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Drifter Chance Wayne returns to his hometown after many years of trying to make it in the movies. Arriving with him is a faded film star he picked up along the way, Alexandra Del Lago. While trying to get her help to make a screen test, he also finds the time to meet his former girlfriend Heavenly, the daughter of the local politician Tom 'Boss' Finley, who more or less forced him to leave the town many years ago. Written by
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Even though this film version of Sweet Bird of Youth was compromised by Hollywood's Almighty Code in its last days, there's still enough of Tennessee Williams's drama to enjoy and savor.
A lot of the cast like Paul Newman, Geraldine Page, Madeline Sherwood and Rip Torn came over from Broadway. That certainly helped, no doubt about it. They and the new cast members make extra base hits every time they're at the plate.
One of the new cast members, Ed Begley who took the place of Sidney Blackmer as Boss Finley and won an Academy Award for playing Boss Finley. This is hardly new territory for Begley, playing the rapacious and lustful town boss, he's certainly done these kind of parts before. That experience is probably what got him the Oscar. Begley had some stiff competition that year with Telly Savalas from Birdman of Alcatraz, Victor Buono from Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, Terence Stamp for Billy Budd and Omar Sharif for Lawrence of Arabia.
Finley is one evil dude, quite along the lines Sidney Greenstreet in Flamingo Road. It's a part I could see Greenstreet doing with relish. What he threatens to do to Paul Newman and what actually gets done is the letdown ending of the play.
Richard Brooks directed and adapted Tennessee Williams's play for the screen. Brooks started out as a writer and later branched into directing. Into his hands came the changes described above. Another big compromise was exactly the nature of the disgrace Paul Newman left with the Finley family over daughter Shirley Knight.
Newman plays Chance Wayne, would be actor and now just kept boy toy of fading film star Alexandra Del Lago who is Geraldine Page. Her character is remarkably similar to Vivien Leigh's from that other Tennessee Williams work, The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone. She turns out to have more character than originally thought.
Newman arrives in his hometown in Florida where Ed Begley and his family reign supreme, presumably under the protection of Page. But he's got to see Knight and explain he's finally going to hit it big. The scheme involves a little blackmail on Page. That doesn't deter Ed Begley and his son Rip Torn. They will avenge the family no matter what.
Even with the changes for the screen, Chance Wayne maybe the sleaziest character Paul Newman ever played or possibly Tennessee Williams ever wrote. Newman wants to be a film star and wants to do it the easy way. If he's got any acting talent that's besides the point.
Tennessee Williams was not as far fetched in his character as you might suppose. One does wonder who among our Hollywood hunks might have taken the road Chance Wayne tries, even part of the way.
Page and Knight were nominated for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, but both lost to the duo from The Miracle Worker another Broadway play, Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke respectively.
Maybe at some point we'll see a faithful version of Sweet Bird of Youth and you can see the kind of compromises Brooks made. Until then, this one will do nicely.
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