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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
Highflying melodrama permeates this Tennessee Williams play converted to film by Director Richard Brooks. What makes this Southern soap opera fascinating is the cast of tawdry characters, beginning with Chance Wayne (Paul Newman), a charming, ambitious gigolo who, despite his best efforts, can't quite make his worldly dreams come true.
But this time he's got a real plan for success. Chance returns to his hometown on the Gulf Coast, bringing with him a boozed-out, high-strung movie star named Alexandra Del Lago (Geraldine Page). Chance hopes to grab his hometown girlfriend, Heavenly (Shirley Knight), and the three of them skedaddle off to Hollywood, so that Chance can make it big in the movies, with the help of Alexandra, of course. Thing is ... Alexandra is so spaced out, she can't remember who Chance is, or where she met him.
Chance's homecoming is anything but cordial, mostly because of the influence of Heavenly's dad, 'Boss' Finley (Ed Begley) who, along with Finley, Jr. (Rip Torn), has it in for Chance. Complicating matters even more is Miss Lucy (Madeleine Sherwood), 'Boss' Finley's mistress whom Heavenly can't stand.
Having originated as a stage play, the film takes place mostly indoors, and is very talky. But the Tennessee Williams dialogue is predictably incisive, with commentary both on the whims of success and on the fleeting nature of youth.
By far, my favorite element of the film is the deliciously overwrought performance of Geraldine Page. With her distinctive voice, her mannerisms, and her stunning acting ability, she chews up the scenery and then some, overpowering everyone and everything else. No actress could have been more credible in the role of Alexandra, an almost comical character, whose firmness, vanity, self-centeredness, and dramatic flair make her both weak and strong at the same time.
Although flashbacks tend to disrupt the flow, the film's screen story is otherwise very good. With great performances from multiple actors, excellent color cinematography, and an appropriately jazzy/blues score, "Sweet Bird Of Youth" is a film treat, in the grand tradition of cinematic melodrama.
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