By Steven Mears in the May-June 2020 Issue
It’s hard to imagine one of today’s stars cultivating mass appeal with a gallery of roles as swinish as Paul Newman’s 1960s roster, unredeemed by sensitivity or fashionable alienation. A year after chalking up a definitive antihero in The Hustler, Newman hustled with a different skill set in the Tennessee Williams melodrama Sweet Bird of Youth. He makes no concessions to vanity as Chance Wayne, a Hollywood washout and unabashed gigolo returning to his sultry Florida stomping ground with a neurotic, vodka-swilling screen diva (Geraldine Page, sensationally vulnerable). Ensnared in Chance’s web are the town’s political boss (a ripsnorting redneck turn by Oscar-winner Ed Begley) and the kingfish’s cosseted daughter “Heavenly” (Shirley Knight), whom Chance had earlier left at loose ends. Director Richard Brooks, always expert with adaptation, melds psychological acuity with lurid histrionics, making this Warner Archive release one of the sharpest and least sanitized screen treatments of the Gulf Coast Bard.
Steven Mears received his MA in film from Columbia University, where he wrote a thesis on depictions of old age in American cinema.