drug-addled middle-aged former celebrity (Geraldine Page, reprising her Broadway role) that turns into a crazed Hunter S. Thompson-style road trip, the woman promising to turn Newman into a star as long as he keeps providing hash and easy sex along the way.

It pretty much has everything you'd want in a Tennessee Williams movie, including ridiculous character names, a frail beautiful blonde (Shirley Knight), secrets revealed during tropical nighttime thunderstorms, and as an added bonus, an unrecognizable Rip Torn as a 22-year-old Dixiecrat racist who goes around burning down the houses of his daddah's political opponents. Certainly you'll want to start with some of his more famous projects if you've never seen any Tennessee Williams; but if like me you become a fan because of them, this is a great direction to turn next, a title not quite as well remembered anymore but just as intense and histrionic as the others.

Other Tennessee Williams movies reviewed this year:
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
Night of the Iguana
A Streetcar Named Desire
The Glass Menagerie

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